Whether you’re providing feedback over email, or in-person, it’s best not to make it personal. Once you make feedback personal it becomes emotional and once it becomes emotional there can be debate that is frequently not rational. Acknowledge the deficiency without going into extreme detail as that can cause unnecessary debate. Clearly define what you consider to be acceptable behavior or the desired professional outcome, then outline some potential approaches for future scenarios. If relevant, stress what impact doing things in the improved way will have on customers and co-workers to create a sense of positive reinforcement.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Freddie Laker of Chameleon Collective.
In a prior interview Freddie Laker shared five key tips to build a successful service business. In that article he also shared how he’s using a new business model operating with an entirely remote workforce over the last five years. Given all the challenges facing business leaders today due to the rapid transformation of the workspace because of COVID, we thought he could offer some additional unique insight.
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?
We’ve never had an office and have no intention of ever having an office. We’ve been operating that way since our founding in mid 2015. Over the years it’s raised quite a few eyebrows from our clients and we’ve had to take the time to explain that a company can be very effective using this method. Many of those same clients are now seeking our advice on how to manage their own fully remote workforces.
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?
We’re now managing a team that is approaching 100 people — fully remote. Regardless of scale I’ve found that there are five challenges that are consistent: driving culture, insufficient communication, hiring, technology enablement, and most importantly supporting the personal transformations of team members that are new to remote work.
- Driving Culture
Establishing a strong and vibrant culture can be difficult for any leader. When shifting to leading a remote team the moments that can be used to define a culture become more limited. Coffee room chat might be replaced by Slack, after work happy hours might get replaced by an hour of virtual drinks over a video call, and the general energy of an office is absent. With people coming in and out of fast meetings, emails flying around, and many chats limited down to messenger apps things can become very transactional.
The opportunity is to make the moments you have count. Lean into a culture that this new working style celebrates. Make sure people know what your company believes in and make it come through loud and clear in every interaction — consistently. Make a point to do things that create moments to connect on a personal level. As an example, within our team, we host virtual company wide meetings where we rotate pairs of people 6 times every 10 minutes over a roughly hour long meeting to keep people socializing and making sure that everyone finds moments to socialize and become more then a random name that pops up in Slack or eMail.
- Understanding The Value of “Over Communicating”
One of the biggest challenges we’ve seen with managing remote teams can be a nagging sense that team members may not be productive contributors to a team, especially on longer term projects where daily deliverables aren’t giving an instant sense of progression. As a manager it’s important you know your team is producing and in a traditional office environment you can typically find some measure of productivity from a team just by observing them even if an employee is not a great communicator.
In a remote work environment, the responsibility falls much more on the employees shoulders to over-communicate their progress. Delivering a status update in the morning in a team Slack channel or via a team eMail is a great way to let everyone know what progress you’ve made, what your focus is for the day, and if you have any obstructions that might prevent you from making progress that may require team assistance. Share your work, communicate consistently in group chats, and make it clear that you are “present” in the work environment. Some days your updates may feel repetitive and for many this process of over-communicating makes them feel uncomfortable as it draws extra attention.
The reality is this process is critical in replacing the many small interactions that we might have shared in an office space. It puts colleagues and managers at ease while energizing other workers to be engaged too.
Discovering and selecting great talent to join your company is always challenging. In today’s world it’s becoming more and more common to find, hire, and onboard new employees without meeting face to face.
During the interview process managers are trying to learn about potential candidates and if they’re impressed with their background ensure that what’s listed on the resume is as strong as what was presented to them in reality. The ability for candidates to present a more “controlled” impression of how you see them over video is far easier then meeting in person. Simultaneously, some candidates’ true potential may not come through as clearly if they’re less comfortable being on camera or struggle to read social cues over a video call.
The positive side of the remote interview process is that jumping between virtual meetings can sometimes be more efficient. We recommend that each candidate speak to at least 20% more of your team members then they would have in a traditional interview process to ensure both professional and cultural compatibility.
- Team Wide Technology Enablement
It is widely assumed that being comfortable with technology is imperative to being successful at remote wok. Ensuring that each team member can use the collaborative technologies necessary to be as productive, or even more productive, as a traditional team is a top priority. The biggest challenges occur when an individual or small group of individuals aren’t up to speed. They appear to have disproportionate impact on the effectiveness of a team.
When you work remotely understanding and being comfortable with cloud based tools and video conferencing is a key ingredient, but having processes and workflows where the team is in sync using these tools and collaborating in a consistent manner is even more important. When a single team member fails to work within the tools it frequently breaks down a larger sequence of tasks.
