And we’re not ready for the new way of working
For the last 12 years of my career I had a manager that was in a different location to me. For most of it — that meant someone in California while I was in London. I also had teams spread across the globe including California, Australia, China, Singapore, Bulgaria… It’s a long list. When you become a manager hopefully some kind soul takes you aside and explains this is an entirely new job to individual contributor to set you up to learn how to fill in the gaps.
Here’s the thing. Remote management is a totally different job to managing a team of people who sit with you every day. Yes, Google found that distributed teams could perform as well as colocated teams in Project Aristotle — but there are some characteristics at Google which mean people are developing those skills. For example — the degree of cooperation between teams at Google is high because it’s hard to deliver anything meaningful without working in someone else’s codebase or across disciplines. Googlers get good at this because it’s their day to day existence. For most people — this is not the case. We operate in a little autonomous pocket and dont’ develop these skills.
Now the first excitement of all being remote has probably worn off teams around the world are starting to realise that things aren’t as rosy as they first seemed. Working at home set us free and now our homes have become a cage. To managers this is especially problematic because we’ll start to feel the fabric of our teams slowly start to unravel. It’s time to stop and think about why this is the case and what you can do about it. This means it’s time to learn some new skills to be effective in this new world.
Fundamentally, remote management is down to trust. How do you build and maintain trust with your reports and provide an environment in which they can maintain trust in each other?
To do this we need to understand why things are different? Let’s start with the things we have in person that we take for granted.
- It’s easy to build rapport. You see people nodding. You make eye contact (which is hard when the camera is above your screen). You mirror each other’s body language. Tone is more regular because you’re not trying to talk over a lossy medium. You don’t have to repeat or ask people to repeat themselves as often. This is where encouraging your team to have a viable video conferencing rig at home makes a difference. Cheap cameras are way better than the camera/mic combo in most laptops and increase quality of life many times over.
- It’s easy to know whether someone is interruptible. If you have a question it’s easy to become impatient when the other person is remote. You’re used to a fast feedback loop which is no longer present. If you get impatient they’ll start ignoring your pings and your frustration will harm the relationship. Make it clear that people should answer messages on a schedule that’s sane for their way of working. The always-on culture is poisonous to work life balance. You are the role model here — no after hours pings and no weekend pings.
- People build rapport and cohesion with each other. The connective tissue of your team may start to deteriorate. Be open that this might be a problem — work with the team on how to handle this so people feel included and that they belong. Otherwise it stops being a team.
- Water cooler conversations happen. The serendipitous moment where someone short circuits your current project because they have something that solves your problem doesn’t happen. How do you stimulate this? Show and tell can be a good thing. Having a channel where people can ask for advice is another. Get people to coach and mentor each other to maintain that opportune moment.
- You get a sense of people’s wellbeing and how they’re getting on. What did Sue get up to last week? Sure you can ask everyone to submit a time report every week but that’s going to backfire on you badly. Is Bob feeling ok? You don’t know if he’s gone to the coffee machine to cry. How are you going to get a sense of what’s happening. With work you can use your ceremonies such as sprint planning and review — you need to be more conscious
- The team get a sense of how you’re supporting them. They see you going to meetings to coordinate with other teams. They see you fighting their corner. You discuss the problems you’re dealing with so they have insight into your job. Without this — you can easily turn into a mystery authority figure. Spend some time in your 1:1s reverse coaching — ask their advice on something you’re working on. It will give them context and empathy into your existence.
All of this is gone. Or rather all of this is different now. If you don’t take conscious steps to address what you’ve previously taken for granted then team members are going to lose touch with each other. This leads to loss of empathy and your team becomes a collection of individuals.
In addition to what you’ve lost you also gain some new challenges.
- Difficult conversations are now really difficult. Have you ever tried putting someone on a performance plan over video? Have you ever tried firing someone over video? There’s a reason you want the hard conversations in person because you need to be able to read the room. This is harder over video. As a manager you need to
- Onboarding new people. Bringing someone new onto the team is harder because they aren’t going to be having the same number of high quality interactions with their team mates. The new member will start feeling disconnected unless you take steps to address this.
- People are more likely to burnout. Zoom conversations are more emotionally taxing than in person conversations. The disconnection of talking over video is harder to process. People will wind up working longer hours, may feel disconnected from the team or lose interest. As a manager this means being more deliberate about how people are doing. This will feel unnatural.
- People’s anxiety will increase. Does my manager think I’m doing a good job takes on a whole new level when you can’t see your manager. Your insecurities are magnified when you can’t get feedback. Imposter syndrome sufferers (which is a lot of us) will really struggle. When I was struggling at work with a remote manager and our relationship it really carried over into my personal life. As a manager you need to make sure the interactions you have are positive and predictable. As any lack here gets amplified many times over. Make sure you’re giving positive feedback — because the absence of it will be interpreted as “Am I about to get fired?”. Make it normal to talk about anxiety and mental health. Brene Brown’s talk on vulnerability is a good way to think about this.
- People will learn just how many distractions exist at home. I’ll just finish that next level on Jedi: Fallen Order and catch up with my work this evening becomes increasingly tempting. The more we feel disconnected from our team the easier it is to get distracted. Once the rush of being able to work in your underpants fades you need a routine. Encourage people to set aside a space and time for working. Coach them on how to keep work and life separate when both occupy the same physcial space.
Working remotely can be a glorious thing. It’s not the same as in person. If we don’t seek to learn the skills to do it effectively then we’re building a house of cards. Treat this as an opportunity to learn and you will improve as a manager. Ignore the warning signs and it could all just fall apart on you.