Make a habit of providing regular feedback to your people, both good and bad. Regularly discuss what is going well and where course correction is required. Once providing feedback becomes part of your regular leadership practice then the easier it will be for you to provide feedback when the tougher conversations are required. Deal with facts and observations not feelings. Provide feedback that is specific. Focus on the issue not the person. Follow up afterwards and reinforce the behavior changes you are seeing.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Brush.
With over 20 years’ experience in management and consulting roles, Michael Brush helps clients achieve superior results. Mike has a strong facilitative approach, provides solid, astute recommendations, and sees them through to successful implementation. Mike has an MBA (University of Windsor) specializing in Finance and Human Resource Management, a Bachelor of Social work and a BA Sociology from McMaster University. Mike is currently working on a workshop to discuss new management techniques, how to shift to agile leadership and how to empower and delegate to others.
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”?
While pursuing my undergrad degrees in social work and sociology, I had a job for two summers working in an institution for developmentally challenged individuals. The institution had a strong informal set of behavioral norms that I thought were both odd and unique. Subsequently, in my studies I came across the book “Asylums” by Erving Goffman. With every page turn it seemed that Goffman had documented things that I had seen as so unique to my experience during my summers at the institution. This awakened me to the idea that organizations had their own personalities or cultures. It was my first step on a journey to make a career out of helping improve work environments and productivity in organizations.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The story which comes to mind, comes from a recent experience where I stepped down from the board of directors of a corporation, and took on the role of interim CEO after the sudden resignation of the former leader. The organization had experienced a mass layoff in the first wave of COVID-19 and the former CEO had been planning a second shutdown as the second wave had begun. A board meeting was scheduled for the next day with the purpose of approving the shutdown. After speaking with staff, I quickly assessed that a second shutdown would do more harm than good — with the risks of losing critical staff, not being able to fulfill our commitments in the short term and sacrificing the future for short term savings. My gut told me shutting down was the wrong decision. I huddled with the CFO and determined that we could keep operations going if we tightly managed our cash over the next several months. The next day I went to the Board and asked for their support in keeping the doors open. Acting quickly and going to the Board with a reversal of direction, required me to trust my gut and cumulation of years of experience in making the call. In retrospect it did turn out to be the right decision, and the organization is far more stable for it.
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?
Early on in my career I was tasked with creating some fun team building activities, for a senior management retreat. I had recently left an organization where fun team building activities, include white water rafting, lumberjack contests, backcountry horseback riding as ways to build team. So, I thought a mild game of volleyball would be just the ticket. What I did not take into consideration was the senior leadership team were both older and less physically active than those in my former organization but were no less competitive. As we were about to get the game underway the CEO took me aside and let me know that if anyone got hurt, he would hold me accountable. I sweated through the next hour of high-spirited competition hoping that no one would get hurt. Fortunately, there no ill effects other than stiff bodies and sore muscles the next day, and I was grateful I still have a job.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
This is a great question as COVID-19 continues to be a factor in all our lives. The impact of COVID-19 continues to accumulate and sit heavy on all our shoulders. People continue to work remotely, workdays never seem to end, return to normal while closer than ever is still months away and the stresses that cause burn-out continue to build. First look after yourself, second support your people. Focus on maintaining your own mental health, physical, health and resilience, because if you are not looking after yourself you may not be up to the task of supporting your people. For your people, the lesson is to communicate and listen to staff. Actively support them in keeping morale up and check to make sure they are looking after themselves, taking vacations and recharging. Engage them individually and collectively in the goals of the organization and celebrate both small steps and the larger wins. The fundamental message is to staff individually and collectively you are important.
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?
Professional service organizations have a long history of operating in virtual teams across multiple settings. Operating as a team member gave way to leading virtual teams for over 20 years.
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?
- Let’s start with the basics of what managerial leaders are accountable for no matter what conditions they are faced with in leading teams. All managers are accountable for outputs of direct reports, the results or impact of direct reports’ behavior, building and sustaining an effective team capable of producing the required outputs and finally providing that team with effective managerial leadership. As such, a manager/leader’s performance can be assessed based on effectiveness of their teams and individual team members.
