Building Remote Esprit de Corps

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BLUF

Creating and maintaining a team in remote environment is challenging. Finding leaders who can adapt to circumstances we’ve had over the last year to effectively build disparate teams and missions, even more so. In establishing mutual trust to work as teams, we must find remote camaraderie – helping people belong when there is no meeting space.

Background

A year into remote work, we’ve sorted many unknowns. Challenges to understanding distributed access at scale, Zoom meetings, and a new interpretation of work/ life balance have taken the fore in leadership’s conversations (also likely on Zoom). However, without the dynamics and interplay of a physical office, how do you establish/ build/ lead a team remotely?

Here are a few considerations from my experience:

1. Make sure it’s clear who is in charge by putting your people first. The prime measure of a leader is how people grow under their care. Be concerned about getting the job done by finding the people who can take on the responsibility, growing those people to fuller capacity than previously seen. It’s not having a leader to garner face time with those in higher positions; rather highlighting the work done, relaying it and making certain it stands of its own accord. The energy generated in people recognised for their work is contagious, and people want to extend themselves to meet challenges and reach further.  Doing this requires someone who can see value in the people they lead, taking responsibility for their care and further development.

2. Plan for expected execution. Lots of people have ideas, some of them good. What is often missing is how to bring the ideas to fruition, requiring time and vision to sort out the elements and resources required to get the plan in order. Setting the foundation for sustainable, consistent delivery requires not only the idea and planning, but the will and encouragement for yourself and others to carry through on it. Finding the means to make it happen, especially when no one is physically present. Sounds simple, and it is. Yet still rare to find.

3. Create shared principles and values within the team. Some of them are more strategic, such as the mission statement, or respect and radical candour. Some is the day-to-day etiquette for communication methods and norms such as when/ how to respond. In all cases you need to create open communication. When decisions are made, especially in senior positions, it’s done with or without communicating understanding to those whom the decision affects. In many cases there are aspects (resource, political etc.) not visible to others, but affecting the decisions. Those in the trenches lacking understanding of less visible influences may affect the future offerings presented. Being clear with the reasons for a decision makes a huge difference. The ideal is to have people understand and take care of things without needing blessing, which only works if they understand your decision making parameters, knowing when what they are doing should be acceptable and feeling comfortable seeking further guidance.

4. Shared rituals for the team. Partly we have daily/ weekly roundtables or briefings serving to provision kudos or (preferably) opening the books on what is ongoing and challenges requiring aid. It serves to keep everyone on the same page, but we need to build camaraderie without a water cooler. To this end, we use a Question of the Day every morning in my team. We use Symphony as a static group communication means, though there are plenty of other tools available. Part of knowing people’s value is knowing who they are outside their work function. Key is keeping it consistent and open to everyone in the group. People will have their own comfort levels and after watching the dynamic may decide to join in later. We just have to ensure it keeps up so there is a later.

5. We are all in this together. We have different teams, filling different roles, in different locations, accomplishing different parts of the same mission. It’s up to the leader to bring the different parts together for a unified purpose – so everyone knows and feels how their role contributes to something larger. This ties up all the other components, taking groups of disparate people to create what truly can be considered a team.

6. Maintain excellent project management. Make certain everyone has the necessary tools, understanding of the processes, habitualised practices (such as handovers) to create consistency. Not every team will have a daily routine or process, so you create a routine to fall back to. Partly to create other shared rituals when not proximate, partly to know who has the baton in the various areas of concern for the team. Having a chief of staff or PMO in this role helps.

7. Periodic off-sites (travel permitting). Normally, I’d say the lead needs to visit the other office locations; however if there is no office, people need to be brought in. Not saying you need to bring all hundred people from across the globe, but the lead may need to have regional off-sites letting everyone come together. There are things that are very difficult to approximate virtually.

8. Be honest in self-reflection and acknowledgement. If a message or task fails, the blame falls somewhere between the sender and the receiver. As a leader, the failure may not be your fault, but still is your responsibility. Taking time to reflect and acknowledge your part in the process provides greater perspective in moving forward.

Looking at fully remote teams such as Automattic (who create and maintain WordPress, the platform that hosts this blog) you see the possible in working disparately. To create or lead such teams, you have to find different ways to bring your people together and find the resonance to keep them together. At the end of the day you are building depth in trust with people you may never meet.

-scl

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