Remote working: thoughts and tips for leaders and teams

Many people are suddenly finding themselves in a “virtual team”. As I’ve published on the subject, here are a few thoughts and tips for both managers and staff. It’s not just about having a stable and secure internet connection, it affects leadership and team dynamics, too.

  1. The term “virtual team” is a misnomer. A team consists of people. A team is a team. End of. A qualifying adjective isn’t necessary. The only difference is in the proportion of face-to-face communication.
  2. The secret to success is the perception of proximity. Research shows the frequency of communication and identification with the team influence perceived proximity. Physical proximity does not influence our perception of proximity. (Wilson, O‘Leary, Metiu, Jett: Perceived Proximity in Virtual Work: Explaining the Paradox of Far-but-Close, in: Organization Studies, 29(07), 2008)
  3. Question your assumptions, e.g. “working from home is hard; out of sight, out of mind”. Even if we’re (mid March 2020) experiencing a working from home honeymoon period, it’s likely problems will arise and affect team dynamics and leadership behaviour. Such thoughts and assumptions creep into conversations. Don’t let them take over. Say instead “Digital cooperation is an equal alternative to office work” and success is more likely.
  4. If you still think physical proximity is necessary you need to know: teams spread over different floors of the same building are the most ineffective. (cf. Siebdraht, Hoegl, Ernst: How to Manage Virtual Teams? In MIT Sloan Management Review, 2009). If you want everyone together then go insist on open plan, ban internal calls or mail and just go annoy your colleagues…(sic)
  5. Many people have problems with video chat, for various reasons. (Not liking your own face, bandwidth, whatever…). But it is better than the telephone IF you show your upper body; gesticulation helps us make sense.
  6. Video is better than the phone, the phone is better than email. Chat is better than email. Email is ok-ish if you send a document, but it’s awful for team communication. (Every knows this anyway, don’t they?)
  7. Remote working is a challenge for managerial practice. Status symbols become less visible, it’s no longer possible to ask people to come to your office etc. Mangers for whom such baubles are important will find ways to replicate them digitally in order to show their power and stroke their egos, albeit unconsciously. It is useful for everyone to be mindful of their own prejudices and motives in this moment of change, especially in order to be a effective as a leader.
  8. Be aware of statements that sow mistrust like “Hey, been stroking the cat?” if you don’t reach someone straight away. Being absent from your desk is normal, just like in the office. Every job has a contingency allowance that isn’t location-dependent.
  9. Some organisations have unwritten rules not to disturb telecommuters and remote workers. This is not helpful. Sometimes we need to work without disturbance, sometimes we need to talk about things. The location is secondary. The key is to be transparent about your needs and what you are doing in order to be a reliable colleague and let others anticipate better.
  10. Communicate more frequently. Not only vertically to managers but horizontally between team members, thus strengthening relations and identification. Carry out team check-ins in the morning and in the afternoon. Give everyone the equipment and software they need.
  11. Agree in the team on how you want to communicate. That aids reliability and provides orientation.
  12. If you say “good morning” to colleagues in the morning, say “good morning” to remote workers, too. When you go to lunch or are stopping work in the evening, you might want to say “good bye”, too. That’s polite, leads to reliability, helps others anticipate better and avoids frustration (“Why’s Joe not answering?!!”), mistrust (“I bet he’s on his PS4”) or paranoia (“I think he’s ignoring me deliberately.”)
  13. If you want to know the status of something, ask others. It’s not helpful to wait to be informed. “Nobody tells me anything” is a sign of entitlement.
  14. Successful online meetings have their own rules. Separate facilitation from content, and don’t waste valuable meeting time trouble shooting if the technology doesn’t. There are lots of good guides on the net.
  15. Self-exploitation and burn-out are real dangers of remote work. Self management and resilience can be trained. Take breaks, get fresh air, look after yourself. It’s also a question of unwritten rules (and personal doctrines) expecting us to be available. These rules can be named and changed.
  16. Reflect on communication from time to time with the team. “What is working well? What would help us?” There are many ways to do this, e.g. using a team check-in to ask different team members to relate their observations on cooperation and communication. This needn’t take long. Use these encounters to inquire into others’ well-being at this stressful time.
  17. Water cooler chats and gossip are important for teams. There are plenty of tools out there to replicate these digitally. Have a videocall without an agenda to just hang out. Vegas rules apply! No other rules are needed. Comments from non-attendees like “oh, are you taking part in that?” or “what did you you talk about?” can be toxic.
  18. Remote work is an equal alternative to working in offices. But don’t forget, we need to see and perceive each other from time to time. When this present crisis is over, strive for a healthy mix of face-to-face and remote work so everyone can give their best.