Managing Remote Workers – Part 2, Culture

I set out to jot down my experiences of remote management. It quickly began to sprawl so I’ve broken it out into multiple parts. Part 2 recaps the scene for remote workers/management and lays out the culture I like to foster. Culture more than anything else is the what will inspire your staff to do great things and keep them engaged.

Introduction

Over the past few years I have been a remote manager of remote workers and remote teams. That is to say myself and my staff were all remote workers spread around the world. Our working environments could be our homes, company offices or customer sites.

A few days ago I wrote an article about my experiences as a remote worker. This is a follow up to discuss managing remote workers.

What is Remote Management

First up some qualifiers on what I mean by remote management and remote workers.

Remote Workers are workers who are not office based. They are based at home and either work there or at customer sites. They may also visit company offices occasionally.

Remote Management is where the manager is based at home and either work there, at customer sites or at company offices. Predominantly they work from home. It can also be where you manage workers in different countries.

I have spent several years being a “Remote Manager” of “Remote Workers”. Here are my experiences.

Emphasis for Fostering a Culture for Remote Management

Get to Know Your Team

It goes without saying that having good relationships with your staff is critical to forming a unified team. Part of this is taking an interest at an individual level.

When people take an interest in you and what you are interests are, you naturally open up. I know I do. It’s pleasing to feel like someone actually gives a damn about what makes me tick. This can be challenging when working remote as the opportunity for idle chit chat is reduced and it’s not like you can go to the pub for an after work drink.

Therefore you have to both make the effort and create opportunities. This can be a little daunting, particularly for introverts, but you might find you actually enjoy it as apposed to seeing it as a chore. I am sad to admit that there was a time many, many moons ago that I saw this as a chore. Considering it’s your team, and you choose who you want to recruit, you should be interested in these people to at least a professional level. You don’t need to be their intimate friends, but to know a little about them and them you are shared xxx.

Things you can do:

  • Hold team days – they are great for bonding
  • Naturally chit chat at the beginning of meetings
  • Hold “drop in” calls
  • Ask opinions
  • Ask about weekends
  • Talk about your interests and share your experiences – it isn’t a one way street

I always feel a little disappointed when someone shuts a conversation down because they’ve got out of it what they wanted in business. We’re all busy, and we can’t all be sociable, but I find it to be a harsh reminder. It doesn’t hurt to be more open than all about business.

Flexiblity

So long as deadlines aren’t missed, staff aren’t constantly late for meetings, and they are contactable then you don’t need to be precious about starting at 9, clocking off all the minutes and finishing at 5pm.

For most folk, remote working provides a more relaxing environment to work in, without regular interruption, an excellent commute and an ability to accommodate personal circumstances (boiler servicing, deliveries, valeting, etc). If you suddenly become more controlling of ensuring people are online and contactable at a minutes notice between 9 and 5, then you aren’t’ really instilling any trust.

I’ve always operated my teams on the basis of trust. I expect you to be responsible adult, to meet your deadlines and commitments. In return I will trust you without checking in on when you clock in / clock out, continuously checking your online presence, badgering you with reminders on your deadlines, and keeping up with your commitments.

Mistakes happen and it’s inevitable that sometimes obligations can be missed. Don’t go apoplectic. Discuss, appraise, remediate. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, sometimes it’s a lapse in judgement. React appropriately, based on the situation and circumstances.

Recruit Lieutenants

Hierarchy works extremely well within a team because it provides a route of escalation without bombarding you and demonstrates career progression without having to step outside the team.

I’ve always found people I trust and instigated them either formally or informally as lieutenants. In recent years the hierarchy has been formalised and contains four layers (junior, associate, senior and principal). With each layer staff become more technically proficient but, more importantly each layer is a step closer to management.

By doing this we instill a sense of ownership, responsibility and moral obligation. I’ve always held true to the idea that we look after those who look to us for help and instilled the same in my team.

This also binds the team closer together which is absolutely key for remote workers. It’s so easy to feel like you’re on your own when working remotely. Knowing that there are people within the team who are not only designated to help you, but it’s part of their natural ethos to do so, is encouraging, stress relieving and almost like family.

This trusted inner council becomes even more crucial in remote working as you aren’t physically present to be able to overhear conversations. As peers, it’s likely staff will talk to, and be more open with senior members of the team, than the boss. In my experience this is the case no matter how open, honest and transparent I am, and I have a reputation for being an approachable manager. I can recall several occasions where senior members of my team have IM’d me to let me know of growing issues, or points of stress that allowed me to reach out, ad-hoc and get on top of them with the team member before they became lasting problems.

Conduct Prayers

I’m a firm believer in taking inspiration where you find it and this one I took onboard from the leadership lessons of Ant Middleton whom I’ve been fortunate enough to meet, albeit briefly.

In my world, essentially it’s a session with your most senior team members of detailed analysis to discuss team strengths, weaknesses and how to improve. Everyone gets an equal say where all opinions count. The key thing here is that, as a leader you may have a good view on how a team member, a project, an initiative, a launch, etc is doing, or has done, but an informal viewpoint from some trusted folk can provide a 360 viewpoint.

This is also something that reinforces your relationship with the most senior members of your team as it encourages them to think like a leader and it tells them their opinion truly matters, which it does.

