After another week of the coronavirus, we’re facing a different world: a world of hypervigilant hygiene, social distancing, and public panic. Professional sports leagues are on hiatus, conferences and large gatherings are cancelled, and colleges and universities are moving courses online. Toilet paper is nowhere to be found, hand sanitizer is a distant memory, and antiseptic wipes are almost an urban myth. And millions of workers are migrating from the cubicle farms to the home front.
If working from home requires focus, discipline, and self-motivation, supervising a telework team necessitates all of the above and then some. Not everyone is well-suited to working from home, and it didn’t take long for how-to guides to offer “hacks” for how to telework without doing anything. If you’re about to send your team home for a few weeks – or more – of telework, you want to be certain that you have measures in place to maintain productivity. And, given the nature of remote work, there are no better measures than the principles of mission command.
Provide a clear commander’s intent.
Years ago, I inherited an unproductive teleworker for whom my predecessor had not provided any written expectations. Doing so after the fact proved problematic and resulted in more than a few phone calls from human resources as the teleworker fought my efforts. Ultimately, the teleworker quit, but the lessons from that experience shaped my approach to remote work.
Before approving a telework request, take the time to communicate your expectations in writing. Be sure to include performance objectives and indicators, as well. Providing teleworkers with well-structured expectations helps them to maintain productivity, but also gives you metrics against which to assess performance.
Build cohesive teams through trust.
The greatest challenge to leading a remote team is isolation. To combat that, communication has to the first priority among many. For every time you’ve heard someone quip, “I just attended another meeting that could have been an email,” here’s your chance to change that. Send the email. Follow up with a phone call. Set up a Slack channel. Bring the team together for virtual updates where team members can cross-communicate. Share information of interest to your team and encourage them to offer feedback. Build the sense of team.
But what about trust? Trust is earned. Trust is cultivated. Trust has to be mutual. The more open and honest your communication with your team, the more likely you are to earn their trust. And, as that trust blossoms across the team, the better they will perform, remotely or otherwise.
Create shared understanding.
Nobody likes a meeting first thing in the morning, but if you do it right it hurts a little less. I always found a morning “stand up” with my team gave me a jump start to the day. Every member of the team would have two minutes to provide a brief status update on their area, highlighting any issues or challenges while answering questions I might have. Morning stand up rarely lasted longer than 15 minutes and provided a valuable vehicle for creating shared understanding across the team, while fostering cooperation and coordination among individuals.
When you have team members working remotely, this is a useful communication tool for bringing your team together in a positive and productive manner, but also ensures that they are focused and prepared for the day ahead.
Much of telework relies on initiative – a willingness to maintain focus, discipline, and self-motivation without undue supervision – at the individual level. Some people inherently possess those qualities, others, not so much. If you want to encourage your team to demonstrate individual initiative, you have to be willing to extend them the trust to do so. That doesn’t mean you have to do so blindly, however. Establish a culture of accountability, but one that incentivizes initiative.
Use mission orders.
Clear communication is absolutely essential when leading a remote team. The subtleties of interpersonal communication can be easily lost in a telework environment, making it all the more important that you communicate your intent and guidance as clearly and succinctly as possible. If you spend too much time on long, aimless emails, you’re doing it wrong. You’re creating more confusion than production. Instead, try telling your team what you want done rather than how to do it. The old KISS principle – keep it simple stupid – applies more than ever when leading a remote team.
Anyone leading a remote team is already accepting a tremendous amount of risk: team members might not be working at the same level, work could veer sharply off course, or someone might choose to stop work altogether. The key to making telework work is risk mitigation. Enlist tools to ensure that your team is connected, cooperating, and coordinating; leverage performance objectives and indicators to ensure everyone is working toward a common, shared goal; and maintain transparent communication with your team at all times.
Circumstances have already dictated that many organizations move to telework, and that could soon include your own. When that happens, take the steps necessary to allow your team to be successful away from the workplace. Help them prepare to make the transition seamlessly and ensure that they have a plan to do so. And, once your team is dispersed, do everything in your power to make them feel as much a team as they did when they were together under the same roof every day. In this case, a little mission command goes a long way.