- Effective managers add value to their teams by setting context for work, removing barriers, providing resources, and coaching team members. Remote work complicates these requirements and requires managerial leaders to fulfill these leadership accountabilities no matter what the working conditions. Remote work requires managerial leaders to be adaptable and creative in carrying out these tasks.
- People need to know what is expected of them in their roles. When people are working remotely it is even more critical to be clear about expectations. Providing context and setting expectations is the foundation for helping people be successful in their roles. During COVID, taking on the leadership of a new organization meant I did not know the team members or their working conditions. Setting realistic expectations was dependent upon understanding what the conditions each individual and team were required to work under. Each team had different resources, different working conditions and different tools. While in person meetings were not possible during the lockdown the solution was active listening coupled with the use of technology. Using video or phone conferencing I asked each manager to provide me with detail on what they were doing, and what they needed to be successful. As pictures can worth a thousand words, we exchanged pictures and video clips to provide greater context and understanding. By virtually putting ourselves in the other person shoes we were able to come to a common understanding and ensure expectations and goals were realistic and achievable.
- Effective teamwork is a critical part of working in any organization and is challenging in remote work environments. Upon taking the leadership of the organization I learned very quickly that the organization had many talented individuals carrying out their work in isolation but there was very little teamwork. I reestablished a weekly meeting to ensure people understood what each team member had to accomplish that week. It was helpful but not enough. What was missing was the bigger picture of what we were doing and why. We set up a series of virtual meetings to engage the team in developing a plan. We shared information as to what needed to happen, what resources were available and what was not available. Concurrently each person shared their roles, the work they needed do and where they would need help from others. As a result, we developed an integrated plan where each team member felt ownership and accountability. Each person knew what work they would carry out individually and when they needed to participate in broader teamwork. Additionally, bringing the full team or subsets of the full team together regularly, based on the subject at hand, helped us to discover issues and opportunities that were not apparent when people were working in isolation.
- A critical issue for remote work is isolation of team members. Working at home does not allow for many of the social aspects that a shared work setting provides. Managers need to be aware of this and take time to check in on the health and well-being of team members. Managers were asked to regularly check-in with their staff members. Norms evolved that helped staff deal with the isolation issue. Virtual meetings began with 5 minutes of small talk. This started when two or three team members signed in early and evolved to a standard practice. Conversations that used to take place in hallways and in peoples offices now took place at the start of meetings. These conversations provided mini opportunities to socialize. Additionally, I will be forever grateful for members of the team who took the time to look in on each other, check on their well-being, and if they thought it necessary flagged me as to when I may need to intervene in a situation and provide support. The kindness shown and the support given by team members towards their peers was critical in ensuring well-being across the team.
- People can be successful in achieving their outputs only if they have the tools and resources to complete their work. When permanent remote work becomes a job requirement then ensuring people have the right tools and equipment, including technical support, to do their jobs is a critical aspect of their success. When COVID struck working from home required final trips into offices to gather up the equipment they would need to work remotely. Subsequently, we found it helpful to check with staff, on an occasional basis, to ensure they have the equipment and tools they needed and to augment with additional equipment where required. Other managers and I made trips to our offices to provide access to equipment to ensure key tasks were accomplished.
- Ongoing communication and feedback are critical to success. Not only did we hold team meetings every week but I held individual meetings weekly or bi-weekly with my direct reports, to discuss individual goals and performance, listen to concerns, identify road blocks to be removed and provide feedback. Written reports were used to support the discussions.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
Success in managing in a remote work environment requires managers to adapt their leadership to the remote situation but still do their critical leadership tasks. Adaptation means paying attention to challenges team members face in working remotely and adjusting your work to address those challenges.
Provide context and set expectations as you normally would but adapt to your virtual environment. Make sure you are communicating expectations clearly by asking team members to repeat or paraphrase what they heard from you. Actively listen and repeat back to employees what they have said. In this way you are ensuring communication and expectations are well understood.
Establish effective teams and the conditions for teamwork. The best way to build teams is to actively involve people in clarify their work and roles and setting goals and objectives. People begin to work as a team as the team is being built. In this way you set the foundation for the work to come.
