Successfully leading a remote team

Successfully Lead a Remote Team

We got to spend some time with Andrew Murphy, a Melbourne based leader and consultant who not only leads teams but also delivers personalised mentoring, courses, and workplace training to transform technical experts into technical leaders.

Having experienced firsthand the challenges involved when inheriting a remote team, and having made mistakes along the way, he’s well placed to share his hard-won insights and thoughts.

The new challenges of leadership in lockdown.

COVID introduced a whole bunch of new challenges for all of us. But one of the things that’s not discussed or considered is leaders moving into leadership roles, inheriting teams, which is tough enough to do when you’re in the office. But it brings a whole set of new challenges when working remotely. That’s the stuff that we wanted to unpack. 

I asked Andrew what his perspective was on this situation

“It's all the challenges that exist in-person plus a whole heap more. So whatever the challenges are with onboarding yourself onto a new job as a leader or not a leader, plus the challenges of onboarding yourself as a leader, plus the challenges of being remote, all together in a big mismatch, it's honestly can be quite overwhelming if you don't sit down and build strategies to tackle all of these things.”

Being more than just words in a Slack message.

We’re communicating digitally more than ever, Zoom, Meets, Slack, Team, Email, choose your poison, which means we run the risk of just becoming words.

“A lot of these strategies and these challenges we're going to talk about are all aimed at turning you from those words in slack to a fully-rounded human being and the same for the people you're working with. “

In the world of recruiting we get exposed to a lot of the dialogue around work. Last year we heard lots of debate around working 100% remotely; “We should be able to work remotely and work wherever we want to work.” 

But what we’re seeing now, after nearly two years of lockdown, is the other side of the debate saying, “We’re craving human contact. We’re craving human interaction.” The thrill of working from home after the first few months has well and truly worn off. We want to see people. We want to see our friends again.

Non-transactional conversations.

The risk of all this remote dialogue of course is that all we talk about is work. Or as Andrew calls it, “transactional dialogue”.

“It was something that I started observing. One of the things I realized was we’re losing what used to be called the “water cooler moments.” Those things which you all stood around just talking about things. But it’s not just water cooler moments. It’s not just going to get coffee. Things like meetings are scheduled now. Everybody turns up, well, we’re in Australia. So everybody turns up at two or three minutes past. 

Then when the meeting ends, because you’ve got another meeting straight afterwards, everybody just closes their Zoom or their Meets. You lose these things at the beginning and ends of meetings that you used to have where people used to have chats and discussions. How’s your dog doing? How’s your family doing? These things are what I’ve started calling non-transactional conversations to contrast them with what we seem to be doing now in the world of work, which is having these very transactional conversations. When you speak to somebody, it’s because you want something, because you want to get something from them, because you want to tell them something or give them something.

It’s a very transactional way of communicating because we’ve lost these moments of non-transactionality. Part of what we need to do in the world of remote work is to bring those non-transactional conversations back because they’re incredibly important.

We can’t afford to lose those human moments.

These are the very human moments, they’re the moments where you go out for lunch as a team on a Friday, or where you go to the nearest coffee shop and someone gets a donut and someone gets pain au chocolat. Then you have the debate on the way back about which is best and where you get the best donuts from, these are the very human moments that create connection within teams.

And as Andrew pointed out, these are also the moments that allow us to build trust with each other. And trust that makes the transactional conversations work, and they make them so much easier.

Work from home VS Live at work.

We all recognise the importance of separating our home and work lives, but in lockdown that’s a really challenging thing to do. Andrew had some thoughts on this;

“This is the topic I thought a lot about in the early pandemic, this difference between working from home and living at work because there’s actually a huge amount of differences between those two.

One really important thing is we lose what I call transitional activities. So if you think in the “before” times, we used to commute to work. That was this really great transitional activity that got us out of the home life and into the work brain, and got us out of the work brain and into home life.

But literally my bedroom is four meters in that direction. It’s not a compelling commute. It’s not something which makes me … It gives me the time to switch my brain around and to go from home mode to work mode. So one thing we’re definitely missing is these transitional moments.

One thing I used to advise people to do early in the pandemic is just to walk around the block before they start work. So get up. Have your coffee, have your breakfast. Leave, walk around the block, come back in and go to the work desk. That transitional moment of going okay, I’m in work mode now.

At the end of the day, doing the opposite. Leaving, walking around the block, coming back in, never going back to your work desk again. Just building these stages of this, I’m now at work. I’m now at home. Even though you’re physically coexisting in the same place I think is incredibly important.”

Camera off for non-transactional dialogues.

