For a lot of people, remote work is the dream: It’s the end of stress-filled morning commutes, meaningless water cooler chatter and the tyranny of a 9-to-5 schedule. But in the wake of the World Health Organization declaring coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic, remote work is increasingly being mandated as a means of trying to prevent further transmission. Apple, Google and Amazon are among the largest global companies to have asked their employees to work remotely as a precaution against COVID-19, and the list is continuing to grow as companies are being advised to follow suit.
As a distributed company, we know that the transition from office life to remote isn’t always easy—many of our employees made this transition after joining the team. But over the years we’ve learned a lot about doing remote work right at Superside.
So we gathered advice from our own company—and a handful of others—around leading a remote team and keeping everyone motivated when they’re not all together in the same office.
If you’re lucky enough to have remote work as an option for you and your teams, we hope this post can provide you with some tips, ideas and assurances to help keep everyone—from team leaders to team members who are just working remote for the first time—positive and productive.
To start, let’s talk about leadership in a remote role.
If ever there was time for leaders to step up and provide clear direction, unity and empathy to their teams, that time is now. And there’s a deep vein of leadership wisdom to be mined out there—from how to be a better coach, mentor and advocate in difficult times, to the tools that will best help your teams succeed in a distributed environment, to tips that leaders can provide their teams to maintain a sense of normalcy in their lives. Let’s explore some of those ideas now.
What makes a great remote leader? No surprise here. The same qualities that make a great non-remote leader apply in the remote world: Empathy, clarity, support, trust, guidance and so on. There’s just a few tweaks to keep in mind and a lot of opportunity to improve.
Here’s six tips for all you new remote team leaders out there:
First things first: stop thinking about remote work as something that is radically different than office-based work.
You need to shake this idea, because it’s simply not true. In fact, most in-office teams often communicate in much the same ways that remote teams do, using email or Slack messages to chat with the person sitting next to them.
The location of your team is only a minor factor in the grand scheme of things.
Going remote can often expose the weaknesses in your team and processes.
As Stephen Gates, head design evangelist at InVision, posted on LinkedIn recently: “Companies are going to quickly discover that working remotely exposes all your company's sins. Lack of trust, process, infrastructure, leadership and more will all be exposed and have to be addressed if you want to be successful.”
Superside CEO and co-founder Fredrik Thomassen concurs: “Sadly, there are no ‘secret remote work hacks’. Remote is a force multiplier for management quality. Organizations that lack basic processes, solid KPIs, good documentation and clear ownership will find remote hard.”
Remote work offers you the opportunity to tighten up your game. Thankfully, there’s been plenty written about good management practices—Thomassen recommends starting with something like the Andrew Groves classic, High Output Management.
Unnecessary meetings are like kryptonite to productivity. You know the ones we’re talking about: progress meetings on smaller projects that could be done over a quick Slack check-in, or last minute meetings that feel rushed and end with no clear points of action.
“The biggest opportunity for remote work is to cut useless meeting time,” says Thomassen. “In the remote world, it's not really possible to do a meeting without it being organized in advance. Make sure you see this as an opportunity to be selective and thoughtful about which meetings matter and give people time back to actually do their work.”
For people who are actively social at work, it can be hard to accept this, but often it’s true. Most people would rather hang out with their friends and family than their work colleagues. (Sorry, work colleagues!)
A healthy and happy team doesn’t rely on watercooler chats, or booze-fueled company outings. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a need to foster a good work culture that makes your employees feel valued and celebrated. Nor does that mean that employees shouldn’t make personal connections with their fellow teammates. It just means that, say, setting up a virtual St. Patrick’s Day party isn’t necessary for most people and doesn’t actually make a team stronger.
“Don’t force feed people with meetings and social stuff,” Thomassen stresses. “Remote is an excellent opportunity for people to get additional time to just get the job done. Most people just want to do their job, and do it well, and then hang out with friends and family.”
And instead of using social affability as an employee success metric, Thomassen says to instead focus on the work they’re actually doing. “Don’t measure people on how active they are culturally or socially. A lot of people will be disengaged socially, but still be top 5% performers.”
If there’s one thing that comes up time and time again about the benefits of remote work, it’s flexibility. Without spending time commuting to an office, or filling the day with meeting after meeting, remote workers find themselves with more time to do actual work and more freedom to choose when they do it.
Jimmy Daly, VP of Growth at Animalz, has been working remotely since 2013. At first it wasn’t easy. “My wife and I had just moved to a new city and didn't know a soul. She would leave for work, come home and I hadn't even moved from my chair. This wasn't really a work problem, it was a ‘me’ problem. I realized for the first time how important it was for me to seek out social interaction and assess my daily routine. I did a few things: I joined a CrossFit gym (a great community), I joined a running club and I got a dog (which forced me to be on a strict schedule). Over time, we made friends and I found a routine that worked for me.”
Now, Daly enjoys the freedom to go running, biking, or even skiing during the day. His advice for remote workers? “Get outside and breathe fresh air! I take at least two walks during a workday, usually with my dog. To me, this makes a day so much better.”
Thomassen, an avid skier, runner, and adventurer thinks CEOs and leadership need to set a standard for employees to break away from their desks and take breaks during the day. “It’s a dire situation right now and a lot of people are having a difficult time, he says. “But remote work offers opportunities. Encourage people to go for a run in the middle of day, or break away from their computer to take some time for themselves!”
At Superside, Thomassen will often share photos of his bike rides, runs, and ski adventures to help set this precedent for others. This helps employees to see that taking a break isn’t a bad thing, and can actually boost productivity and happiness.
Feelings of isolation or disconnectedness can impact remote workers, especially when they’re compounded by external anxieties such as the current global pandemic.
“The psychological safety of your team becomes front and center in times of uncertainty and distress,” says Amrita Mathur, Superside’s VP of Marketing. “Make yourself available for spontaneous conversation—random Slack calls, WhatsApp messages, whatever—and keep office hours every day. Scheduling regular 1:1s and team check-ins can help, but to really make a difference, encourage sporadic conversation. We do this all the time and it helps to build community and that personal connection. Oh, and if possible, do calls on video. It’s great to see everyone’s faces and reactions during a call.”
Ben Myhre, Global Creative Director at Superside, also talks about the importance of creating connections in a remote setting. His tip: “Set aside time to connect with people individually and as a team, not only over message and email but regular video calls where everyone turns their camera on. And set aside a few minutes of your meetings for casual catch-up or team activity instead of diving right into the work to build team culture and trust.”
You’re going to start to notice a theme here…
The tools many use when working remotely are the same tools they use in an office. The main difference? Meetings happen over video calls rather than in-person.
Regardless, there’s a few tools that you should be aware of. Below is a list of recommended tools, broken up by category.
There’s many other tools out there that are worth a mention, but these are just a few of the big ones. Many of these tools either have free versions, or a free-to-try model so you can test out the product before you buy. So, if you’re not already using these tools, test a few out to see if they can improve how your team works together.
We’ve talked a lot about the challenges of leading a remote team, along with some ideas around how to become a better leader, remote or not. But, what can you do to help your employees make a smooth transition into remote life? If working from home (WFH) is new to you and your team (or even if you’ve been living the remote life for some time), here are some ideas that might help improve everyone’s remote work experience:
The concept of “deep work” was coined in 2012 by Cal Newport, a renowned author and computer science professor at Georgetown University. On his blog, Newport defined deep work as “...professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push[es] your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Sounds great, right? Well, when you’re working remotely it’s not only “deep work” that you need to get your elbows out for—it’s all the things you want to get done in a day. Block out your to-do tasks on your calendar—not only will it give you a roadmap for staying on track all day long, it’ll let your teammates know when to not reach out for an opinion on the latest episode of “Love is Blind.”
Timeboxing, or work blocking, is a great way to end your day—spend some time planning out the next one by adding work blocks to your calendar and you’ll build some structure into your remote workday.
As Shahed Khan, co-founder of Loom, wrote in a LinkedIn post this week, “[I’ll] often block out 30 minutes-to 1-hour on my calendar for distraction-free work. That means I won't be on Slack, available for meetings, etc. If it's urgent, let them know they can text/call you.”
Daly echoes this by stressing the importance of staying away from the dreaded “grey area” of work: “Work synchronously when needed and asynchronously the rest of the time. Don't operate in a grey area. I find that people get confused about what needs to happen now and what doesn't. This turns your entire day into responding to Slack messages and emails. Help your team setup work routines that allow them plenty of time for deep work and some time for meetings.”
