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“5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Remote Team” With Fotis Georgiadis & Chancellor Allison Bell

While confronting challenges, it’s always important that co-workers feel respected and not ambushed. An easy way to give constructive feedback without being too critical is to always follow up the problem or situation with an action item. Pointing out how a team member can work to improve upon challenges shows that you are invested in […]

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While confronting challenges, it’s always important that co-workers feel respected and not ambushed. An easy way to give constructive feedback without being too critical is to always follow up the problem or situation with an action item. Pointing out how a team member can work to improve upon challenges shows that you are invested in their success and growth.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Allison Bell is the chancellor of WGU Indiana, the state’s online, competency-based university. Bell has more than 20 years of higher education leadership experience, including four years of prior experience with WGU Indiana as their general manager of operations from 2010–2014. Bell earned a M.A. in Student Personnel Administration in Higher Education from Ball State University. She received additional training through the Indiana University Advising Leadership Institute and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

Iam the chancellor of WGU Indiana, the state’s online, competency-based university. I have over 20 years of higher education leadership experience, including four years of prior experience with WGU Indiana as their general manager of operations from 2010–2014. Before returning to WGU, I served as Director of Degree Completion at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where I led operations and supervised academic coaching and career staff.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I am a working mom. As a young professional, I believed that I had to be the one to do everything for my children. I also worried when I had to miss events at work because of family responsibilities. I thought I had to do it all myself and, as a result, felt like I was doing nothing very well. What I’ve learned over time is that taking care of your professional and personal responsibilities doesn’t always mean doing it yourself. Asking for help, leaning on your community, giving responsibilities to a trusted colleague IS taking care of things. When I let go of the idea that I had to do it all myself, I found that I became a better mother and a more effective leader.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I once accepted a job that was a newly created position and part of the role was to be the local support for a whole team of new employees as they experienced onboarding and training. I was still learning, myself, and was often fielding questions for which I did not have immediate answers. I felt the stress of the responsibility I had taken on because I wanted the new employees to feel supported by and confident in me and in the organization. As a result of this experience, I learned that it is ok not to know everything when you lead a team. In embarking on the journey together, trust and connections are built, and everyone learns something. So now, when someone asks me a question that I don’t know the answer to, I give them the response that I developed as a result of that experience, “let’s find that out together”.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

As a leader, it’s important to first model this behavior for your employees. Often, your team members will follow the example that you set. My team feels free to pursue activities that align with their passions and set boundaries between work and personal life because I am transparent about the boundaries that I set, the activities that I choose to bring balance, and support them when they do the same.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

I started managing a remote team in 2012 and have continued to manage remote team members since then.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

  1. No open door conversations — As a leader, I leave my door open and welcome my team to stop in when my schedule allows. Some the most powerful interactions I have had with members of my team have been impromptu interactions. Whether it be a quick question or idea they pop into my office to share with me, or a conversation prompted by an interpersonal interaction, those opportunities are fewer and different when everyone is working remotely.
  2. No “water-cooler” conversations — While too much socializing in the workplace can negatively impact productivity, there is no question that some socializing while working together in the office is healthy and builds community and relationships. Those relationships are often the foundation of collaborations between team members that move the organization along in a positive direction.
  3. Measuring productivity — While time in the office doesn’t exactly equal time on task, there is some comfort and showing up to a physical office and seeing your team at work in the same place. Having everyone working remotely requires a different level of trust and an alternative way to measure productivity.
  4. Celebrations — Whether celebrating birthdays, welcoming new team members, or a team accomplishment, rituals of celebration are an important part of team building and provide motivation and energy. Teams working remotely cannot go to lunch together or meet in the break room to sing happy birthday.
  5. Team meetings — The dynamic of a team meeting in an online conference room is different in many ways from an in-person meeting. Online meetings have so much more potential for interruptions and technical difficulties, as a leader it can be more difficult to recognize when a team member is trying to speak up but getting talked over, and people can more easily disengage and multitask.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

  1. Use technology to create an open door. By now, every organization has an IM system with the option to mark yourself “available”. My team knows that if I’m marked as available, my virtual door is open for them to “drop in”. I make it a point to be responsive when I’m marked as available and set my status to “busy” if I truly cannot be disturbed. We also have a more regular cadence of one on one and group meetings to facilitate these conversations.
  2. Water-cooler conversations can happen remotely. Again, we use our IM tool. As a team we level-set expectations that we have our IM system open and that we use the tagging feature to alert colleagues of our conversations. As leaders, we intentionally created a team channel to share (by choice) pictures of fun things we’ve done on the weekends with families, funny memes, and inspirational messages, too.
  3. Set clear goals with team members and manage based on those goals. When there is a mutual understanding of tasks and goals, it’s easy to know when your team member is spending enough time on task!
  4. Celebrations can continue via the internet! We have hosted 3 team lunches a virtual baby shower in the last 2 months. We would rather be in the room together, but we can celebrate this way too, and it is fun in a different way.
  5. Effective virtual Team Meetings — Lay out ground rules and expectations, ask everyone to leave their camera’s on to minimize multi-tasking, give each team member a turn to talk so that everyone contributes, and teach everyone where the mute button is.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

It’s important to continue regular communication between team members even when working remote, don’t assume that no news, is good news. With such a broad variety of virtual platforms, there are endless mediums for communicating different situations. Although it’s not always the preferred medium of communication, setting up a phone call or a virtual Zoom call can be the best way to give constructive criticism or chat about a specific situation. Staying connected on a day to day or weekly basis can make these conversations easier and also prevent any conflicts from going unseen.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

While confronting challenges, it’s always important that co-workers feel respected and not ambushed. An easy way to give constructive feedback without being too critical is to always follow up the problem or situation with an action item. Pointing out how a team member can work to improve upon challenges shows that you are invested in their success and growth.

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

One of the most important things to remember during these challenging times is that everyone handles change in different ways. It’s important to keep lines of communication open, especially when working remotely is something new or is being forced upon us. Nearly 300 of WGU Indiana’s faculty and staff work remotely, so luckily, we have existing tools and mechanisms to make sure communication is easy and accessible.

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

It’s essential to keep team moral high, especially given the uncertainty with which we are all living. As a leader in the office it’s important to make sure all team members feel heard and know they are not alone in this difficult transition. A great way to do this is to set up a virtual office meeting and also keep open communication across the entire workplace. In addition to open communication, giving positive recognition to team members while working from home shows that you see the work they are putting in every day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The onset of the novel coronavirus and the necessity to shelter in place has brought the need for reliable, affordable internet access to the forefront. This is a moment when students, professionals, and families must rely on the internet more than ever for their education, jobs, and personal needs, yet in Indiana alone, 666,000 people live without access to a wired connection capable of 25mbps download speeds. Now is a time to recognize that equal access to high-speed internet is essential in both rural and urban settings across my home state and others and that urgent action is needed to support our leaders in their efforts to shrink this digital divide.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. ~ Maya Angelou

Thank you for these great insights!

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