Some companies have embraced location-independent work and it has become a part of everyday life, without a single reference to “remote” or “virtual”.
On the other hand, some organisations have found themselves making a very deliberate and fast transition to “remote work”, “flexible work” or “agile working”, which all involve working with others with whom we don’t share the same physical space.
Throughout this transition, how can L&D practitioners best prepare managers to embrace this new way of working?
In this article, I’ll be guiding you through the first steps in designing a development programme to support those managing a remote team for the first time.
Step 1: Get yourself ready
1) How will culture affect remote work?
Working remotely with others often involves changing the way in which we communicate as individuals and/or as a team. Before training managers in new ways of communicating with their teams, you need to make sure that the methods you introduce are a good fit for your company’s culture.
For example, you might be concerned that during the transition to remote working, team members begin to lose touch with each other, become unaware of the progress of the work and even start to feel unable to ask for help.
One solution to this is to make communication more deliberate by sharing not just the practical information we need to do our work, but also our work progress, decisions made (especially those made in an ad-hoc manner) and even our thought-process.
To help with this ongoing communication, you might want to introduce “Working Out Loud”, sharing the work in ways that are helpful to ourselves and/or others. Practically, this will involve posting regularly on a collaboration platform or a project management tool.
Communication processes like Working Out Loud will encourage regular and open communication, and can therefore amplify an organisation’s or team’s culture. It is therefore essential that, before we design programmes to help managers embrace and champion open communication, we need to know whether our culture will support or hinder this move.
To help you do this, you can ask yourself some questions:
- What are the norms in your organisation around sharing information?
- Do departments work in silos, do people keep their work to themselves?
- Is there a culture of keeping what happens in meetings secret?
- Does information flow informally or formally?
- Are people used to sharing the work before it is “done”?
And finally, do people trust each other? Just as open communication around the work and its progress can help to align the work, it can also be used to monitor and control in a low-trust environment.
2) What technology will be available?
It’s not the same to get work done together in a dark, open plan office with constant interruptions, as it is to collaborate in a bright space that we can adapt to our needs as they emerge. In a similar way, communication in virtual teams will be affected by the environment the team works in: the technology and tools.
Before kicking off a remote team management programme, you’ll need to be very clear as to the technology available to managers and their teams.
- What equipment will they have access to?
- What locations will they be working from?
- What tools will be available to teams?
- Will teams be able to choose their tools?
For example, your organisation might want to restrict written communication to email, for security reasons. In that case, you’ll need training on effective email practices.
Or you might be a small organisation keen to embrace new technology, and part of your managers’ jobs might be to choose the best tools for their team.
Or you might be already using Office 365 in your organisation, in which case, it might be a good idea to include training that enables managers to distinguish between the different tools available in that ecosystem, to help them choose the most appropriate ones for their team.
3) What support will people get?
Finally, before you develop your training programme, you’ll need to be very clear about the kind of support that remote workers will get from the organisation. How will they obtain help if their equipment stops working? During what hours will they be able to contact support for help with software or access to the company’s systems? What kind of working spaces will be available to people? For example, is there budget to cover membership of a coworking space?
If people are expected or prefer to come into the office to work, will there be suitable spaces for them?
If people are working from home, will the company contribute towards the costs of updating their broadband connection, to enable quality video meetings?
STEP 2: Content
Once you’re clear on how remote work will be impacted by culture and the tech and support that will be available, it’s time to look at the content of the programme.
While the content of the programme will need to be in line with your organisation’s set up and culture and your ongoing leadership development strategy, in my experience it will also need to cover most of the areas below.
- How comfortable are individuals with sharing their own thinking process?
- What communication methods/tools do they prefer?
The answers to these questions are not just important for managers to be able to design their work in a way they find useful, but also to avoid imposing their own preferences on the rest of the team.
The differences in how we approach our work and our communication will be heightened when we work apart from others.
An overview of how people differ in their approach to teamwork, hierarchy, process and structure can be useful especially for managers of new teams, global teams and cross-departmental teams.
Essentially, we’re still working with people. And we’re probably already using technology to get the work done. What will need to change in how we work. Also, what will remain the same?
Training on technology
Even if employees have been using technology for a while, don’t assume that everyone knows how to use the tools productively.
Make sure you cover the basics of how to use collaboration tools, including how to turn notifications on and off, including those by email.
If your teams have access to meeting applications/platforms, make sure they know how to use them and troubleshoot.