- Supporting Personal Transformation
One of the most interesting things I have learned from running a virtual company for five years is that working remotely frequently transforms the lives of the individual workers and by extension changes their personal lives in ways they’re frequently unable to predict. Initially this started by observing simple things like the impact on personal happiness of avoiding the daily commute, but over-time a cascading series of changes started to occur across both the personal and professional habits.
As a manager leading a team in this new working style it’s imperative that you recognize the transformative effect of working at home. Professional norms will change and employees will find the line between their personal life and professional life increasingly blurry and managers will need to become more results focused while becoming more flexible in their management style.
Understanding the impact of having children at home while you’re working adds a new layer of complexity remote workers will need to figure out how to manage and subsequently managers need to come to terms with and be ok with the journey that their employees may need to go through.
Understanding that each team member will have an evolving relationship with technology as times goes on is key. Even tech savvy employees might struggle with video or collaboration tool fatigue over time. Less tech savvy employees might be slower to adopt tools as they eventually become second nature.
Ultimately, we find it’s important to show a high degree of empathy to the transformation that each employee goes through. Empower them to be successful workers, sympathize with their challenges, and celebrate their successes even more then you would in a traditional environment because in many cases these life experiences are first time events.
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?
The answer is simple. Never, ever, give serious feedback without being on video.
I recommend that most leaders write a note they intend to send after a video conversation with an employee. The note summarizing their feedback is a useful exercise to help develop clear, concise, and constructive feedback while being very careful about their words. I then encourage them to pull the employee aside over a video call where they can use visual cues or tone of voice to enforce that the feedback comes from a positive place of encouragement and support in their personal development. To ensure there is no misunderstanding of the follow up note, send it to the employee so they can reflect on the feedback later.
The initial video call allows you to create a human connection that is important as a leader. The follow up note ensures that even employees that have emotional reactions to things can process the feedback at their own pace. It goes without saying that your meeting tone and email tone should be consistent.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Whether you’re providing feedback over email, or in-person, it’s best not to make it personal. Once you make feedback personal it becomes emotional and once it becomes emotional there can be debate that is frequently not rational.
Acknowledge the deficiency without going into extreme detail as that can cause unnecessary debate. Clearly define what you consider to be acceptable behavior or the desired professional outcome, then outline some potential approaches for future scenarios. If relevant, stress what impact doing things in the improved way will have on customers and co-workers to create a sense of positive reinforcement.
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. 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?
Many people that work remotely have chosen that path intentionally, and it’s truly not for everyone. We’ve seen some employees struggle with it especially if they’re working from large cities like New York where they may have a small living space and are used to working in large bustling offices or co-working spaces.
If your team has recently been forced to work remotely due to the pandemic the key challenges I have outlined above will act as a helpful guide to be successful. My advice would be to encourage more frequent check-ins over group video calls — potentially as often as every morning for a stand-up. Getting to a place of “over-communication” doesn’t happen overnight and this process will help accelerate the concept of keeping your co-workers informed.
I’d also advise that you empower your most tech savvy team members to support and help other team members feel more comfortable in their new reality. Do a lunch and learn session every other week to share ideas and growth hacks to be productive at home.
And finally, I’d suggest you keep an even closer eye on your team’s mental health. Pay extra attention to parents who may be struggling with a family at home and to people living on their own who may be struggling with isolation. Now is the time to have an extra big heart and have empathy for your team.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
The single greatest reason that most people start to burn out is because they struggle with prioritization. They have too much on their plate. As a CEO or a founder the responsibility falls on you to create attainable goals for your team. It’s not uncommon for other managers or leaders to then put additional responsibility on your team members. If you sense a team member is burning out then use that as a coaching moment. Sit them down, go walk through all their priorities together, and then carve off some responsibilities and either assign them to other team members or just delay them.
This simple act will improve your team member focus, reduce churn, improve job happiness, build loyalty, and help you achieve your own goals more reliably.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I don’t consider myself to be a religious man, but the simplicity of the serenity prayer always resonated with me. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” As a leader and an entrepreneur I think the most precious commodity we have is time. When I set off to achieve a goal it’s very easy to get distracted intellectually and emotionally by challenges that can’t be solved. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to accept defeat in certain situations quickly so that I can allocate my mind, energy, resources, and time to challenges that I can solve or win.
If you can’t fix it, then it’s not worth stressing or complaining about the issue. It’s wasted energy for you and everyone around you. Move on, nothing is the end of the world, and focus on your next great victory where you will be successful. If you follow this I believe you can achieve exponentially more than those around you.