Remote work was a hot topic before everyone was suddenly working from home. According to an internal survey we conducted, 95% of Atlassians surveyed were willing to change their ways of working in order to enable more remote work.
But most of us are still new to working from home and its characteristics. It’s more than flexible hours, a work-from-home day in your schedule, or accommodating a teammate who lives in a rural state. Right now, in particular, your whole team is working remotely. This means new practices (or the modification of usual practices), new tools, and new ways of communicating. To get all this to work and flow smoothly, much of the onus is on you, the team lead. Managers set the tone. That’s true whether your team is colocated and huddling in a room together, or widely distributed and huddling virtually in a Zoom meeting.
But take heart. Though managing virtual teams might be new for you (and many others), others have been at it for a while now. Here are some practices that have helped these remote leaders, a list of the practical ways to manage and support remote teams. These anecdotes and stories about what works and what doesn’t will help you navigate these curious waters as captains of your newly-remote-crewed ships.
5 fundamental tips for managing virtual teams
The big question on the minds of most leaders: What’s the main difference in leading a team remotely versus in person? Well, there isn’t just one difference. But, it’s safe to say the one you should concentrate on first is communication, and how it changes when everyone’s working remote.
In “normal working life,” lots of decisions are made in hallway conversations or over lunch. When this kind of casual information sharing isn’t happening, you must replace it somehow. This starts by doing a good job of over-communicating. It’s just too easy for someone on the team to get out of sync – on a new decision, or the status of a task, or recent update. This happens anyway, right? Just imagine the cracks through which things can fall when your full team is working remotely. And it’s not just that these casual opportunities to connect are less frequent, it’s the familiar exchange of team information that’s been fully disrupted.
So, over-communicate. Make it a practice. Use Slack messages, @mentions, and emails to keep everyone in the loop, even when you think you’re being repetitive. Be intentional about looping people in. Ask if they know about something, even if you’re pretty sure they do. Keep in mind, if it’s during a group interaction, maybe someone else on the Zoom call didn’t know and learned about it because you asked, or because you repeated information. It doesn’t hurt to repeat something for clarity, and may solve some problems right away.
Default to team channel communication over 1:1 messages when possible, and create shared pages (like Trello boards or Confluence pages) to write down your communication practices during this time, so the whole team can follow and modify.
2. Work with transparency
Of course another big question, especially for managers: how do you know your team is working? Are they being productive?
“My initial reaction to going 100% remote was to have daily check-ins over Zoom and frankly schedule more meetings,” says Claire Drumond, Group PMM at Atlassian. “I realized that my team was just as stressed about proving that they were working as I was about making sure they weren’t stressed! We’re still refining our rituals and learning as we go, but you can’t improve things without trust and honesty. Building trust over technology has nothing to do with people being available on slack during work hours – it’s about setting clear expectations and communication.”
In many ways, if you’ve really hired the right people, you shouldn’t have to worry about this. You should trust your team, trust them to be the adult professionals you hired. But it’s a fair question, and one way to help answer it is to look at your tools. At Atlassian, we use Trello, Confluence, Jira, Slack, Zoom, and a host of others. But whatever the tool, it’s all about how you use them and being transparent about what you’re working on and when, and sharing all of it with your team and stakeholders.
If you’re looking for ways to make sure this essential information sharing takes place, that projects are talked about and milestones discussed, here are some things to try:
- Consider updating Slack statuses more frequently. Be specific and consistent to build up the habit – for yourself, and your team. “Doing deep work,” and “Lunchtime until 1pm,” and “Going on a walk,” really work great.
- @ mention a lot. Don’t assume someone will see a comment or update if you don’t specifically address them. There’s no harm in repeatedly using someone’s name to make sure they’re informed.
- Use a shared google calendar, and keep it updated. A consistent calendar works great for knowing what everyone’s doing, both for work and for their non-work lives.
