Are you new to leading a team that’s working from home? 

Most managers don’t realize there are actually TWO learning curves when it comes to working from home (WFH) as part of a remote or distributed team. 

The first learning curve is obvious. As an individual, how will you adapt to working from home? There’s the tech itself, getting your workspace set up right, figuring out how to handle distractions, etc. Depending on where you live in the world, you’re probably between a few days to a few weeks into WFH and well on your way to figuring out what works (and doesn’t!) for you.

Then there’s the second learning curve, which is often disregarded entirely. How will your team adapt to working from home? How does the culture you’ve had in the office translate to a distributed environment? And how, as a manager or leader, do you lead a team that you can’t see? Sure, operating in a distributed environment for a week or two may seem like no big deal. But when days stretch into weeks, and weeks into months – you’ll realize that you’re losing people and traction if you haven’t acted intentionally to create the culture your distributed team needs. 

I’ve spent the better part of a decade leading remote and distributed teams and I’ve seen the good, the bad, and certainly the ugly. To be honest – I made a lot of mistakes along the way. So, in the hopes of shortening the second learning curve for you, here’s what I’ve learned. 

The top thing you can do to successfully transition your team to a WFH or remote culture, even if it’s completely new to your company or you’ve been reluctant, is to lead virtual meetings that still satisfy our need for human connection.

Do a ‘check-in’ at the start of each meeting. When you meet together in person, you get the chance to see folks in the hallway before or as you settle into the room. It gives you a chance to connect, to catch wind of any big news, and to simply take a moment to recognize the human sitting across from you. 

When it comes to meeting online, there’s a tendency to jump straight into execution mode. When you’re leading the meeting, it’s easy to think “okay, everyone’s here. This is our agenda for today, we’ve got 45 minutes, let’s go!” Then 15 minutes into your meeting someone gets snappy and you have no clue why, or an update gets shared that would have entirely changed the course of the meeting had you known about it prior. Set aside time for people to check-in with each other. It only takes 5-10 minutes and it can boost the mood of the entire experience for everyone involved. 

The most effective way I’ve seen this done is as a two-part process.

  • First, pause at the beginning of a meeting to ask ‘are there any important updates before we get started?’ This ought to flesh out those ‘whoa, that changes things…’ moments so you can adjust your agenda at the start instead of at the end. Most often, this comes into play if your team is doing a lot of work with external entities where changes on the client or vendor side can go unknown to members of your internal team until the news gets around. Of course, asking this question is a good habit for in-person meetings as well, but it’s downright critical once you’ve shifted to a virtual environment.
  • Second, toss out a question and call on each person to share their responses to the prompt in a few sentences. As the leader of the meeting, this is where you want to be ready to call an audible and have a few ideas up your sleeve. Try to read the team a bit – what do they need right now? Is it a moment to gain perspective and find some gratitude? Is it a floor to celebrate a big win or laugh a little? Certainly in the case of COVID-19 closures, there are plenty of distractions and concerns that might need to be voiced. Give them a chance to connect through conversation. Here are a few of my favorite prompts:  
  1. What’s on your mind today (work or non-work for that matter!)? 
  2. What’s one small thing you’re excited about?   
  3. What’s something X you’ve tried recently?…where X is a core value of your organization. For example, our company’s core values included ‘be brave’ so we’d often ask ‘what’s something brave you’ve tried recently?’
  4. What’s one funny thing that’s happened to you since we last talked?
  5. What’s something you’re grateful for right now?
  6. What’s the first cartoon you can remember watching? What’s your favorite ride at an amusement park? Etc… 

You’d be surprised by how much perspective, empathy, and camaraderie can be created by sharing responses to these types of questions. Not convinced? Give it a chance. All it costs you is a few minutes at the start of a call and it’s one of the most effective ways to build a remote culture.

Now about the logistics. Carve out time on the official agenda so the team realizes this is intentional and that it’s not cutting into the scheduled discussion. Add it to the agenda (literally!) and include a timeframe just like you would other topics. I usually just call it ‘catch up / welcome’ and set an expectation that we’ve got about 5-10 minutes to go around and ‘check-in.’ Also, rotate the order for responding to the questions. Don’t always make Johnny go first. 

Technology has made working from home possible; Coronavirus has made it a necessity to keep business running. Don’t assume that running a team remotely will be exactly like it is in the office. Engaging your team in a virtual environment is a skillset that must be practiced. 

I challenge you to set aside 5-10 minutes out of your next meeting for human connection. It may be simple, but it’s the first step in building a remote culture you actually want to be a part of!

About the Author…

Lauren Grimshaw helps business leaders create traction so they can achieve their ambitious goals. Her specialties include creating clarity, developing execution strategies, and overcoming obstacles through targeted action. Lauren uses a combination of best practices in design thinking, agile methodologies, coaching, and innovation leadership to drive change that really sticks.