Managing Remote Teams – Insights from our Leaders

2020 saw an enormous change to workplace dynamics and managing teams and individuals in a remote environment might seem tricky. There are some scary stories from both ends of the spectrum going around right now, with employees seemingly forgotten about or micromanaged to insanity. So, I spoke to three leaders at Insentra, to get their insights on how they strike the right balance and to hear their thoughts on the impact working from home has had on managing teams.


 


Simon Altit, our EMEA Director, has been with Insentra since (almost) day one. He began managing remote teams 6 years ago, with the added challenge of being on the other side of the world! But eventually, he made the move to the UK. He flipped the role: continuing to manage a hybrid of his Sydney office and UK crew, who all work remotely. Simon gives us some practical tips on how to handle some of the changes in managing a remote team versus an in-office team

WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE WITH CHANGING TO MANAGING TEAMS REMOTELY?

By and large, I don’t really feel like there are any significant challenges in the day-to-day leadership of remote teams. There are components of it which are slightly more complicated and require further planning. Two examples of this are 1:1 meetings and having tough conversations. 

1:1s with someone in a different time zone can be challenging as it often results in somebody having a late night or early morning. Also, sometimes travelling adds another layer of complexity. Still, a bit of careful planning can share the burden between both locations and make it a bit easier on everyone.

In a tough conversation, where I am giving constructive feedback, or correcting behaviour which is not aligned with Insentra’s values, it is more difficult as much of the body language I usually read to tell if someone has understood the message is hidden. At the beginning of a relationship with someone, this means I might also have to ask more questions to gauge how they are reacting. The simple solution for this has been a shift to video calls, and more and more, video calling is becoming the standard for me in all conversations.

Human interaction is another element. I think our UK and USA teams are closer than the Sydney Office team as a whole. When you’re in the office, you expect the person sitting next to you will be there for the rest of the week. When working remote, every human interaction is a blessing, and you drive a much more real conversation using the finite time you have. 

HOW DO YOU COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR TEAM? DO YOU OPT FOR EMAIL, IM, OR VIDEO MEETINGS? WHY?

For me, remote or otherwise, all of the communication methods are important, and each has its own value:

  • Email – is for when a formal distribution of a message is required, or documentation of agreement is needed 
  • IM (Teams) – is for brief discussions for quick interactions/answers 
  • IM (WhatsApp) – non-work-related discussions, meme sending, etc.  
  • Calls (Video) – any internal scheduled meeting 
  • Calls (Voice) – quick ad-hoc conversations 

Method of communication defines importance. It’s about the objectives we’re trying to achieve, respecting each other’s time (and time zone), and letting individuals choose how they spend their day. 

A lot of managing a remote team is the same – those strategies are the same: it doesn’t matter if there are miles or continents between us… if you view managing a team the same way in the office as remote, then you build those relationships the same way.

WHAT ARE YOUR THREE TOP TIPS ABOUT MANAGING A REMOTE TEAM?

  1. High quality communication. Take the time to clearly articulate the message: the why, how, what and what if, in a clear and concise format.
  2. Make yourself available. It’s too easy in a remote world to take an out of sight, out of mind approach. Report upwards about what’s going on, but also make sure you’re available to help people. Even when I’m at my busiest, the worst-case scenario you’ll get is “I’ll get back to you when I’m free.”
  3. Bring people together. Whether that’s a huddle, lunch, offsite… at least every 6 to 8 weeks, get some face time, solve a few busines outcomes but have a lot of banter.

DO YOU FIND THERE ARE DIFFERENT EXPECTATIONS IN A REMOTE TEAM, VERSUS AN IN-OFFICE TEAM?

Yes, it’s down to how people choose to work, and often personal time and professional time are interwoven. Personally, it took me 4 months to build a sustainable routine for managing motivation. I struggled to get motivated without interacting with people as I would in the office, instead I’d be pottering about and pushing work out to later in the day. Once I found a routine which worked for me, I found I was consistently putting out two to three times more work than I was in the office.

