Seems like a straightforward objective. If you have not done it, then there may be a bit of an adjustment period.
One of the biggest challenges I had going into my current role was knowing I would be building a team who all worked from home. Our company is 100% remote so there is no alternative. The usual luxuries of managing a team would be non-existent: I could not walk by someone’s desk to help with a roadblock, I would not run into anyone in the hallway to answer a quick question or bounce an idea, and I would not have a typical office or conference room (or chance of a happy hour!) for connecting with individuals or groups. So how would I realistically be able to keep track of my team’s progress and needs without being too invasive, ensure all work was done efficiently and effectively, and foster a sense of camaraderie among a distributed team?
Online Presence / Availability
The little green light of management. I remember the days of MS Communicator which became Lync and then something else. I have worked at companies where you had to be at your desk unless on specified breaks or lunch. The supervisor would sit back and watch his chat window for idles, aways, and availables. Available meant you were active on your PC and online. Ready for action. Idle meant your PC was unlocked but you had not moved the mouse in some time. Curious. Away meant you had locked the PC and walked away. Who authorized this?
Whether you were across the cubicle farm, down the hall, in the next building, or working from home on one of those serendipitous extreme weather days; the ‘up-time’ registered in this chat app somehow correlated to your level of productivity.
Not a great thermostat, but one used more often than not. Especially when productivity is measured by availability. At a remote company with a team spread through almost every timezone in the world, using an online indicator for management would be even more ridiculous than it is when everyone starts and ends their day at the same time.
Usually when a company has a small percentage of people working from home, they mimic the work day of their in-office peers. This concept becomes more abstract to the non-shift worker in the 100% remote company. The abstraction is a benefit compared to being chained to a desk from 8–5 with a timed lunch, but requires a sense of discipline from the beneficiary.
This begs two critical questions:
Should it matter where someone is if they can take a meeting with the right focus, and
Should it matter when a person is sitting in front of a PC if he or she completes the required work in the 24 hour period?
Everyone has a list of things to do. The remote team does not take away the need for a daily stand-up or progress meeting. A lot of time or energy need not be spent on this but a quick check-in, or tool to allow self service check-in, is a great way to keep up with project progress and be aware of obstacles and roadblocks.
Everyone works at a different pace and over time you will come to know the velocity of your team.
Some things can be pretty obvious. One of the initial developers on my team was given a proof of concept project. Normally these are small projects done to prove a specific objective can be achieved in its barest form. At this time we were not in a regular stand up with this developer. My boss or I would send him an email or chat daily to see how things were progressing. We would hear back every other day or so. Not consistently. When we did hear something, it was generally another excuse or roadblock but one which could be overcome with more time. More time told us nothing was being done at all. It lasted a few weeks then as all things do, it came to an end. The next developer to pick up this project had the initial concept done in about two days. We spoke multiple times in those two days as he ran into actual roadblocks I was able to help solve.
When I reflected on this, I realized it was easy to sense whether someone was being focused and disciplined or not. The stark contrast between the sheer presence of developer #1 and developer #2 would have been noticeable to the least sensitive individual. That is how blatant it was. Then there is the matter of the task getting completed at all. Transparency is key. A culture of showing progress with no judgement, even if progress is less than expected, will allow for comfort in getting fast feedback throughout the project and minimize surprises in favor of smooth delivery.
Camaraderie / Sense of Connection
How does one make a team of people who is spread across the world feel connected? Does a sense of connection require proximity or in-person meets? Can this be accomplished in a truly virtual environment? These were some of the questions running through my mind as I started to build my distributed team.
On one side, I was not restricted to a specific geography for talent. I could find the right person no matter where he or she lived. Also, none of us had a daily commute to the office!
On the other side, it would be rare my team would all be in one place ever. As mentioned above, we would also be deprived of coffee breaks, stepping out to lunch, getting together in an office or conference room to work out an issue, and convening for an occasional happy hour.
We use a variety of tools for social collaboration at my company. We use Google’s business tools, so we can video chat and collaborate on documents. We also use other social tools like Workplace and Slack. The icing on the cake, though, is a virtual world through a platform called VirBELA.
Here I have an avatar, an office space, and access to conference and meeting spaces. There are also auditoriums, soccer fields, speed boats, and a whole island in which I can be fully immersed to interact with my co-workers. It is akin to Second Life with a more professional overtone.
Even with the virtual world, however, it can tend to be business all the time when interacting with others at a fully remote company. It is important to make time to get to know people on a personal level. It takes some more planning and effort and you may find yourself interacting with less people than you normally might in an office.
The connections with other coworkers and friends who are not part of any of the same projects may become less frequent. Make time for these connections, use the company chat tool you may have never opened before, or pick up the phone for a quick call in between tasks and meetings to keep these connections alive and to make new ones.
Ultimately, the remote situation did not have to detract from the sense of the team and how connected we felt. The playing field changed a bit, sure, but in my experience, this did not prevent me from being able to build the right team and foster a sense of camaraderie among the team. It was another obstacle to overcome, and like any other, it was well worth the time and energy. I get to work at an awesome company with an amazing team of highly talented individuals with whom I have had the wonderful opportunity to make some really meaningful connections. I have no deficiency with being able to maintain progress and accountability among the team, I am able to get in front of potential roadblocks and clear the path for my people to thrive, and I feel more of a sense of connection with my team here than I have in some brick and mortar offices. It goes to show the qualities do not come from the underlying structure but from the individuals who operate therein.
The new manager will need to be able to adapt to this ever changing world in order to respond to the needs of the company, the team, and the individuals in his or her trust.