How to lead with clarity and empathy in the remote world

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2020 has brought changes and challenges for everyone—including those in leadership roles. Management style and decision-making have taken on new significance during these testing times as staff’s quality of life—as well as company growth—hang in the balance.

In this newly remote world, it can be difficult to figure out the best ways to support and motivate your team. Ongoing research suggests that many managers are struggling to adapt. In fact, 40% of them don’t feel confident in their ability to manage remote employees. It can be a struggle to build rapport and trust over video calls and text chat. But the research also demonstrates how good management results in improved wellbeing and performance among staff.

So how can managers successfully adapt to this new normal?

As the manager of a team, you are not just responsible for their performance, you’re their leader. Your behavior defines the culture that they work in. By taking active steps, you can alleviate some of the stress this crisis brought, build stronger teams, and make happier—and more productive—co-workers.

Since its inception, Stack Overflow has taken a remote first approach to work, and these management procedures are baked into how we operate. That means our experienced managers have a lot of advice to share on team building, empathy, and communications in a remote workplace. Read on to hear what they have to say.

Be human

Social isolation has always been a potential downside for those working remotely. But now that our social lives outside of work have slowed too, it’s more important than ever for managers to encourage chit chat. Over the years, numerous studies have found that video conferences tend to be less social than face-to-face meetings. While it’s important to run a tight ship and set out practical agendas which make your meetings run efficiently, it’s also crucial to schedule in some specific time for socializing.

Make time at the start of meetings to catch up or, as mentioned above, try scheduling a happy hour. Though adding it to your agenda or calendar may feel forced, it’s the best way to make sure it actually happens. Along with time, you have to make space. Our internal Slack workspace has lots of channels devoted to socializing. From cooking and chess, to fitness and cycling, there’s a channel to interest everyone. This provides a forum for team members to bond over the hobbies they’re passionate about and build stronger relationships.

“Do more to get closer to your team,” says Vasudha Swaminathan, the Director of Product in charge of Stack Overflow for Teams. “It's okay to be vulnerable. Check in on how everyone’s doing. Ask about the family, the kids or their pets.” She even likes to share personal stories of disastrous homeschooling or DIY projects. “We all need a good laugh more than ever!” she says. Swaminathan also reminds managers to consistently recognize the efforts made by each team member—even if you start to get repetitive.

The unique challenges of leading a remote team include asynchronous communication and creating a welcoming culture despite each of us being isolated in our homes or coworking spaces. A remote team must embrace transparent and informal communication, being more explicit and expressive than they would normally be while working in an office, says David Haney, a director of engineering at Stack Overflow.

Be deliberate

“If you are working in an office and want to duck out for 15 minutes to get a coffee, you simply stand up and go. People can see you're not at your desk so they know you're not around to answer questions or chat with.” By comparison, when working remotely, nobody can see you except during video calls. Haney suggests that you be diligent about communicating your status, especially to let your teammates know when you’ll be gone for a bit. “Otherwise, they may ping you with questions and wonder why you aren't answering.”

Finding work life balance can be difficult when you’re doing both from the same place. Haney recommends using small gestures and rituals to help set those boundaries and better communicate with your colleagues about your availability. “I find it’s helpful to say hello and goodbye when you start and end your day. People can see you enter and leave the office, but they can't tell when you sign on and off of your work computer at home. Small messages like that can help everyone understand your boundaries.”

Be flexible

Everyone's situation is different and everyone reacts to stress differently. “As a manager, it's important to be empathetic to everyone's very personal situation and provide a sense of security at work,” Desiree Darilek, