Remote and distributed work accelerated exponentially in early 2020. Many knowledge workers were thrust into a new reality, unexpectedly and without the training or skills to be successful. Yet, remote work isn’t new. For the last five years, I managed and worked with teams on two continents in radically different time zones. My day started early with the Europeans and ended late with the Australians.
Long before the current crisis, many leaders were able to grow and nurture remote workforces, realizing the benefits years ahead of competitors. The challenge for managers are many, but not insurmountable: company culture, employee wellbeing, group productivity. If not executed mindfully, the risks are significant. In this post, I’ll share a few ideas for scaling distributed teams post COVID-19.
1. Create a positive work culture by over-communicating
When the majority of your team shared an office, social interactions occurred naturally. These interactions helped shape your workplace culture. It is well established that corporate culture is critical to business success. Consider this: according to the Gallup organization, workers who are disengaged have a 37% higher rate of absenteeism, and they’re likely to make 60% more mistakes. The costs of sub-optimal culture are high.
“All it takes is a belief that people are fundamentally good—and enough courage to treat your people like owners instead of machines. Machines do their jobs; owners do whatever is needed to make their companies and teams successful.”
― Laszlo Bock, Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead
Maintaining a positive workplace is difficult enough when everyone is in the same building. It’s even more difficult with a distributed workforce. It is (almost) impossible to over-communicate with colleagues working in distributed locations. I learned this from a contractor engaged to build a website back in 2015. These guys were pros. They’d check-in the most innocuous things: grabbing a coffee, lunch, minor progress updates, saying hello for the sake of saying hello.
Overly controlling managers, who often thrive in untrusting corporate cultures, tend to demand these things because they don’t trust their people. The opposite was true of our web developers. They simply did what any of us would do with colleagues in an office. Regular yet random, communication about minuscule things that help the team see that we’re making progress to our common goal.
I speak with ZAG’s sales director multiple times a day. With our CEO at least once a day. With the business development team at a scheduled time each day, and then many, many times each day via our collaboration tool Microsoft Teams.
We talk business specifics and generalities, painting bedroom walls, weekend plans, and closing deals. We use chat, video, phone. We do so regularly because we know that it is nearly impossible for distributed teams to over-communicate.
On behalf of my colleagues, we encourage you to over-communicate.
2. Change your management mentality to better match a remote workforce
To successfully manage a remote workforce, embrace the remote culture. Although many of us are adapting to the “new normal,” we all know it isn’t normal.
Managing a remote workforce requires a different management mentality. You have to trust your people genuinely. Laszlo Bock, who I quoted earlier in this post, writes:
“Work is far less meaningful and pleasant than it needs to be because well-intentioned leaders don’t believe, on a primal level, that people are good. Organizations build immense bureaucracies to control their people. These control structures are an admission that people can’t be trusted. Or at best, they suggest that one’s baser nature can be controlled and channeled by some enlightened figure with the wisdom to know what is best.”
This approach is not a path to success.
Many managers who have worked only with onsite employees tend to micromanage to compensate for the lack of person-to-person contact. It will seem counterintuitive, but the right path is to back off. Instead, work on building trust. More counterintuitively, build trust with regular check-ins. Not on the minutia of their work, instead of on the minutia of their wellbeing. Trust your team to do the work they did in your building equally well in theirs. But don’t assume that they’re doing well when their world is suddenly upside-down.
3. Give employees a secure place to collaborate
Five years ago, Zoom was becoming a metaphorical Silicon Valley rocket ship. Founded in 2011, the video communication solution would upend remote work. It made video comms accessible and easy to use, unlike competitors at the time. Understand that video chats are not collaboration, and collaboration is the key to successfully distributed workforces. I know, I learned the hard way.
There are only two solutions I’ve seen that deliver genuine remote workforce collaboration for enterprises while providing a single “pane of glass” into my workday. One is Connections (now developed by HCL Digital Solutions), and the other is Microsoft Teams.
Think about this: according to a study by Igloo, 43% of employees don’t share documents because they don’t find the process of sharing easy to use. For those that do share, roughly 25% are using unsecure platforms to share confidential information. That’s more than a little scary, and should give your risk and compliance teams, or candidly the entire C-suite, nightmares.
It’s not enough to give employees a way to securely access all of the resources they need, including project information, reports, raw data, and more. The hard part, solved by Teams, is to ensure that no matter where information is located, it can be easily accessed by employees and shared securely with colleagues.
As a longtime Zoom and Slack user, I moved on and now reply on Teams as my work hub. Combining video calls, chat, and my calendar, I’m able to add files, to-dos, lists, and complex planning within the single application.
4. Pick the right collaboration tools, and don’t believe the hype
Picking the right collaborative tools is critical to your team’s success. In the previous section, I mentioned solutions like Connections, Slack, Zoom, and Teams.
According to Zoom’s S1 filing, in 2019 they invested $185 million dollars in sales and marketing. In 2020 they were caught misstating user counts, with Reuters noting that they “put its daily users at 300 million people when the figure instead referred to the number of meeting participants.” Even at 3 persons per call, 100 million daily users is an impressive number, and they deserve to be congratulated. But all of us deserve better. Don’t believe the hype!
I am personally pro Teams. I spend much of my workday inside Teams. It is truly a remarkable achievement. Your mileage may vary, make your own inquiries. I’m passionate about the future of work, productivity, and the automation of workflows, and am always open to discussing what this means for your business. You’ll find me on Linkedin.
5. Learn how to delegate to a remote workforce
Take some time to think about how you want your company to look in the future.
Will you maintain the same team structure before everyone worked in the same space? Will you retain the same leadership, line-of-business managers, or team leads? This is an opportunity to update some of your traditional management habits.
Although there is a great deal of suffering caused by coronavirus, COVID-19, and the subsequent shutdown of the global economy—and I do not want to be accused of diminishing the impact of any of these things—2020 looks like being a reset year.
Trust your people. Think differently. Think ahead. Reset your expectations of your colleagues and you will likely find shining stars who didn’t quite fit in a traditional office environment. It’s in days like these that leaders are born.
Scaling is not only possible, it’s achievable today
The path to productive, scaled, distributed workforces accelerated a decade in the first quarter of 2020. Give your team the right collaboration solutions. Trust them with the permissions they need to do their job successfully. Secure your systems. Set clear expectations. Remember that it is impossible to over-communicate with a distributed team.