Working Out Loud
To overcome distance, it might be necessary to adopt a “working out loud” rhythm, whereby team members share their work in a way that is as useful to themselves as to others. This will include managers, who might not be used to sharing much of their own work with the team.
In addition, they’ll need to get used to scanning through messages and avoid feeling like they need to stay on top of every single conversation the team has online, or else they might well feel overburdened. [For more on this, see The Dangers of Working Out Loud.]
Work-home interference (if managers are going to be working from home)
In the same way as virtual team leaders run the risk of becoming invisible, they also run the risk of feeling like they need to be available 24 hours a day. Setting boundaries and expectations of availability should be covered during training.
For those starting to work from home, an awareness of how home-life might interfere with work, and how work might interfere with personal and home-life will be necessary, as well as suggesting strategies for identifying and dealing with these interferences.
Planning for spontaneity
Introduce leaders to the concept of planning and enabling spontaneous encounters, as they can help team members feel connected to each other.
Having “virtual coffees” (video meetings where team members turn up to have a break from their work and reconnect with team members informally) or team sessions where microphones (and even webcams!) are kept open while carrying on with the work, can prevent a feeling of isolation or disconnection from the team.
Drawing up a Team Charter
What are the questions that managers and team members need to ask themselves in order to agree on how they will use technology to communicate, collaborate and share information?
Even if the team is strong and stable, it’s worth agreeing and writing down (and revisiting often) how team members will know others are available, how often they will update each other about their work, how regularly they will meet, etc.
STEP 3: Choose appropriate delivery methods
Working in a virtual team often involves dealing with different forms of communication, so the most effective way of training managers is to use a range of delivery methods so that people can experience the advantages and disadvantages of each medium.
Expose managers to both video and audio-only meetings, as they both require slightly different tactics to make them work.
For discussions, use platforms where you can easily create breakout rooms. Zoom is currently the favourite amongst all those working in the online space. You can use the time with the whole group to set up the exercises, deliver content or pull out the main learning points and later set up breakout rooms for smaller groups that can have meatier discussions or carry out exercises.
Technical training around technology can also be done efficiently online, with people at their computers experimenting with the tools as they go along.
If managers are likely to hold online meetings from home with clients and people outside their team or organisation, it’s worth covering the changes they can make to their surroundings to maintain a professional image.
Asynchronous communication: Asynchronous communication forms an essential part of virtual teams (indeed, if we consider the role that email plays in knowledge workers’ working life, we can safely say that it plays an essential part in all our working lives!)
Depending on the nature of the team’s work and the technology available, teams might communicate through collaboration platforms like Yammer or Slack, or through a project-management tool like Trello, Planner, or Basecamp. Learning to be comfortable using these platforms doesn’t just involve learning how to use the technology. That’s the easy part.
The difficulty comes in sharing our thought process, in asking for help in a public forum (albeit one restricted to the team), in having to communicate where we are at each stage of our task/project in case anyone else needs to know.
Those working in virtual teams need to make their work visible, to compensate for the inability in the virtual space to overhear others’ conversations or to see what someone’s working on at their desk.
The best way of training managers to use these tools is to immerse them in the ecosystem and provide them with feedback.
Generate discussions and set collaboration tasks so that they can experience the advantages and limitations of the medium, the process of working out loud and even how to tackle disagreements and resolve conflict.
Colocated time: Use the time “in the flesh” with the group to have those large group discussions that are difficult to have online and to share thoughts they wouldn’t want to see in writing.
On-demand modules: Don’t forget that the workforce will need training on the technology available. Even if Yammer has been around for ages, you can’t assume that people know how to navigate the platform. How do they turn notifications on and off? What are the best ways of making sure individuals are alerted to your message?
Short videos that people can play on demand are a great way of helping them make the best use of technology. (But don’t forget to help them do this by making sure they schedule the time during work to do this.)
Use your own experience
One of the best places to start diagnosing what training managers will need, is your own experience.
If you are leading a remote team, what obstacles do you encounter every day? As team member, what behaviours from your manager or team leader help you to do your work to the best of your abilities?
What practices have you adopted that are working well for you and what are the conditions that enabled you to adopt them?
What’s already working within your organisation that you would like to see adopted more widely?
And finally, talk to your managers, regardless of where they are, and ask them what would help them to forget about the “remote” in “remote team”. It will be a valuable exercise in virtual collaboration.
I'm the Director of Virtual not Distant, a company specialised in helping teams and organisations transition to a remote set-up through workshops, coaching, consultancy and facilitation. I host the 21st Century Work Life podcast and Management Café.
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