Many teams have recently had an abrupt shift from working in the office to fully working from home. You should recognize you need to help your team to shift to good behaviours instead of expecting they’ll figure it out themselves. Establishing good patterns now will save you from having to reboot after poor ones become engrained. Now is the time to apply all the tricks you can to set your team up with habits that will help them collaborate and stay cohesive.
Remember as their manager, you are a member of your team. You have needs as a leader: your mission is to identify risks and problems for your team so you can support them in the common goals they share. To do that, you need information and if you’re relying on past in-office patterns to recognize trouble, you might be missing a lot.
Before working from home regularly, you had many human signals in your face-to-face encounters with your team. When you walked into your team space before, you could read the tension in the room or could see them happily chatting with each other. By glancing around and seeing who was late, or who was already focused on tasks, you could get a weather report for your team. Now that you’re remote, those types of signals are either non-existent or have become very faint so you’ll need to look for replacements.
You now have limited in-person cues but you might have existing resources like chat programs such as Slack, task updating software like Jira, Asana or Trello, or places you share team documentation accessible online. In the past, these places may have been updated ad hoc in cadence with certain triggers like task completion. Now, you might want to look at opportunities to coach your people to be more explicit with how their work is evolving. For instance, if a person is stuck, their work should be flagged as blocked — then the team should be alerted so that any dependencies can be quickly resolved. You can’t expect that people will just start to look frustrated or stressed as the cue for action if their work is blocked and they’re alone at home.
It might help to look at information sharing in a data exchange model: information is either a push or a pull.
You push information to people because you know they need it, or pull from people (or wherever you store it) because you know you need it.
Right now, people should be pushing information at each other rather than expecting others to pull because in many cases they won’t know that they ought to ask. Your team’s previous pattern could be for people to notice when they needed information because they could stay on top of what was happening every day with each other. Now, there are fewer clues that they should ask and what is important to pull. Push information to your senior management, team, and coworkers; they’d appreciate it.
Pro-tip: have your team agree on what the new team communication norms should be rather than expect them to discover them slowly as the team adapts. Where is information captured and what is the trigger for an update? Who cares about different types of information and how is the team going to ensure they are all going to stay up to date? Address changes in information flow by acknowledging that they should be different now that you’re working remotely.
Typically managers will pull data from those who work for them or the sources they update, filter the data and make a decision that needs to be shared with the team, but also escalate data upwards to those who make decisions at higher levels. Think about how that used to be done in the office environment and make an effort to pull and push more to every level you impact. Ask for updates on the things you care about when you haven’t heard back in a bit. Don’t expect other people are going to share well — people are distracted and could lack the insight to adapt their past habits to today’s reality.
Going from ad hoc hallway conversations to more structured communication
Taking some tips from Agile methodologies, you can institute a daily team “standup”. You share information to the people that care about receiving that information in the form:
What you did yesterday
What you plan to do next
What is blocking or worrying you
If you feel your team will rebel against having a scheduled video meeting (maybe they enjoy their schedule flexibility), have a centralized place to have asynchronous updates like a wiki or automate a daily prompt in Slack for their update. If you have an automatic update in Slack, the team is prompted to do it rather than you feeling like a nag asking them to share. Establish helpful behaviours now and you’ll start getting the signals you’ll need to keep work on track. You can use this opportunity to be lighthearted and make them fun.
Pro-tip: It’s crucial to build good habits by creating moments for people to communicate with each other. It is difficult to interpret silence from someone. Some might wonder if their colleague is at their desk working or if they’re in trouble somehow. The ambient stress of not knowing what silence means can tank productivity in your team. If you have a chat program like Slack, have people greet the team when they’re “at work” and come online and then type something when they’re off taking a break and then back to work. This becomes a living heartbeat of your team that feels so much more alive. As always, it’s important to lead here by your own example by doing this yourself.
Give feedback about your team’s communication
As a manager, you’ll want to ensure your team adapts to their new communication norms. In your next one on one with your direct reports, have feedback prepared about their current communication and coordination efforts. You should note if they’re leading by example either positively or negatively, and coach them to push more information if they haven’t been. Have them err on the side of sharing too much rather than too little (more of the context of “why” they did what they did versus only the “what”) and then you can get them to dial back if it’s too noisy after the team adjusts. And if you’ve created new norms with your team, give feedback on how each of your direct reports has adopted the new behaviours.
The 30 Minute Rule to keep work moving forward
Pro-tip: To drill down into the specific issue of team members getting stuck, try a “30 Minute Rule”: they get 30 minutes to mull over a problem and try to solve it on their own but after 30 minutes they are obligated to find someone to help unblock them. This is great behaviour even if you’re in the office, but especially now with people working from home.
30 minutes is long enough to google the problem online, do a bit of research, scratch your head and engage your problem-solving skills, but it’s not enough to start in on the negative feelings that often happen when you’ve been stuck for a long time. Typically if people get stuck for hours, they start feeling less confident about their skills to solve the problem and then become more afraid to admit they’re stuck.
In the 30 Minute Rule environment, someone will get up to talk with their teammate to unblock themselves and will need to articulate the problem to get their help. Frequently in that process, they engage their solving skills in such a way that it triggers their brain to solve it. They go “I’ve been stuck for 30 minutes. Is anyone free to have a quick chat to unblock me about this thing?” then they explain the problem and what they’ve done to try to solve it, but often it will quickly be followed by “oh, wait, I’ve got an idea” and then they head back to work unblocked and pleased with themselves. Either that or their team member can brainstorm a few options with them and they become confident in their ability to move forward.
Either way, you win and the only cost is a bit of disruption.
Good things you get from the 30 Minute Rule:
It unblocks your people and keeps them moving forward together
It shows the team that it’s completely safe to admit you need help (which builds their psychological safety and adds to their ability to be innovative)
It builds team cohesion because everyone feels able to help everyone else, regardless of their level of experience.