Feedback

Feedback, particularly when it’s public or formal is exceptionally important in a remote working environment.

Giving Feedback

Feedback is immortalised in memory and/or in print depending on the format. It sets a tone, sometimes for a quarter if it’s within an appraisal so it’s critical to be thoughtful prior to committing the text or uttering the words.

Positive reinforcement is important. Frequency and quality of feedback frequently influences an eNPS score which is the measure of whether employees recommend your work environment as a good place to be. Feedback should be frequent. It should celebrate successes but don’t shy away from providing constructive advice, it’s equally important.

Ad-hoc

Champion successes privately and publically when they occur:

  • Positive customer feedback
  • Certification and accreditation successes
  • Innovations
  • Going the extra mile that had a positive impact on a client or the business

Address constructive criticism in private. Always think carefully about how to phrase feedback and try to avoid providing it when you are emotionally charged. You should be passionate about improvement but not at the expense of progress. Try not to provide a dirt sandwich. I.E. Starting with the bad, flowing into good, then finishing with bad. It will only ever be dirt, not lasting motivation for improvement. Articulate where it’s not gone or going right, using examples. Discuss ways of improving, using examples, and ensure they see where the pain points are, not just nodding and saying yes. Try to encourage your staff to suggest ways of improvement, bearing in mind sometimes criticism can come as a shock. I.E. they may need help to see the path out of the forest. Always finish on a positive.

Never, ever provide feedback during after work drinks. You’re judgement is impaired and it’s likely you will not remember accurately what was said. It may also not go the way you hope and you won’t be in the right frame of mind to fix it. These sessions can be great for bonding, but leave it at that.

Appraisals/Review

I like quarterly appraisals rather than annual. It makes it easier to turn someone back onto the path of success in a short time frame and celebrate successes. It also gives you a chance to course correct by way of new goals / objectives.

These are formal and go on an employee’s record. You have the power to be incredibly damaging to a team members career as the contents of appraisals are used by HR during promotion and job changes, as well as ongoing improvement.

Be mindful of what you write and how you articulate it. Consider your frequency of contact. If you are regularly in touch with your staff and hold regular 121s then the discussion is easier. If you talk infrequently then you’re going to find this tough (there’s a lesson there). Remember the dirt sandwich!

During the review meeting I read out verbatim what I have written because it allows me to add tone otherwise lost in plain writing. If there is anything misunderstood then we discuss. You’re appraisal should be factual and considered. If it’s significantly wrong and moves you wildly from what you’ve written then you’ve probably gone wrong somewhere in the quarter with your comms.

If significant improvement is required then you need to construct a plan with them that is measured frequently to ensure there is every opportunity for course correction. It’s about working together, not about passing judgement once a week.

Receiving Feedback

At every 121 I ask for feedback both good and bad. It’s important to know what you’re doing well as well as what isn’t going so well. It’s beneficial to hear how improvements can be made. It’s grounding and it encourages staff to be constructive and thoughtful. This may not be an easy concept for them to begin with. After all, who wants to tell there boss they could do better! Over time as your staff become more comfortable with you and with 121s it will flow better and you’ll get invaluable insight. It’s down to you then to act on it otherwise you devalue asking in the first place.

Anonymous Feedback

If you really want to empower your staff then give them a vehicle or platform to provide insightful feedback on a completely anonymous basis. There are several SaaS tools for this such as Officevibe or TinyPulse.

I’ve worked with Officevibe for years and used the engagement reports week in week out to understand what my team is thinking and how they are feeling to plan accordingly. Feedback is completely anonymous apart from follow up questions where the employee is given the choice to name who they are.

Very powerful to receive anonymous criticism and celebration. My experience is both in equal amounts. Also very powerful to give anonymous feedback. Again, it’s your responsibility to act on the feedback or you devalue it.

Handling Strain

Not Comfortable, Say Something

One of my mentors once gave me a piece of advice to live by. If you’re not happy with something, say something. Don’t let it slide.

There isn’t much more to elaborate than that. If you think something was said, or done that isn’t the right behaviours, will cause a car crash, over steps a boundary or is unacceptable, then say something straight away. Most people take silence as acceptance so if you don’t say anything or worse, laugh it off because you don’t want to rock the boat it will be repeated and it will be more difficult to correct later plus less palatable to receive

All comms for remote working / managing is purposeful rather than accidental. You won’t have a chance to pull someone for a chat at the right moment because you don’t work in an office.

You don’t need to rant and rave. Dig into it a bit more, understand the intent, and talk through what you expect. Be mindful of whether that needs to be in private or not.

Squash Internal Team Grumbling Quickly

Human interaction and observation is reduced during remote working. This can magnify disagreements between team members because they don’t get the natural chance to squash an irritation through a chat at the water cooler, lunch, a coffee, a beer, or a multitude of other minor interactions from the office.

This is why it’s important to address them quickly when you observe or are told about them. Left unchecked, irritations can fester, become toxic and infectious.

Talk to all parties, if necessary get them together to talk through it. In my experience squabbling is usually kicked off by personal stresses causing unusual behaviour. Lending an ear to bend and privately pointing out when someone has been an ass does the trick.

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