Managing Teams Remotely: The New Normal

Written by: Heidi Gilmore

These are unprecedented times. In our lifetimes, never have we experienced a pandemic like COVID-19. Today’s technology, modeling/forecasting capabilities, instant communication and tracking enabled us to see it rapidly make its way across the world. However, as we quickly learned; nothing could stop it. Today it is on every continent (except Antarctica) and in every country .

Almost instantly, companies with workers who could perform their jobs remotely were mandated to work from home. For many companies - and their employees - this was new. Even in 2020, with Internet access and many online services available, most people work in office buildings.

Making adjustments to work at home is in itself hard, but during these times even doubly so - there is the issue of a dedicated space to work (more challenging if suddenly your spouse, partner or roommate is also remote now), perhaps young children at home instead daycare or school. Aging parents or other relatives to care for. Our “new normal” is a big adjustment.

And all of this is further complicated by worrying about ordinary things we took for granted just a few weeks ago - like being able to buy toilet paper. Who ever would have thought that stockpiles of toilet paper would become your best retirement strategy! Or even that a toilet paper black market would spring up around it .

At CloudBees, we have been almost exclusively remote for 10 years, so that part of the “new normal” was not an adjustment for most of us. Because of this, we hope to pass on some tips and tricks we’ve learned through the years for helping manage teams through challenging times.

I sat down with Shawn Ahmed , senior vice-president and general manager of CloudBees’ Software Delivery Automation business and talked with him about managing remote teams. Shawn manages a product marketing team, a product business team, field enablement function along with business consulting and is responsible for the performance and revenue attainment goals of our Software Delivery Automation products (continuous integration, continuous delivery, feature flagging and build/test acceleration). We had a lively and fun discussion about the challenges of working remotely and tips for dealing with them.

Hi Shawn! Great to speak with you today. You have a lot of experience with leading remote teams and in a variety of executive roles. I wanted to speak with you today about leading teams in the new normal of the COVID-19 virus. Lots of people have just had to abruptly pivot and work from home.

Hi Heidi - this is a topic near and dear to my heart, so I am happy to speak with you today, too!

To start our discussion about managing remote teams, what is the most important skill for a leader of remote teams?

First of all, the most important skill for a leader during these times is empathy. People who aren’t used to working from home are going through a lot of stress/turmoil right now - they are dealing with lots of change. Not only being out of their usual office environment, but they may have significant others who are now also working from home. They may have to negotiate shared workspaces and juggle internet bandwidth with all the video conferences. For many, children are also home from school, attending their classes via online learning and, in-between, needing supervision, and for some aging parents.

Scenarios are also occurring where needs collide. Example: Your spouse needs to kick off a Jenkins job on a remote server and meanwhile your teenager starts a gigantic download of a 3-hour movie from Netflix - all at the same time. Or you have just settled into working on a project with a tight deadline and your five-year-old daughter walks into your home workspace and asks, “Where’s my lunch? I am hungry!”

Employees have stress over health issues, with COVID-19. Is their family going to be OK? Will they be OK? Are their elderly parents going to be OK? How do they get groceries and other essential errands without exposing themselves to the virus? Should we be wearing masks or not - and, if so, how do we get them ?

With all of these stressors, you can’t micromanage, you can’t force a rigid structure. You have to be outcome-focused and let the employee find his or her groove as to how to achieve the goals. You are there to gently guide, be supportive, provide the tools required to do the job. As a leader, you have to step back, let your teams find their way and groove. I usually think of this as a ‘setup’, which allows a team member to find their focus and flow. This is easier to manufacture and drive at an office, and home, especially during this time, you just can’t force it.

What about keeping the team connected? Helping them deal with feelings of isolation? Many folks have never worked from home before.

For those who aren’t used to working from home, as a leader you need to facilitate opportunities to be together, in an unstructured, social setting. Honestly, team members may feel guilty doing it on their own, almost as if they are doing something wrong. So, as a leader, it’s important that you bring the team together and lead by example so they don’t feel isolated. You’ve got to provide the opportunities to let off steam, laugh and celebrate together. There are some creative ways to do this which I have been doing all along but these days I see a ton of new creative things. Some of the regulars for my teams include:

  • BYOB on Friday afternoons, hosted online (Zoom, Hangout, Slack, GoToMeeting, Skype, etc.). NOTE: This is totally social and the only ground rule is, no work discussions. Video cameras must be on (unless bandwidth is an issue) - this makes it much more personal.

  • Office hours - a regular time where the team can jump on an online call together and either work together or be social, if they want to talk with colleagues or just hang out while they work. Video cameras on.

  • Coffee breaks - also a time to gather together; should be totally social. Again, everyone on video so it feels more “real.”

  • Invite other teams to attend, too. They (and you) will enjoy it!

On one of another team’s BYOB sessions, a couple of the team members had their fathers join. It was a blast! They are now talking about having the moms attend, next time.

Great suggestions. Are there any learnings you can share - maybe things you had to learn the hard way, about leading remote teams?

The biggest lesson learned is that working from home isn’t for everyone - and that’s OK.

Anonymity behind a camera is tough for some. Some people need face-to-face social connections and interactions. Working from home is tough - there aren’t tools that somehow magically replace the “realness” of colleagues in the office. The closest we can get is video calls. Anyway, there should be no guilt about not loving it - know thyself. Don’t feel guilt - these are exceptional times. Try to figure out ways to connect in safe and secure ways.

As a side note, apart from work, social opportunities are still important. I was supposed to have breakfast with a long-time friend this past weekend. Obviously that wasn’t going to work - restaurants aren’t open and social distancing makes it tough, anyway. Instead, we took our “breakfast” to Google Hangout. We met online at the time we had agreed to, each had our breakfast with us and we ate and caught up. We weren’t in a real restaurant, but it was a blast. And it enabled us to still connect.

Anyway, any final thoughts in closing, Shawn, about how to lead during these times?

Some other things to keep in mind, respect time zones - especially now. Be sensitive to where team members are located. No before- or after-hours calls. This can be challenging if, for example, a team has members in the UK, Boston and San Francisco. That’s coordinating calls across multiple time zones. But with some careful planning, you can schedule for a time that can work. For example, 11am ET- which isn’t horrible for both UK and San Francisco times. If there is no common time - for example, Asia and the U.S. - then alternate, with one timezone having a call at a convenient time during normal business hours and then the next call being at an off-time for them, but convenient for others. That way, no one gets stuck with off-hours calls all the time.

Finally, make sure teams have access to the essential tools they need to work remotely - whatever they may be. Certainly tools like Slack, Zoom, Hangout, GoToMeeting or Skype are critical in order to remain connected.

Good advice on so many fronts - thanks, Shawn!

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