Remote work has changed the way we work as companies forever. The effects of our sudden and large scale shift to remote and distributed teams surely aren’t fully understood yet. We’ll be sorting out the long term effects and changes this phenomenon has caused in our society for decades to come. There’s so much you can tease apart in its sociocultural impact alone, it’s simply fascinating.
There’s one element specifically I’d like to zero in on for this week's blog. It’s around the communication behaviors in managers, and I think it’s something that’s become very fundamental in successfully managing the performance of a distributed team.
What I want to talk about is intentionality.
The old office is never coming back, it’s time to adapt
In the office setting, there’s often these informal mechanisms that contribute to good communication and the sharing of information. There’s things like shared meals, interoffice transit, communal space (breakrooms, restrooms, conference rooms etc) - all these places where the reason you’re there may be something totally unrelated, but what you end up doing is sharing information and knowledge with the people you work with.
Switching over to the remote setting, you lose all of this immediately. There’s no shared space, and in a video conference there’s no way to even have a side conversation on the periphery of the formal meeting experience. As a manager, what’s effectively happening is you’re losing opportunities to share information, to be observed, and to reinforce culture.
This loss is a pretty significant one, and I think it’s a key element of the general feeling that when employees go remote, the first thing that enters in the mind of the leadership is fear, fear of lost productivity stemming from the loss of control. That control being all those shared moments in physical proximity in both formal and informal interactions, to communicate, to be observed, and again to reinforce the work culture.
As soon as we enter the land of Slack (or Teams if you’re truly cursed), Emails, Zoom, and everything else asynchronous, we have to change some of our fundamental behaviors in order to adapt as leaders.
The secret is intentionality
When Rhabit went fully distributed in March of 2020, we like many fumbled our way through how to adjust to this. As of today, I can say that I’ve learned (and am still learning) a great deal about working with a team in a distributed environment, and one thing I feel like we have very, very strong evidence through either the data coming through our platform, through my conversations with users, peers, and other leaders, as well as my own direct experience over what’s just hit a 2 year mark, is that intentionality is quintessential to successful remote leadership.
Quote Block: “When I say intentionality, I mean that you absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, rely on formal processes to trigger communication with employees nor can you rely on the employees themselves to bring things up with you. You have to be intentional.”
You’re best served as a manager on a remote team, in your idle time, to occasionally send out a direct message to each of your team members asking how they’re doing. Yes you should schedule 1:1s, yes you should show up to them, yes they should have structure - all these things are good, but you should also make it a point to periodically be purposeful about interacting with your team on an individual level - and here’s the catch - you have have to do this completely devoid of a productive work context. I know, crazy right?
You have to purposefully NOT dig into work topics, because what you need to do is build trust and rapport. Could you do this in a work context? Absolutely, but in the work context the power balance still clearly exists. If you’re having a more casual conversation that’s outside of that context, you’re yielding power, which in this case I genuinely believe is a good thing. You’re making it safe to get to know you as a person, to build some comfort with you interpersonally, and to not feel like the fundamental purpose you serve is to monitor their work and push them to perpetually do more faster with less resources.
Go ahead, waste some time
I’m telling you to be intentional and “waste” (it’s unequivocally not a waste) a little time bullshitting around. Give away a little of that productivity in the short term for longer term gains of having employees who trust you and are comfortable sharing things with you. In the office, these kinds of things just sort of happen.
I’ve daudled around the hallways with some of the smartest, most effective leaders I’ve ever worked for and it served as wonderful interactions that fostered trust and mutual respect - but that’s gone now. No use crying over the loss, we have to adjust and move on, and the adjustment here is intentionally reaching out over slack, doing an ad-hoc zoom call, coordinating a walk-n-talk over the phone, purposefully making the explicit decision to spend time with your employees interacting with them without an agenda as a way to build the report that’s no longer baked into the work experience.
This is the new normal of the distributed team.
Make intentional time to get to know your teammates, to listen to them, to give them moments to share, and don’t wait for them to come to you. This is something the leader owns. You’re accountable for the health of the communication within your team, and the only way you can ensure that you’re effectively communicating with folks in a remote setting is to intentionally connect with them.
Do yourself a favor, if you’ve read this piece, and you’re a leader, do some quick mental math and figure out when the last time you had a relaxed, casual interaction for more than 5 minutes with each of your teammates. Anyone who's outside of a couple of weeks of having one of those, go grab some time with them right now.
Great rapport between you and your employees doesn’t just magically manifest from the ether, you have to work at it and be intentional about its growth, so go be intentional about “wasting a little time” with your folks.