- Try stand-up meetings. These short team meetings can be very effective. You can vary the time of day, the frequency, you name it. Some teams start their day with YTBs – what they did yesterday, what they’re doing today, and any blockers. It’s a consistent practice to come together and is especially effective when everyone’s remote.
In a nutshell, develop practices to help your team stay connected and provide updates about what’s going on, and where to find information to know what’s going on. You shouldn’t have to worry about what people are doing, but it’ll ease your mind – and theirs – to offer ways for everyone to share updates.
3. Establish your team’s remote work ground rules
When things are new and different – and this is definitely new and different – it’s hard to know how to set expectations. Exactly as before? If it’s different for remote teams, how so?
The simple answer is: make sure everyone on the team is on the same page. Talk as a group, and get everyone’s input. Working from home is new to many, and it’s especially unique during today’s uncertain circumstances. There are kids and other family members at home, new schedules and rhythms, and innumerable stresses and concerns. All must be considered. After these candid conversations about what your team needs, and what you as a manager want and need from your team, consider these tips:
- Document everything on a page to help make sure everyone’s… on the same page. That means everything: approach, roles and responsibilities, action items, expectations, key decisions, etc.
- Spend time as a team discussing your communication channels and tools and how to use them, including things like expected response times.
- Talk about how to align on shared work, and how to collaborate on that work. In other words, establish your share practices.
- Use different types of meetings – 1:1s, small group, whole team – to give feedback and create familiar habits.
What you’re doing is creating your playbook. You’re establishing the rules for how your team operates and what the expectations are for each member.
4. Check in on how people are doing personally
How’s your team doing? Ask, and ask again. And this means not just about projects, but about how people are doing as people. This starts with creating a safe space for your team to share thoughts and feelings. This is critical during such an unprecedented and difficult time. As a manager, try to find out how everybody’s really doing. Look for and provide time and space to talk privately, wherever needed.
Remote individuals often suffer from overworking. The blurring of lines between work and life, and accommodating different time zones, commonly make it hard to “unplug.” All of which takes a toll on well-being. Not to mention there’s loneliness associated with remote work and it’s harder to “see” burnout or identify loneliness with a remote team member.
You’ve got to check in often, and really demonstrate your commitment to the team. If they need some extra time for a deadline, be flexible. And if a team member hasn’t seemed themselves in recent days, check in. Here are some ideas for open-ended questions that help build a safe space:
- What are you feeling?
- How is your workload?
- Where is your burnout level?
- What is top of mind?
- How is your world?
- How is your work?
5. Build or continue fun remote team rituals
Maintaining the social connection as a team while fully remote is as important as ever. But how do you do it remotely?
To keep her team aligned, Atlassian Creative Director Leah Pincsak has discovered this gem: “Pack your weeks full of social activities, make them optional, and don’t get offended if no one shows up.”
It’s super important for teams to connect socially, no matter the circumstances. Remote teams can benefit greatly from team social rituals, but they need to be cultivated with intention. In other words, don’t mandate a virtual happy hour that feels like a regular meeting, only with beverages. For social events to work and feel right, as Leah understands, they need to be optional. Without that feeling of obligation, they maintain the necessary casual and voluntary nature for non-forced connection.
Other social ideas to consider:
- Set up social Slack channels to stay connected on a variety of topics. Often called the “virtual water cooler,” create a place to chitchat, or share on a specific topic.
- Set up a virtual coffee, lunch, or happy hour. Designated time to be together casually goes a long way.
- Try starting each team meeting with a quick personal check-in, like an icebreaker.
- Play virtual games together, which can be a great bonding experience. Again, though, make sure these activities are always voluntary, and feel that way. With so much going on right now, it’s a big ask for a parent to spend “play time” with the team after a long day instead of with their children.
- Check out some virtual team building activities to explore even more ideas.
Like anything, it takes some getting used to. But there are established practices and habits for managing virtual teams that you can emulate. Yes, it’s not the same as working together in a more “traditional” setting. But with a little effort, you can work together just as well (and in some cases even better) than before.
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Special thanks to Jamey Austin for his contributions to this article.