Get dressed. Seriously, just because you’re working from the kitchen table or sitting on a bean bag chair in your dingy basement, there’s no excuse to abandon some semblance of professionalism. Start your day as you would if you were going into an office and dress as if you’re going to be sitting across the table from your colleagues. You’ll probably be taking calls and doing video meetings anyway, so do your teammates the courtesy of wearing pants while you work through mockups of Q2’s budget presentation.
By maintaining that routine you’ve become accustomed to (showering, eating breakfast, hitting up your local coffee shop, etc.) you’re signalling to your brain that it’s time to work, not time for Saturday morning cartoons.
Robyn Showers, head of B2B content at Vimeo, stresses that creating a routine is key to a successful WFH life: “I’m new to remote work myself, and I desperately need to create a better routine. I have been getting ready in the morning like usual (even though my outfits are now leggings based), and I need to be better about taking true breaks for lunch and ending at a reasonable hour. It’s easier to overwork than underwork when remote, in my opinion.”
Don’t expect to create your new routine overnight and have everything running like it was when you were in the office, but definitely start by focusing on some simple routines to help get you set up for success.
Lauren Chilcote, senior product designer at Buffer—a company that's been fully remote for nine years, spanning 19 different countries—emphasizes this need to find a routine to mark the separation of personal and work time.
"Go for a walk, read a book, exercise, or even just change your clothes. Do something for 'you' that helps shift your thinking between work and personal mode," Chilcote stresses.
Routines pro tip: For all the pet-owners in the house, remain strong in the face of your food-demanding pooch when they start nudging your mouse-hand three hours before dinnertime. Routines are important for everyone in the house, not just the humans.
There’s value in creating an inviting workspace to spend your days, but not everyone has the space or wherewithal to create a Herman-Miller inspired office oasis. Sometimes simple is all you need.
As Kasey Fleisher Hickey, a longtime remote worker who’s currently the director of brand marketing and communications at Abstract, wrote in a LinkedIn post last week: “Create an ‘office’ environment that you love. Get a desk, a plant, a rug, a desk mug...whatever makes you happy.”
Still, there’s value in variety, especially if you’re sharing your workspace with other family members over the course of your workday. When you’re legit working at home, your “office” is basically where you sleep, eat, shower, do laundry and everything else, so getting out of the house is important for your mental and creative health.
“You can get cabin fever when you're stuck in the same room all day,” says Go Daddy Pro’s Andy McIlwain. Getting out of the house or moving around to find new places to work, he says, are the key to maintaining a fresh outlook from home.
We all want to be productive while we work remote, but that doesn’t mean you have to be chained to your coffee table for eight hours straight. Just as you might take some time for a walk or a trip to the gym if you were in the office, it’s crucial to carve out some time to take a break and to take care of yourself during the day.
“Pace yourself,” says Sarah Goff-Dupont, the principal writer at Atlassian who works remotely from Minnesota. “Working remotely means you get a ton of quiet, heads-down time to do deep work. But deep work is exhausting! Build five-minute breaks into your day: walk around the block, call your mom, pet your cat. Take care of yourself so you still have gas left in the tank on Friday to enjoy your personal time.”
Showers also stresses that remote workers need to know when to call it quits—a struggle she’s already experiencing in her new shift to remote work. “It’s easier to overwork than underwork when remote, in my opinion.“
Often people see remote work as much more laid back with shorter days and more time to relax, but this isn’t always true. It’s important to really segment your day, and know how to turn off work mode even if you’ve been in the same space from morning to night.
“When you work from home, knowing how to separate your personal time from your professional one is key,” says Cécilien Dambon, international growth manager at Venngage, an infographic software company based in Toronto. “Stick to a calendar, pay attention to managing your free time and your distractions accordingly, and don’t forget to reward yourself, especially after a long day working from home. It’s very important that you leave your professional concerns and duties at your desk.”
Though we've talked a lot about creating these separations between work time and personal time, it's also really important to not lose touch with your teammates and co-workers. Not only can WFH feel a bit isolating, but there's a tendency to keep digital communication straight to the point, lacking the personal touch we get when chatting in person.
When you transition into a full-remote working environment, simply stopping by a colleague's desk to catch up, or going for a coffee with your manager are no longer an option. These micro interactions help to build good working relationships, and should not be put aside.