Actively create opportunities to address isolation that comes with remote work. Set time aside in meetings for people to socialize. Hold individual meetings with team members to check-in with how they are doing. Take the time to listen to individuals and provide them with support or direct them to where they can receive more formal support, if required. Creating the opportunity for people to work on team projects breaks down the isolation people may be feeling. Take the time to bring people together in virtual social events or as local conditions allow look for opportunities to bring people together in person. Be aware of the risk of isolation and dealing with it head on.
Create opportunities to have frequent communication with staff, both individually and in team settings. Providing regular feedback is the breakfast, lunch, and dinner of champions. Providing regular feedback on work progress as a regular practice also creates conditions that makes having those tough conversation easier .
Underlying all of these challenges is the need to establish trusting work environment. When people are both trusted and supported, they are generally successful in their work.
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?
Admittedly, providing feedback in person is best. The best approach is to apply as much of what you would do in person in a virtual environment. As a manager or team leader one of your accountabilities is to spend enough time with your people to assess their capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses to enable you to provide relevant, effective coaching and feedback as required. You need to invest time, through regular work interactions, to develop this level of understanding with each of your people. The more you use the communications tools available to you, be they telephone or video conferencing, the more you will be able to pick up individual nuances and peoples personalities shine through.
Other things you can do:
Make a habit of providing regular feedback to your people, both good and bad. Regularly discuss what is going well and where course correction is required. Once providing feedback becomes part of your regular leadership practice then the easier it will be for you to provide feedback when the tougher conversations are required. Deal with facts and observations not feelings. Provide feedback that is specific. Focus on the issue not the person. Follow up afterwards and reinforce the behaviour changes you are seeing.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
“Don’t do it,” at least not when providing initial feedback. Constructive feedback over email should only be used as a follow up to a constructive feedback discussion. Hold a live meeting, either face to face virtual meeting or by phone. Follow the same process as if it were a face-to-face meeting. Discuss both what the employee did right and where they need be make improvements. Have the employee participate in the discussion and provide their own ideas on how to improve their performance. Agree on next steps. Once the meeting is finished send a follow-up email factually summarizing what was discussed. As the team member had actively participated in the meeting, they should not find the to be email too critical or harsh.
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?
It is important to bring the team together to keep them updated. Allowing the team to connect, socialize, and have watercooler discussions for the first couple of minutes keeps the team engaged. Maintain a regular meeting schedule with a standardized agenda. Ensure everyone participates in the discussion.
I have included in these meetings a time for each employee to identify where their tasks for the week will impact other and to identify if they will need help over the next week.
Holding virtual townhalls on a quarterly or even monthly basis to share information about the direction of the organization and to gather input is critical. Above all be agile in your approach and be prepared to adapt and change as conditions change.
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?
Engaging employees around the mission of the organization and demonstrating how their work supports the mission and the more detailed business plans are critical activities. A great starting point is to have everyone share their role and their goals with their peers, what work is included in their roles and what is excluded from their role and should be done elsewhere ensures everyone understands the work of the organization. This role clarity exercise not only ensures everyone understands who does what but engages everyone in the work of the organization. Extending this further by ensuring everyone understands what decisions each role holder can make on their own, and when they may need help and support from others both engages and empowers employees.
Follow this role clarity activity by establishing what meetings are required
and who should attend to deliver the organizations, goals and objectives will further support engagement.
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. 🙂
Great question. I must ask myself what would be simple, doable and impactful. This past weekend my family and I went for a walk. It was a hot summer day and as we walked along our way, we found ourselves in search of the cooling shade of a tree to protect us from the heat. It seems to me if we planted a tree for every person on the planet, we will have planted almost 8 billion trees, This simple act would go a great distance to reducing carbon dioxide, and contribute to the cooling of the planet.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I was fortunate to grow up at a time when life provided many choices. As a young person I struggled with how to make these choices and how I would know they would be right for me. Enter Shakespeare and this famous quotation from Hamlet:
“To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Whenever I have had a difficult decision to make in my life, I would complete an analysis, identify the pros and cons and likely impacts and consequences of the decision. Then I would put all that aside and ask myself the question “What decision will ensure I am true to myself?” Answering the question would bring me the clarity I needed.
Thank you for these great insights!