How to lead in the age of newly remote teams

What can leaders do to support teams working remotely at a time of much uncertainty? NetHealth CIO Jason James shares concrete steps CIOs and IT leaders can take right now
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how to lead remote teams

This week marks the largest migration of employees moving from traditional office settings to remote work in history. What had been jammed highways weeks ago now gives way to open roads. Public transit will be emptier and coffee shops will go dark. Some workers are well prepared for the transition, while others will set up makeshift offices at their dining table and try to mute the sound of barking dogs and family activity. The traditional office has largely been suspended in hopes of slowing the COVID-19 virus and flattening the curve.

While workers grapple with their own fears and uncertainty about what the coming weeks and months will mean, we have moved into the age of remote; work is no longer a place, but a thing. What do leaders need to provide?

Tools for successfully working remotely

As work is no longer resigned to a physical location, collaboration tools are mandatory. For decades, the only collaboration tool employed in most organizations was email. But email is asymmetric communication. Messages are sent via a best-effort attempt, in hopes that the recipient will read and at some point respond.

Now real-time collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack offer users the ability to share messages, files, video, and voice in real-time while prioritizing the conversations in which they actively participate. Single and private messages can be shared during participation in larger group discussions. Next-generation web conferencing platforms like Zoom offer intuitive high-definition video collaboration. Google Hangouts Meet is another option; Google, like other vendors, is making access to some tools and advanced features free right now, in response to the crisis. Many organizations will need to use a combination of tools to substitute for in-person experiences.

[ Want open source online meeting tools? Read also 5 open source alternatives to Skype. ]

As millions of workers transition to remote-only for a while, we are all also about to discover which meetings can now be replaced with email.

Create virtual watercoolers to ease stress

We are seeing the largest societal impact in America since 9/11 and are now at an unprecedented point in history. Previously during trying times, we turned to sports, but the threat of a virus has closed every stadium, arena, and ball field in the country. But employees are still looking for some form of escapism. While they cannot gather around the proverbial water cooler, you can create virtual watercoolers in which they can gather, chat, and discuss what is on their minds.

Create non-work focused channels in Slack or Teams.

Create non-work focused channels in Slack or Teams where employees can share recipes, memes, or pictures of their pets. Make sure it is not work-related. Frivolity is the prescription for stress. As CIO, I am responsible for the tech-enablement of the business, digital transformation, and providing our workforce with the freshest memes.

Things that can take away from work also create connections between employees. Shared experiences, whether in-person or remote, create connections and define culture. These connections are especially important during stressful times, and we are living in stressful times. Being online constantly comes with its own stress, but taking a few moments to chat, laugh, and connect, even virtually, builds culture.

[ How can you nurture team culture while working remotely? Read also Remote teams: 5 ways to build culture. ]

Advice for leaders in the days ahead

As COVID-19 forces companies to embrace remote work, some workers may never fully return to a traditional office setting or schedule after the emergency ends. Societal changes often have long-term and lasting impacts. Leaders themselves must also evolve to the present situation and to upcoming changes.

My advice to all leaders is:

  • Be flexible and supportive. You may not be in an office for a while, but that doesn’t mean you can’t support your team or the rest of the organization.
  • Be sure to be available via Slack, Teams, or whatever collaboration platform your organization uses. Leaders should be present as questions and issues will occur and team members will look for guidance and assurance.
  • Provide crucial information that keeps your workforce safe and informed.
  • Flexibility will be the soft skill every leader needs in the coming weeks. Things will not go as planned as hardly any organization planned for a global pandemic as part of their business continuity planning.
  • Services such as internet and streaming video conferences will be taxed far beyond their normal capacity. As issues arise, realize they are temporary and understandable considering the current situation.

Be considerate to your team and to other members of your organization. Everyone is stressed and worried about their family, friends, and what the coming weeks will mean. Your leadership now is crucial and defining. Publilius Syrus wrote, “Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm.” Our sea is far from calm. Leaders, take the helm and steer your organizations out of danger and into safe harbors.

[ Want to build your leadership EQ? See 10 emotional intelligence must-reads for leaders. ]

Jason James is CIO of Net Health. He has led IT operations for fast-growth technology companies for over twenty years.


Great writeup James!

Great article JJ, we are in difficult times and many of our people are missing the social interactions that come with working in an office, as well as the fear of what is happening. The more we can do to support them the better.