Managing remote startup teams in a crisis

Managing remote teams can be challenging at the best of times, but add in the impact of a national emergency and it becomes even more demanding. The last month has seen the largest and most rapid transition of business moving from traditional office settings to remote work in history. Offices are dark, silent and closed.

Some startup folks were well prepared for the transition, while others hurriedly set up makeshift offices at their dining table and try to mute the sound of barking dogs and family activity. While people grapple with their own fears and uncertainty about the coming weeks, we have moved into the age of remote work – it is no longer a place, but a thing, and a permanent shift for many.

For many startups, work is independent of a physical location, deploying real-time collaboration tools like Slack and Zoom while prioritising the conversations in which they actively participate as their norm. But now in response to the crisis, many organisations need to use a combination of tools to substitute for in-person experiences, and it needs clear leadership to combine the technology, cultural changes and personal impact.

The biggest challenge is that of ‘virtual distance’ – the sense of emotional and psychological detachment that builds up over time when team are apart and become over-reliant on technology to mediate their relationships. Virtual distance changes the way people relate to each other, and startup leaders need to create a communication environment where team members feel emotionally and psychologically connected to one another.

Video calls simply cannot replace face-to-face, and they are surprisingly physically demanding – is anyone else more drained at the end of an hour on Zoom than in a normal meeting like I am? Maybe we feel tricked into the idea of being together, and then we realise we’re not, and there is an emotional deflation when the zoom call ends.

It’s easier being in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence, than in the constant presence of each other’s absence with occasional remote contact. Our minds process so much context and information in face-to-face encounters, the nuances of body language and side interactions, that meeting on video is being a kind of blindfolded. We sense too little and can’t imagine enough, that single deprivation requires a lot of conscious effort of focus and concentration.

The biggest current challenge facing startup leaders is getting isolated individuals to work together as a cohesive unit. Remote teams can’t be treated like collocated teams, where project status, risks and problems are discussed in team meetings, at lunch and over coffee. A leader’s top priority is establishing clear and aligned objectives, as over time the team grows increasingly less effective and productive.

Distance does not make the heart grow fonder, rather it allows room for isolation to seep into the psyche and assumptions to grow and, frequently, human nature and the human mind will naturally create negative assumptions about people or situations.

So what are the key leadership communication strategies and tactics for the current crisis to keep individuals connected, help maintain their well-being and try to keep momentum and productivity in your team?

1. Keep it real In times of crisis, no one wants to hear the sugar-coated version of where things stand. Now is the time to cut to the chase. Imagine that every person reading your email or listening to your conference call is going to assume every word you’re saying may be bullshit, so drop some hard facts. Set a tone of openness and transparency but reality, so that your communications are well-received and effective, and have impact.

2. Establish structured daily check-ins This could take the form of a series of one-on-one calls if your team work independently from each other, or a team call if they work collaboratively. The important feature is that the calls are regular and predictable, and that they are a forum in which employees know that they can consult with you, and that their concerns and questions will be heard.

Communication is a two-way street. While team members need clear, direct instructions from the leader, you also need to know what each team member is up to and whether meaningful progress is being made. To achieve this a feedback process should be established in each check-in.

Encourage your folks to ask you for clarification rather than keeping questions to them. Stimulate them to communicate and organise independently. If your employees share insights and ideas, they might pinpoint and resolve issues you overlooked.

3. Fill the void A mistake many leaders make is assuming that no news is good news. Some remote team members will drift toward silence if left alone. They won’t always tell you if they’re struggling with something. Pose open-ended questions to quiet team members, things like How’s it going? How can I help? and Is there anything you need to do to make your job easier?

Value all team members equally. Each team member needs to feel appreciated. To ensure harmony and cohesiveness, the entire team should be engaged, and each have their time to contribute to discussions. Remove the hierarchy, make everyone share the burden to create a sense of empathy with what other team members are enduring.

4. Support a remote-decision making culture You should also begin work on what will no doubt be a more time-consuming effort – shifting your startup’s culture to be comfortable with remote decision making. This is a big change. When you’re sitting by yourself talking to people on video, where traditionally you have made decisions by having people together for discussions, this is a great opportunity to set up the cultural norms that say:

·     We make decisions on video conferences

·     We stay in touch with our people on video conferences

·     We communicate the status of the organisation candidly and transparently on video conferences.