However, that changed once lockdown happened as there was no opportunity to have a balance of personal and professional. We almost slipped into a mentality of, well we can’t go out, might as well keep working because there’s nothing better to do.

YOU’VE RECRUITED FOR CREW REMOTELY. HOW DID YOU FIND THAT EXPERIENCE?

We take a much more casual approach. Sometimes, if a chat is going really well, it could go on for over 2 hours! I really want to get to know the people I’m hiring, and I’m checking if they’re culturally aligned with Insentra and if they can work effectively, remotely. I always want to have at least one face to face interview – either in person or video calling.


 


Lauren Rutter, Insentra’s Marketing Manager, looks after a team who have always been based in our Sydney office, as well as a remote crew member in the Philippines. The team is packed full of vibrant youth and balancing new and emerging trends in the workplace is an added twist to how Lauren needs to respond to her team’s needs, all from afar.

HOW DO YOU COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR TEAM? DO YOU OPT FOR EMAIL, IM, OR VIDEO MEETINGS? WHY?

We do not use email very often as a team. I think this is because 50% of the group are new to the workforce, so they haven’t developed that awful corporate habit of emailing about everything! Suppose I do put something in an email. In this case, it is usually because its instructional or sharing of best practice and process. I use email when I need the team to retain instructions and come back to it at a future date.  Day to day we have at least two video calls which make up our daily work in progress (WIP) meetings and if I need something urgently, I will call them.

We prioritise having face time with each other every day as I find it helps us stay accountable. Plus, I can interpret their body language to check if they are ok, or whether they’ve understood something – some of my team are very expressive! With a crew member based in the Philippines, video calls are also a great way to help him feel included.

The rest of the time, we use Teams chat. Either individually or as a group to keep each other updated with projects, and I use it to delegate tasks or follow-up the team throughout the day.  

HAVE YOU FOUND YOU’RE USING DIFFERENT STRATEGIES, OR OTHER MEDIUMS? IF SO, TELL US ABOUT THEM.

When we all started working from home back in early March I stuck with our regular meetings – 1:1s, daily WIPs and the weekly team meeting. After a couple of weeks, it became apparent the team required some additional help with prioritisation and time management. So, I made the decision to change things up by implementing a second WIP at the end of the day. 

In the morning we share our top 3/4 priorities for the day – these are the things which we must get done. We use this time to ask for help, and I’ll also ask the team what they need from me to be successful. In the afternoons, I’ll ask “What did you complete today?”  If tasks are not done, then we work together to help, or plan ways to overcome any obstacles the next day.  

Also, I use the end of day call to ask everyone “What was your highlight?”, this comes back to Insentra’s celebration value. I ask what the best part of their day was, professional or personal, and we celebrate it, which has helped keep everyone motivated.

Finally, I implemented a weekly lunch meeting, called ‘Lunch and Lols’, which is in the slot where Insentra would traditionally have our weekly BBQ at the Sydney office. The marketing team are a social bunch and really enjoyed catching up with everyone at the weekly BBQ. We have a lot of fun together and it is essential everyone takes a break and has an opportunity to chat non-work topics for an hour. Plus, we don’t want the banter levels to drop off!

DO YOU HAVE THREE TOP TIPS ABOUT MANAGING A REMOTE TEAM?

  1. Set clear expectations – from day 1 the Marketing team committed to video calls a minimum of once a day and to being responsive, such as replying to chat messages within a couple of hours. We also reviewed Insentra’s Stay on Track document so we could adapt those guidelines to our new way of working, such as leveraging the focus hours tool in Outlook to block out time to perform our tasks. Having everyone agree to this from the start gave me a platform to leverage when anyone went off track and needed to be held accountable.
  1. It’s not set and forget – these are very unique times and so we have to learn and adapt practices which don’t work in the virtual world. As the weeks pass and everyone got into their rhythm, how we operate as a team has adapted and it will continue to do so.
  1. You have a team of individuals – remote working isn’t for everyone, and your employee’s environments and routines at home are all different. Be mindful of this and give them ownership of how they want to manage their day. A couple of the Marketing team are most productive later in the day and in the evenings. However, at the same time, they know they need to be available and responsive to the whole business during work hours. Other members (myself included) need to get out and exercise rather than stay cooped up all day, and that’s fine too – in fact, it’s encouraged!

