Leading remote teams: 6 survival tips to improve communication and prevent burnout

Leading a team that's now completely distributed? Try these practical tactics to help your remote team succeed during trying times
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Like many humans around the globe, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the massive amount of change we are seeing and how the pandemic is disrupting our normal routines. If I’ve learned one thing from agile practices it’s that being flexible and adaptable are key qualities for the changes we’re facing.

We're trying new techniques to work together better.

I haven’t been into the downtown Raleigh, NC office that I normally work out of since late February. My team at Red Hat, which works on three community publications (#EnableSysadminOpensource.com, and The Enterprisers Project), consists of about half of us in the office and the other half remote. With recent events forcing us all to work from home, our team is suddenly completely distributed, which is different than just being remote workers.

One factor that has helped us transition quickly to being completely distributed is that my colleagues in the office had already been working from home one day a week. This prepared us to connect remotely and gain the experience that our remote colleagues already have for everyday work.

[ IT leaders in our community are sharing advice on navigating this crisis. Read also: How to lead in the age of newly remote teams and Crisis leadership: How to overcome anxiety. ]

Best practices for leading remote teams: Start with communications

Now that we are all remote a few things have changed. While I’ve been trying to process what is happening and trying hard to establish new routines, I’ve also been thinking about what strategies have helped our team be successful during these uncertain times. I’d like to share some best practices and some new techniques our team is trying as we strive to work better as a distributed team.

1. Start by adding a health check to meetings

When I was a board member for Code for America’s National Advisory Council, we discovered during our inaugural term that many leaders in our volunteer network would experience burnout. During our monthly, virtual board meetings on Zoom, we adjusted our agenda to go around the horn and do a health check.

The chairperson running the meeting would ask each of us how we were doing, what our volunteer capacity was like, what our work/day job bandwidth was like. Most importantly, they would ask if we needed help with anything. The last part was really critical, because it gave other board members a chance to step up and help. It also gave everyone participating in the meeting, including supporting staff members, some insight into your particular situation and availability – with the goal of looking for signs of burnout.

2. Create a psychologically safe environment

In order to do a health check, you need to have a safe and trusting environment. Not only that, group norms, or behaviors and traditions, have some of the highest impact on team dynamics and performance. Google’s research on this topic from Project Aristotle showed that “psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success.”

It’s no easy task to create a safe environment, but here are a few tips for developing physiological safety with people in your organization. And of course, leaders should utilize their emotional intelligence during these uncertain times.

Quick win: Make sure people on your team know how to get help if and when they need it.

A quick win for creating a safe environment is to make sure people on your team know how to get help if and when they need it. For example, we should all know the signs of burnout and in a trusting team environment, be able to approach a teammate to check in on their mental health. It doesn’t have to be invasive and could simply be something to the effect of, “Hey Pat, I heard you mention you weren’t sleeping well lately. I’m concerned you might be burning out. I’m here to help you. Would you like to talk?”

[ Read also: 3 mindfulness exercises to try when you feel overwhelmed. ]

3. Define or redefine ways to communicate

One step my team recently took: We reinstated our communication preferences. During our weekly meeting, we talked about our preferences for communicating by instant messaging, email, phone, and text and the appropriate scenarios for different use cases. We ultimately agreed that email is the definitive communication method to get an answer or help from someone on our team.

You should also consider being clear on how to communicate properly in other tools your team uses for daily interactions, such as discussion boards, kanban boards, customer relationship management software, or other systems.

The “fly-by” or hallway conversation is temporarily gone. Tell your team what your preference is to replace it.

For those of you used to an office environment, the days of the “fly-by” or the hallway conversation are temporarily gone. Prepare your team by defining what your preference is in this situation. For example, if you need to ask a quick question in chat, be sure to @ tag the person you need to reach.

The last thing to mention about communicating effectively: Redefine what your expectations are with your team. During these uncertain times, are we expected to be plugged in during all “normal” office hours? Let your teammates and manager know what your availability is. If anything deviates from that during the work week, share those changes.

4. Create a virtual water cooler

During the last few weeks, I’ve seen more virtual “water cooler” and “virtual coffee” invites appear on my calendar. And I love it! While I really enjoy working with my team, I’ve had a few invites from people I don’t normally get to work with on a day-to-day basis. I would highly encourage this practice. Reach out to people and ask them for 30 minutes to just catch up and see what they’re up to these days.

“Join if you can, BYOB: Water, bubbles (LaCroix or Prosecco), coffee, kombucha, beer, or whatever your preference is!”

On a previous team at Red Hat where we were all in the office, we would occasionally get together for a FABSOB – Friday afternoon brainstorming session over beers. It was a great time. We would talk about challenges and how we could solve them if resources were unlimited. I thought, how could we do a virtual FABSOB with my now distributed team?

I put an invite on my team’s calendar for Friday at 4:00 pm. I changed beers to beverages, to be more inclusive. I even gave examples of beverages people could consider:

“Join if you can, BYOB: Water, bubbles (LaCroix or Prosecco), coffee, kombucha, beer, or whatever your preference is!”

Most of the team showed up and we had a great end to the work week. We minimized the “work” talk and had a meandering discussion that ultimately landed on how people are dealing with the new normal, food, and cooking.

5. Create outlets to blend personal and professional updates

I’ve noticed that our team is sharing more personal things happening in their lives during our meetings. Does your team have outlets for this? For those of us used to office life, those quick, personal interactions at our desks or in the cafeteria are gone, and need to be replaced by other means. Whether it’s updates during a team meeting or private chats, we’re finding ways to share what’s happening in our personal lives.

People are sharing their situation at home, their primary focus during these uncertain times, and other thoughts or concerns on their mind. What I’ve found is that people will really only share what they want, so don’t pry too much and keep it professional. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when thinking about how people are motivated: They will default to taking care of their needs first.

One example: a chat channel to share what people are cooking while working from home .

Another example: My spouse, who is also working from home, proposed to start a cooking channel using Google chat with her team. The goal is to share what people are cooking while working from home and to share recipes with each other, as a different way to connect during this situation.

6. Balancing parenting and working from home

The biggest challenge in my household is that the kids are out of school through mid-May. I won’t be surprised if they won’t go back until after the summer break. Luckily, my sister-in-law is an educator and has been sharing tips and strategies that we’ve borrowed.

Some of my colleagues are splitting work/parenting time with morning and afternoon shifts.

First, my wife and I developed a schedule for our kids to follow to provide them structure. We wanted to have dedicated time for learning, creativity, and physical activity. To be honest, there are days when this works and when it doesn’t. We are still navigating these waters. Our school system is also working diligently to provide digital learning. My son is now working on assignments through Khan Academy.

While keeping the kids on a schedule and occupied is no easy task, I would also provide advice to flip things around. You need to find dedicated time to get work done. Some of my colleagues are splitting the work/parenting time with morning and afternoon shifts. My wife and I have varying schedules so we are just comparing calendars and tagging in and out throughout the day.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, take time for yourself. Find a way to take mental breaks by reading, writing, exercising, or doing other hobbies that interest you. Creating some personal space will do wonders for your mental health and help you to avoid going down the path of burnout.

What's working for you and your remote team?

I hope some of these tips can help you, your team, and your organization to communicate better, be more productive as distributed teams, and prevent people from experiencing burnout. Please share any additional tips or techniques you are using in the comments, so we can learn from each other.

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

Jason Hibbets is a Principal Program Manager at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and Opensource.com community publications.