Six Rookie Mistakes When Leading Remote Teams

When there’s a sea storm, captains are called upon to reassure their crew, so that together they keep the ship safe enough to move in the right direction. 

The Coronavirus storm has forced teams — without warning and without delay — to work from home in improvised office spaces, fighting to focus on work while juggling several other responsibilities and concerns at the same time.

If remote working poses a challenge in and of itself, all the more so in crisis conditions, where uncertainty and confusion make the load all the heavier.  

Since 2011, I’ve been helping organizations — in good and bad times — build teams, many of which with some or all their members working remotely, often in different time zones. 

Here are six mistakes you want to avoid (and six recommendations) when leading teams remotely, especially in crisis conditions.

Mistake #1: Believe it is (almost) business as usual

A new paradigm is emerging, as tends to happen in crisis. And with it, new challenges are thrown at your team. It would be a mistake not to stop and fully appreciate the nature of the challenges you and your team are now facing.

It’s a mistake to think this is only about keeping things going a bit longer before it’s over. It’s a new problem. Face it with your team.

RECOMMENDATION: Do a diagnosis

Imagine you are Dr. House. If the challenge you now face is an illness, what would you call it?

Mistake #2: To execute without a roadmap

In a crisis it is easy for teams to get disoriented, especially if they are forced in a rush to work remotely. You might have a sense of what comes next, but the team most likely has no f**king idea.

It is a mistake to ask teams to continue moving forward without a new road map that shows this is where we are, this is where we are going, and most importantly, this is why we’re going. I wonder what Nietzsche was thinking when he said: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” 😉

RECOMMENDATION: Give them context and relevance 

Explain to the team how their work fits in the larger picture, and why their contribution really matters.

Mistake #3: Fail to clarify new expectations

New problems require new behaviours. It it especially important that we define deliverables and ownership so that everyone knows who does what and who is responsible for making sure it gets done. 

RECOMMENDATION: Tell them what they CAN’T screw up

New problems require exploration, which can lead to failure. It is crucial you specify what bits you expect the team to do absolutely right, the bits where failure is not an option. 

Mistake #4: Make it a one-way road

If feedback is important, now it is more than ever. It’s a rookie’s mistake to fail to create NEW channels for feedback. Unless you ask, you will not know the struggles and suggestions your team has. 

RECOMMENDATION: Tell them it’s NOT ok to stay stuck and silent

Send out questions before meetings, and ask everyone to come prepared to share.

Mistake #5:  Neglect positive feedback

Humans need feedback to grow, which makes giving feedback the gift of growth: constructive feedback gives us the path for growth, and positive feedback gives us the energy to grow.

In times of crisis, teams need tons of positive feedback — the energy — to get through challenges. Forgetting to give positive feedback is a silly mistake.  

RECOMMENDATION: Double down on positive feedback 

Give twice as much positive feedback and show twice as much appreciation. Start with positive feedback. End with positive feedback. Transition with positive feedback. And ask the whole team to give… POSITIVE FEEDBACK.  

Mistake #6: Undervalue repetition

The Romans believed that “repetitio est mater studiorum”, that repetition is the mother of learning. When working remotely, technical issues can make getting information across difficult.

Moreover, when remote work is being improvised moment by moment and under great uncertainty, tension is generated, which makes getting information across even more difficult. 

Hence the need to repeat, repeat, repeat.  

RECOMMENDATION: Sound like a broken record 

Say it at the beginning. Repeat in the middle. Ask them to say it. And say again at the end.

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