It’s no secret that many organizations abruptly shifted to a remote workplace model when the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe. As leaders cope with the aftermath of the strangest 18 months of their lives, they now consider what the workforce of the future looks like. Their teams, adapted to a work-from-home lifestyle, are hesitant—even resistant—to return to the office.
Although the long-term answer will vary from organization to organization and industry to industry, one thing is certain: more organizations are embracing digital-first teams and a geographically dispersed workforce.
Some leaders are concerned and even terrified of how they will continue to build and lead effective teams when many of their tried-and-true tactics are obsolete. I’ve had the benefit of leading remote, hybrid, and global teams for much of my professional career, which means I’ve made a lot of mistakes.
Leading people is as unique of a challenge as any in modern business. Although each team will have its nuances and oddities, I have found three general principles hold true when building remote, hybrid and global teams.
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
I know what you’re thinking: communication is always important, no matter the team. You’re not wrong. Although communication is vital to building an effective team, it’s simultaneously more difficult and important when your team rarely sees each other in person. When you work remotely, the hallway conversations, office banter and overheard learning experiences—long a staple of office environments—are replaced with a vacuum of silence, save for the ping of chat notifications. We are certainly in the new age of digital work.
To overcome this, you must:
Decide what your message is, whom needs to hear it and the order they need to hear it in.
- Do managers need to hear it first?
- Is it a team-wide broadcast?
- Will it require follow-up messaging or a meeting to discuss questions or concerns?
Decide and use a primary medium and style to communicate your message, but don’t let it be the only one. Besides the usual rule of thumb about the diverse ways people receive information, it’s also far easier for people to tune out certain types of electronic communications. Use a primary method, then follow up with alternate methods to make sure you reach everyone (e.g., a team meeting with a follow-up email and chat message).
More of your communications will be logged or recorded than ever before. If you’re inconsistent, there will likely be a record for people to refer to. Be certain you mean what you say and say what you mean. If something has changed from a previous communication, call it out directly to avoid the inference or assumption of a lie.
Embrace the rule of equal inconvenience.
One of the major advantages of having an in-person team is that everyone is in the same time zone and works roughly the same hours every day. You can see people in front of you and know whether they’re working or left early or started late for a doctor’s appointment, child care activity or mental health break.
As your team moves digitally or globally, this advantage disappears. Even if your digital team is based in the same country, many team members travel globally while working to conserve their paid time off and reap the benefits of remote work. This scenario presents a challenge for the modern leader, as a 9 a.m. meeting is no longer 9 a.m. for everyone.
A few years ago, I picked up the rule of equal inconvenience from a colleague, and it has changed how our global team operates. The idea is that you don’t expect any single subset of the team to bear all the responsibility for overcoming time differences.
When you need to schedule meetings, host a conference call, or sit down for a virtual brainstorming session, schedule it for a time that is equally inconvenient for everyone. For example, one of my teams has members in the Central and Eastern region of the U.S., as well as members in Trivandrum, India, 10 1/2 hours ahead of CST. When we scheduled large team meetings, we’d target 7 or 8 a.m. CST. This was a little earlier than the team would have preferred in CST, and a bit later than the team would have preferred in Trivandrum.
This idea of a mutually but equally inconvenient time ensures no single part of the team feels they have more responsibility to overcome these challenges than others. This is a challenge the team faces, and the team must overcome it together.
Remain structured but flexible
Your new digital team needs structure to be successful and remain connected. Common informal activities such as project status reports, check-ins, recognition and feedback that could be done over coffee or a quick fly-by must now be replaced by scheduled meetings, dashboards or templates. Ensure you are setting clear expectations and providing instructions for how these activities should occur.
A mix of modern toolsets (i.e., Slack, Asana, Workflowy, Friday, etc.) can be integral in helping you provide a consistent experience to your team members while collecting rich information to help you lead more effectively.
Set expectations around when and how team members are available.
- Do they need to be online at certain times of the day?
- How long should it take to respond to a non-urgent email?
- How long can they be out of office before they need to notify someone beforehand?
Answering these types of questions in a structured manner allows everyone to avoid unnecessary anxiety and conflict from mismatched expectations.
The flip side of this structure is the temptation to become rigid, and you must actively work to avoid it. Although these tools, processes and expectations are great as a baseline, they should not become etched in the proverbial stone. Many team members are switching to a remote or global team because they desire flexibility to accommodate their lifestyles. Too much rigidity will kill that idea along with their morale and desire to innovate. Keep your list of hard-and-fast rules as short as possible and limited to only those things that absolutely must happen for the team to reach their goals.
Remote, hybrid and global teams are not going anywhere, and will likely become increasingly common over the next several years. Although this brings many challenges to the modern leader, it also presents an opportunity to bring together the best and brightest people, no matter where they live or how they work. I encourage all leaders to embrace this new team structure and remember that at the core of these ideas is a very simple concept: treat your team members like the people they are.
Photo by @Hanni/Twenty20