Leaving the camera on for work meetings is definitely more mentally taxing. Especially if you’re on your 8th Zoom call of the day. So Andrew definitely encourages that for some of those social activities, turn the video off. Work meetings & important conversations, then yes video should be on. Because we lose so much data, so much information about the other person if the video is off. But to build rapport, to build trust, then give people that choice. Because it gives introverts a chance to engage in a non-challenging way.

Giving people that option to virtually step out from being fully engaged is important for work social activities.

It’s perhaps just being a bit kinder to each other under what are trying circumstances for all of us.

Andrew made the point that right now in Melbourne, for example. Schools are closed. So lots of people have kids at home. So expecting them to be working the eight hours a day, 9:00 til 5:00 that they used to do six months ago, and be responsive immediately to any requests for communication, is just completely unreasonable. So we need to be a lot more accommodating of that as well.

Leadership is 50% communication skills.

A big drum that Andrew bangs consistently in leadership is that 50% of leadership is communication. Just learning and understanding how to express what you want to express in a compelling way, in an understandable way, in an efficient and effective way. It is the thing that makes you a better leader. Whether that’s a team lead, a project lead, a discipline lead, a CEO or whatever it is, communication is just incredibly important.

We asked Andrew, “If you were going to give someone three things to think about & to start planning before they move into that new role, what would they be?”

Three-dimensional relationships.

“One of the first things they teach you in leadership school is having one-to-ones. They teach you about the value of what I call one-dimensional one-to-ones. So this is the person you report into and your direct reports, like one dimensional, up and down and that’s baseline. That’s something that you just have to do. If that isn’t being checked off, then you just need to do it.

More experienced leaders focus on two-dimensional one-to-ones, where they’re going up and down, but they’re also spending time building relationships with their peers. Which is incredibly important when you onboard yourself into a new job, even more so remotely is this two dimensional building of relationships.

But I actually encourage people to think three-dimensionally to not only build relationships with their boss and their direct reports and the people underneath them, not only to build relationships with their peers.

So if you’re head of software dev, to also build relationships with head of design and head of product and head of people. But to actually go into their direct report lines a little bit. Obviously discuss this with your peers, but to actually break those barriers. I have a lot of conversations with my peer’s direct reports. I have a fortnightly one-hour session, where we just talk about product strategy and product design and the interface between that and software dev. Even though this person is not even in my reporting line, I’m building trust.”

Earn trust.

“In the vein of building trust, another thing is to make sure that you build trust with your direct reports. I knew coming into a previous role that I needed to restructure. I knew that I needed to change reporting lines. I knew that I needed to move some people out of leadership that were currently in leadership. I had to make big, big changes.

But if I’d have come in and done that on week three, I wouldn’t have built up the trust with the team for them to believe that the reasons I was doing this was in their best interests. I needed them to know that the changes I was making were not because I was coming in with external ideas of what the best thing was. I wanted to impose what was best for me.

I wanted them to know that what I was doing was the best for them. So that takes a focus on building trust with my team. Also as arrogant as what I just said sounded, there is also the other side of that, which is I could have been wrong. Fundamentally, I could have been wrong. So by building trust with the team, what that also allows them to do is to go, “Andrew, you’re wrong. This is why you’re wrong, and I can assess that.” Whereas if I come in and don’t listen and don’t build trust, and don’t give them the autonomy to tell me they think I’m wrong, then I could miss something completely, which it’s just deadly to a new leader. It is making a change too soon without all the information.”

Influence the thought leaders.

“The other thing really is to have a strong stretch of time where you’re focused on learning. This is implicit in what I said about the building trust bit. It’s incredibly important that when you join a new team, especially remotely, you focus on learning in your first month or two because going back to those non-transactional conversations we talked about earlier, a lot of those non-transactional conversations are social.

They’re about building connections with people. But a lot of them are also the tidbits you hear about particular projects or the glances that you get in a discussion.

When you’re making change in an organization, the people you need to influence are not the people leaders, they’re the thought leaders. Sometimes they’re the same. Most of the time they’re not. In software development, it is so easy to find who the thought leaders are.

Just go in there and break production. Watch and see who everybody swivels their seats around and looks at for help when you’ve just broken production. Those are the thought leaders outright. So understanding who those thought leaders are and understanding what influence they have in the organization is incredibly important. That’s hard to do remotely. So give yourself a month or two to just understand what’s going on, to focus on learning.”

So there you have it, Andrew’s 3 tips for inheriting a remote team and giving yourself the best chance possible of still having one whenever we get back to the office.

There’s some common themes that run through this dialogue. Trust, listening, learning and having empathy for others. On top of the technical skills you already possess, these traits can set you up for success.

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