5. Avoid being the centre of everything Every founder at some point needs to learn to avoid being the centre of everything. You need to empower other people to make decisions, you have to trust your folks in a remote team. Letting go of your own control issues might be the biggest challenge in leading a remote team. It will be tough, but is actually mutually beneficial for both you and your team. To achieve big things, you sometimes need to let small things pass.

Instead of micromanaging your team, put extra effort on making sure communication works. If you’ve managed to hire the right people, you should already know they have the skills required to work efficiently, which means that whether the right decisions are being made isn’t something you should be constantly worried about.

What you should make sure of, though, is that you’ve provided your team with the right tools and mindset of communicating efficiently while in the process of remotely managing themselves.

6. Create Connection You should place an emphasis on individual connection. People suddenly working from home are likely to feel disconnected and lonely, which lowers confidence, productivity and engagement. Under these circumstances it is tempting to become exclusively task-focused. To address these challenges, making time for personal interaction is more important than ever. Effective leaders have an in-person foundation upon which to build, so keep these connections strong even though individuals are not seeing each other face-to-face.

7. Encouragement You shouldn’t feel obliged to constantly pat every employee on the back every time you connect, but it is important to take the time and say how well they’re doing every now and then. This is especially important in a remote team because spontaneous praise tends to naturally happen when chatting in person and in an informal setting – which isn’t often in a remote team.

Effective leaders take a two-pronged approach, both acknowledging the stress and anxiety that employees may be feeling in difficult circumstances, but also providing affirmation of their confidence in their teams, using phrases such as We’ve got this, or This is tough, but I know we can handle it or Let’s look for ways to use our strengths during this time. With this support, employees are more likely to take up the challenge with a sense of purpose and focus – and self-belief.

8. Engage in remote social interaction It’s important to foster and maintain remote team spirit and morale. A way to do this is creating ‘virtual coffee’ sessions, an on-line team meeting dedicated to social content, or a #social Slack channel where employees can run into each other and play out their personal and human sides, trade jokes, videos and family photos.

A study found that 50% of the positive changes in communication patterns within the workplace can be credited to social interaction outside the workplace, so try to sustain this whilst the team are virtually distanced. Being online constantly comes with its own stress, but taking a few moments to chat, laugh, and connect, even virtually, builds culture.

9. Trust your team Now is the time to give latitude to embrace acceptable risk in trying new things. Leaders are going to have to get creative on everything, from creating an engaged work team to meeting clients’ needs in a very uncertain time.

Establishing trust and transparency in your team is important in all directions. As much as horizontal trust (between team members) is absolutely crucial for your team working efficiently together, you should also never forget about vertical trust with the leader. Foster a community mindset without a shared location.

10. Democratise Accountability Accountability is often hard to track in a remote team, and micromanaging tends to make employees feel that their leader doesn’t trust them. This has a negative effect on well-being, productivity and motivation. A remote team leader must show she trusts individuals in their performance, productivity and judgement.

The move to home-based working is a great opportunity for a team to revisit the basics in order to ensure everyone understands the team objectives, their individual roles, and how each person contributes to the outcome. Clarifying roles and accountability among the team helps people understand when they can turn to peers instead of the leader, which prevents the leader from becoming a bottleneck.

In times of crisis, 90% of our attention is on anything but getting stuff done. The things that are eating up the most attention aren’t likely to be synonymous with the things that really need our focus. The startup leader’s role is to rally that anxiety and attention toward a handful of focal points that have the highest and best probability to get us to survive the crisis. If we can do that, everything becomes totally manageable, it gives everyone a collective call to arms, a unifying purpose.

This is a huge opportunity for us to experience remote work first hand that we would otherwise not encounter. This can make our work culture more inclusive, more informal and more friendly at this time, and for the future. This allows us to think more strategically about when, why and how remote work should be approached in the long term – despite the awful circumstances, it may prove to be valuable practice for the future. . The coronavirus exodus to cyberspace is unlikely to be the last. Virtual work is the future of work.

Be considerate to your team. Everyone is stressed and worried about their family, friends, and what the coming weeks will mean. Your leadership now is crucial and defining. Learn to recognise the signs of someone being ‘off’, encourage folks to be open about how they feel by creating a judgement-free environment, and most of all, be there for your folks.

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