How I'm adapting to manage a remote team

Andy sitting in the Brightec office smiling as he thinks about leading a remote team

Like many, I have been thrust into the completely new situation of leading our team remotely.

Social Distancing means I don’t see any of our 12 staff face to face, only ever via video or voice calls. I wasn’t prepared or expecting such a dramatic change in the way I complete my role. Suddenly leading our team wasn’t as natural or as easy for me, I’ve had to make quick changes to ensure the good ship Brightec continued to maintain a steady course.

We were already used to the practicalities of working remotely. Before COVID-19 we had been working as a team remotely on Fridays. Grabbing a few things from the office ensured that everyone could pretty much continue their normal work as before. Individual-work for many actually became easier, but team-work has become harder. Specifically working collaboratively and cohesively.

I’m a relational person, so up till now, I have led by being present with the team. I’ve been around to listen in to conversations, wander around and see how people are doing and generally keep a finger on the pulse by being there. Suddenly that is no longer possible and without quick and significant change I felt I would lose the ability to lead our fantastic team.

A few things we’ve changed in the last few weeks:

Structured Communications

We have a mature, autonomous, trustworthy team (a team of adults!). I can be confident they are doing the right thing, given the right information. Previously much of my communication with the team would be very informal; chats over lunch or on the way to Sainsburys, over breakfast on a Monday or just sitting at someone's desk. The only formal communication was a quarterly presentation outlining where we were financially and setting the direction for the upcoming period. When we moved to full-time remote, I realised that communication in many situations had to become more structured.

Here are a few of the changes we have made to communication in the last few weeks:

  • Weekly Monday Briefings - these are a chance for me to present my thoughts on where we are going and how we will ride out the current storm.
  • Twice Per Week Programme Meetings - these used to be just on Mondays, but now we have a mid-week chance for the product team to feedback to me how projects are going and the state of the diary.
  • Daily Standups - previously important, these continue to be an easy way to understand what - and how - the team is doing.
  • Coaching - we’ve ensured our coaches maintain regular and consistent contact with our team through this period.
  • New Business Standup - previously an informal conversation, now happening twice per week via video.

Utilise Your Team

Almost immediately when we moved to work from home I realised that the way I had been managing was unsustainable. Up till that point I had input into pretty much all the projects and client work. I’d help with the direction, do some of the client comms, help with the reporting and generally contribute to the product and project management. I wasn’t micromanaging, it was just how the company had developed.

We were able to quickly shift so that others in the team could take responsibility for significant areas of the business. This included outbound sales and clients projects, but also other areas of the business. These people are already doing better at the roles than I did and I’m grateful that this situation forced my hand to make the change.

Formalise the Informal

We have an exceptional relational team. We genuinely get on and enjoy each other's company, it's one of the things that makes Brightec Brightec. The challenge therefore in these unusual and difficult times is how we maintain this culture without being around each other. I don’t think we’ve totally cracked this yet but one of the things we can do is make time in the diary for the informal. For us this looks like:

  • Making time within the scheduled/formal meetings to catch up as a group. Zoom/Hangouts are great tools but it is hard to have an unstructured conversation with a larger video chat. We’ll therefore mostly have a chair-person for the meeting who might open with a question like ‘How were people’s weekends?’. They might need to pick an individual to get things rolling or involve someone who has remained quiet, so it is important to have one person to make this happen.
  • Have open video calls - this is something we’re experimenting with but in some situations it is nice to have a video call open at points in the day that people can join, listen into, contribute or not. They are opt-in and not required and informally organised.
  • Lunchtime activities - we have one person (Rhys) who loves games and has brilliantly taken it upon himself to organise lunchtime online games (see this post). Not everyone can make it and they don’t necessarily happen every day, but super helpful to keep informal communication happening across the team.
  • Happy Track - as it is much harder to read how an individual is feeling, we’ve created a Slackbot that asks our staff on a daily basis the simple question ‘How are you today?’. Currently, it logs this to a spreadsheet for review but the hope is we can turn this into a product that companies can use to trigger a conversation with an individual who might be having a hard time. It is also helpful to understand how the team as a group is feeling at certain points in a company's history. If this is something you are interested in trialling, please get in touch.
  • Friday Afternoon Hangout - I’ve started hosting an optional Friday afternoon video call for anyone who wants to join. I’m not sure I’ve cracked the format yet, but it is a 30min catchup call to see how people’s weeks have gone and their plans for the weekend.

Should We Keep Our Studio?

In this season I’ve heard lots of talk from leaders of companies asking why they have an office when people work so well remotely. I can tell you at the moment, I have no plans to ditch our office. Working collaboratively with our clients is one of our biggest selling points, it is why we have UK developers and one of the reasons why we work from an office 4 days of the week. Deep collaboration is simply not possible remotely, and we have no plans to change this.

Perhaps even more importantly our office is a place of refuge for many of our team, an organised, structured environment to get on with work. It is a place of relationship and friendship, somewhere we get to work with our friends to achieve great things for our clients. We enjoy working together, we enjoy each other's company. So once this period is over and we’re allowed to return, you’ll find us eating, laughing and most important working together, it is who Brightec are and we’re not about to change that.

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