DO YOU FIND THERE ARE DIFFERENT EXPECTATIONS IN A REMOTE TEAM, VERSUS AN IN-OFFICE TEAM?

There’s more of a focus on communication and responsiveness because my team aren’t right behind me for questions or reminders – and this has to be balanced with trust. There’s this perception about working from home, which I hope has been broken by Covid-19 – that WFH means not really working. Lack of responsiveness is the primary driver of this. I have a young team, so it’s easy for people to assume they’re watching Netflix, scrolling TikTok or out and about. I assure anyone who thinks this – it is definitely not the case – if anything, our output has increased because everyone is motivated to support the business, our Partners and their clients as we navigate this challenging time together. 

The teams 1:1 meetings and mentoring sessions have become more of a priority too because we aren’t nipping for coffee or having a catch up over lunch. Just because we’re operating as a team, as a business, as an industry and as a country in a completely different way, this doesn’t mean time stands still or personal growth takes a back seat. Taking the time to develop and support each person, or just be an ear when they aren’t having such a great day is strengthening the relationships we’ve built and everyone in my team has taken a step forward professionally – it’s been gratifying to watch them grow. 

What stands out is how everyone collaborates and interacts with each other so much better. The team members who have always been remote, they are now as included as those who were in the office. I don’t think I was really aware of the extent of the disconnect until we were all in the same boat and how we maintain this cohesion as the Australian team moves into the ‘new normal’ is definitely going to be my next challenge!


 


Matthew Kaplan, our Managed Services Director, is a veteran of managing remote teams. Matt leads a team of 6 remote workers in the Philippines, and a team of 7 in our Sydney office. The Australian crew have always been able to work from home once or twice a week. To top it off, Matt has also had to onboard quite a few new crew members remotely – all as seamlessly as if it were in the office! Matt shared his experience with us.

HOW DO YOU COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR TEAM? DO YOU OPT FOR EMAIL, IM, OR VIDEO MEETINGS? WHY?

We’re very used to grabbing a coffee in the office and having a chat or having a walk around the block to connect with individuals and/or groups of people. The digital engagement is just not the same and can seem sterile.

However, I do think that it forces people to cut to the chase and get on with a dialogue, not spending too much time on pleasantries. We try very hard to keep the R U Ok/ How Are You chats going, checking in with the team to combat that.

All my communications are via video Teams calls. Cameras were mandatory initially, but this has now changed- people can choose to have the camera on or off. By having the camera on initially, it forced people to sit and be at their desk. But this prohibited the: “walkers” who like to be active and step while chatting. We have had some fun with the backgrounds or through dress up on Friday drinks, for example.

Initially, I thought everyone needed to be on point, always in the work zone and ready to accept a meeting call. But I realise now that home life has integrated into the work-life and when I call someone, they might have their baby on their lap or be in the kitchen or hanging up washing!

DO YOU HAVE THREE TOP TIPS ABOUT MANAGING A REMOTE TEAM?

  • Embrace your crew members home environment and support kids interrupting or partners dashing in and out of the background! ?
  • Check in with your team often, don’t be stalkerish, but often enough for them to know you’re thinking about them and you care.
  • Always be aware of time zone in the location you’re chatting to and greet people (good morning, evening in their zone).

YOU’VE MANAGED A TEAM REMOTELY, AND A TEAM IN OFFICE, AND NOW BOTH TEAMS ARE ENTIRELY REMOTE. HAS THERE BEEN ANY SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCES IN EITHER?

The team morale is lower remotely because the crew miss each other’s company. After all, we are a tight-knit team and enjoy having each other around. I think some individuals have struggled with time management and prioritisation of tasks. Working from home has pushed people to self-manage way more and mature in their own time management discipline, so this has been a good opportunity for development. Our daily huddles help with time management and prioritisation and keep people accountable. 

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