The global coronavirus pandemic has forced unprecedented measures of social distancing, and businesses everywhere have been thrust into the world of remote work without warning. If you’re managing a team in this situation, take comfort in knowing that companies have been “going remote” since well before anyone was talking about COVID-19.
I started to see the many benefits when I first started working remotely in 2012. I’ve been managing remote teams since 2014, and have been building Microverse with a completely remote team since our founding in 2017. At Microverse, we now have more than 400 students from 100 countries whom we are training for careers in remote work. We’re doing this because we believe this is the best way to work.
But any sudden change is fraught with challenges. And while it’s too hard to understand the impact the coronavirus will have on individual companies forced to go remote overnight, there are ways to weather the storm. Here are some tips for managing a remote team on short notice.
It can be unnerving for some managers to not see their team in person every day. But a healthy culture of trust does not come from keeping tabs on what everyone is doing at all times. Rather, it’s about having confidence that team members will keep doing the things they’re supposed to do.
At Microverse, we don’t just allow our completely remote team to make mistakes -- we encourage them. We realize that making mistakes early and often, particularly when taking on new projects or adapting to new circumstances, is how you find a better way of doing something.
This may resonate with software developers familiar with the agile methodology, which prioritizes iterating and releasing updates on a project on a weekly basis -- rather than building over a long period of time as in the once-popular waterfall model.
But the agile method doesn’t just work for software developers; it’s a useful mindset for any team, whether it’s marketing, communications, engineering, or operations. It’s important to experiment with the intention of constantly refining your approach.
Give yourself a break and know that a sudden shift to remote work will probably take some trial and error. Your team will be better off if they have the autonomy to ask for forgiveness rather than beg for permission as they adapt to what could be the “new normal” for a while. By doing so, you also give yourself more time and space to focus on the tasks with the greatest impact.
Transparency is important in any work environment, but for managing remote teams, the stakes are even higher. In an office setting, it’s easy to walk over to someone’s desk and ask a quick question about something that was said in a meeting. This is not possible for remote teams. In general, staying informed on all of the minor updates and decisions is a challenge for remote teams if you don’t have the proper systems and standards in place to foster transparency.
Adequate transparency requires an obsessive level of documentation: Every meeting, every conversation, every decision or action item needs to be documented. It’s not enough just to have a designated note taker for every meeting. It’s also important to use tools that enable transparency.
At Microverse, we like to use Notion to organize all of our documentation. It allows you to label and archive everything neatly and administrators can control access so that everyone can access the notes that they need.
Zoom is a popular video conferencing tool applications many companies prefer to Google Hangouts. Zoom also has the best audio and video quality of any video conferencing tool in the world. It’s especially useful for maintaining transparency: Every conversation on Zoom can be recorded so it’s always possible to go back and see what was said.
At Microverse, we use Twist the way a lot of companies use Slack. Think of it like an email folder that everyone has access to. What’s great about Twist is that conversations are organized and archived in threads that are labeled with a title and can be accessed by anyone on the team at any time.
Your team should be able to operate such that communication can happen asynchronously without operations coming to a halt. In other words, if team members respond to a normal message on email or Slack within a few hours (or 24 hours at most), the person asking the question will have plenty of other things to do while they wait on a response. This is a good sign that your team is effective at working independently.
But messages on email or Slack fall short sometimes. They lack the nuances that with good face-to-face communication. If team members are not available at the same time, a video call over Zoom or Google Hangouts is not a viable solution.
Loom is an application that allows team members to record and send video messages to each other. Not only does it capture body language, tone, and emotion and other important cues of in-person communication, but it gives you the ability to share a URL link to a message so that a recipient can view the message at a time that best suits them.
Loom may very well not only help you master good asynchronous communication but find other ways of working smarter as well. Bear in mind that you can record a video message as much as six times as fast as it takes to write something down. Plus, you can watch videos up 2x their regular speed.
Newly-remote teams often find that unnecessary meetings have a way of eliminating themselves. But don’t try to eliminate several meetings from your calendar all at once. Rather, pay attention to which ones are bringing value, find a way over time to reduce the ones that aren’t. Inevitably, you’ll find that the challenge of not being together forces team members to work more autonomously and creatively, in turn creating unexpected efficiencies.
While you might begin to completely favor working asynchronously, some situations require synchronicity. Just remember that when you do have meetings, make sure that they are meaningful and efficient. There should be action items at the end of every meeting.
This should sound familiar. In fact, many conventional management and operational practices should continue to be a part of your routine: regular one-on-one meetings between managers and direct reports are a must. Once a quarter, it’s also a good idea for those same direct reports to have a one-on-one with their manager’s manager. This helps everyone gain more perspective on what’s happening within the company.
Other regular meetings, like performance management and what we call OKR meetings are also crucial. Performance management meetings are a great venue to provide structured feedback, which is crucial for any company constantly striving to improve.
OKR (Objectives and Key Results) meetings are meetings that help us focus on what really matters every quarter, and keeps us accountable to make sure we are making steady progress towards our goals.
It’s my belief that going remote is one of the best decisions a company can make. But when you’re thrown into the situation unexpectedly, it can be overwhelming or even disastrous if not managed properly. The most important thing in times like these is to remember not to panic. These first few weeks will be a challenge, but following this guidance will go a long way.