Lessons Learned Leading a Remote Team
It's no doubt that COVID19 has fast-tracked company policies on working from home.
Seasoned leaders understand that healthy communication between team members is foundational to creating an effective team. Given that a large aspect of communication is non-verbal, especially in the workplace, transitioning to having an entire team remote may have some leaders stressing on how to keep teams connected.
Start by creating a shared sense of purpose behind why you are trying out new ways to create team engagement during this time. This sets the stage to try different things without the fear of failure.
For leaders new to having fully remote teams, or wanting to ramp up ways to keep engagement going, the following are lessons learned as a leader.
1. Be proactive in checking in with your team (individually & collectively)
Individual Slack, Zoom or text messages to team members can go a long way in showing that you are available and have not forgotten people on the team. A simple statement like "Hey, just seeing how you're doing. Anything you need from me?" goes a long way. Remember, you are checking in with people, not checking up only on work.
Pro Tip: If you have an especially large team and it's not possible to check in with each person daily, try setting up virtual office hours.
2. Ask people to turn their video on, and lead by example
This should be self-explanatory, but it is often not put into practice. However, the value of showing you are engaged in the conversation, and expect your team to be as well, can often be captured with the simple act of turning on your video.
Tips: Remind team members to mute themselves if they are not speaking.
3. Make yourself available, and put it on people's calendars
Consider holding virtual office hours for a few hours each week, and invite the whole team. While people do not need to join for the entire time (or at all), if there are quick moments of needing to talk to leadership, providing specific times where they can find you is helpful.
Pro Tip: Hold 'design office hours' or 'research office hours' for different team focuses. This is especially helpful if team members have project-specific questions or feedback.
4. Have a team channel for water cooler stuff
For our team, we have a Slack channel for almost every topic and a main channel where the team posts most updates. Having a channel to post photos, polls, articles and other updates can help create a place for the team to 'gather'.
When our team went 100% remote during COVID19, I posted a photo of my new workstation and asked the team to show their home offices (if they wanted). Soon, our channel was flooded with all kinds of fun spaces, and the team started a daily photo challenge.
Start a challenge that team members take turns owning, or create a daily poll around fun questions. Whatever it is, set the example and figure out how the team (not you) can own it.
5. Share information at the same time
While understated, this is a critical part of protecting against 'fractured information' or rumor mills. No one likes feeling out of the loop, so make team announcements or updates to everyone at the same time.
6. Create a buddy system across locations
Even during more normal times, creating a buddy system for design reviews or research critiques is a great way to help foster connection across office locations.
7. Make sure you think through collaboration
For designers, collaborating on features or concepts often involves hands-on sketching or working with others in person. For user research, this becomes an especially challenging option for any observational-type methodology.
Transferring this into 100% remote work can be a hurdle, but there are several virtual collaboration tools that can help:
Mural is great for doing remote workshops, ideation and even team retrospectives
Standuply streamlines daily standups into a Slackbot. This took our standup meetings from 15 minutes to less than 3.
8. Create check-ins for how the team is doing on a non-project level
It can be hard to escape the news, especially when working from home. As a leader, be aware that the stress of the external situation may be weighing heavily on some more than others.
Creating a space to socialize outside of work topics can help. This could be as simple as setting up a virtual happy hour, team lunch or sending out a survey to gather questions or concerns. Making a "no shop talk" policy may help, but sometimes having an honest discussion about how stressors may be impacting work is powerful.
Conclusion: Be proactive about being intentional
While this list is in no way exhaustive, the underlying principles are being intentional and leading through example. Engagement is not a "set it and forget it" aspect of team culture, but a behavior that needs to be continually cultivated and cared for as new circumstances arise. What worked to drive engagement while your team all sat together may not be easily replicated, but recognizing (as a team) that this will need to be a priority in order to create a 'new normal' is pivotal.