Here are a few ways to build up those relationships when working in a remote environment:
When everyone works together to create and foster these social bonds, remote teams don't feel all that different than in-person ones.
Chilcote, a full-time remote worker, expresses how weekly meetings with her direct manager play a big role in her work health. "I love weekly 1-on-1s with my manager. We talk about work and life, and I always leave feeling grounded, inspired and energized."
Everyone says it, but there’s a good reason for it. Communicating in-person versus online is different, and each form of communication comes with their own challenges and strengths.
If there’s one thing that’s vital to staying on the same page as a distributed team, it’s clarity and expectations setting. You can never have too much of it, really. Fortunately, technology has caught up with our desire for synchronous remote workflows—from Slack to Trello, Zoom to Google Hangouts, it’s easy to stay in touch and keep projects on track in a remote environment.
For Showers, clarity is the most important thing to nail down when shifting to remote. Showers has done some remote work in the past, but recently started remote work full-time with the current public health crisis affecting New York City.
"It’s really easy to make wrong assumptions or leave remote employees out of the loop, so I try to correct that by looping my remote reports into as much as possible. I also try to move anything that would have been a quick desk conversation to video chat rather than text. Finally, trust your team and be clear about expectations. The old saying ‘they’re not mind readers’ goes double in a remote work relationship—a lot of heartache can be avoided by being clear and sharing all information from the start."
Also, don’t assume that everyone is always on the same page—after meetings, reiterate next steps in writing, set clear goals with agreed-upon deadlines and never hesitate to reach out with a question that’s bugging you.
“Communicate with your team at least two times more frequently than if they were in-house,” advises Dambon. “You want your remote employees to embrace your workplace culture, making it easier for them to nurture their relationship with other team members.”
Communication pro tip: When you’re having any video meetings, keep the camera-on rule in place. You may be having a bad hair day (or still have bedhead!) but being able to see your teammates in real time helps to eliminate misunderstandings and foster a sense of community, no matter how far apart you might be.
Though we’re going to see more companies temporarily shift to remote work in the upcoming days and weeks, remote work as a whole has been on the rise for some time (pandemic or not). Edelman forecasts that by 2027, more than 50% of American workers will be independent, remote contract workers, up from 36% in 2017. With the overall benefits of increased flexibility, and even productivity, there are a lot of reasons why companies are actively choosing to offer remote work as an option to their employees.
And, guess what? The majority of people who do work remotely really enjoy it.
In “The 2020 State of Remote Work,” a study done by Buffer and Angelist, 3,500 remote workers from across the globe were surveyed about their experiences and feelings around being a remote worker. A total of 97% of the participants would recommend remote work to others, and 98% of them would like to continue working remotely (full-time or part-time) in their careers.
In the same study, when asked about the biggest benefit of remote work, 37% said it’s the ability to have a flexible schedule, while another 26% said the flexibility to work from anywhere is the winning factor. Other responses that follow highlight the benefits of not having to commute, being able to spend more time with family, and generally just having the ability to work from the comfort of their home.
Daly, a long time remote worker, says, “I live an active lifestyle and the flexible schedule means I can easily run, hike, bike and ski before or after work—and sometimes at lunch. It's hard to imagine replacing all that time outside with the long commute I did for many years. I can do great work and still be healthy and happy.”
Myhre also feels that remote isn’t only a good option for employees, but also for employers. “With the right processes and tech in place a remote team can be more efficient and productive than in an office. Team members are happier working in their own environment with more freedom while still being connected remotely to their community of peers.”
Not only that, Myhre feels Superside benefits from being able to hire the best talent by not limiting the pool to a single location. “Remote work gives us the advantage of having a distributed team across multiple time zones, so the work is always flowing. It also gives us access to a wider talent pool so we can find the best talent for each role.”
It's safe to say that the world will continue to see remote jobs on the rise, and we think that's a good thing.
If you’re new to remote work, hopefully these stats bring you some peace of mind. For many, remote work isn't an option, or worse, they've lost their jobs completely. So, if you are one of the lucky ones, look on the bright side—there are a lot of benefits of remote work.
Let us know if any of these tips work for you, or if you have more advice for remote team leaders. Send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org with your feedback.
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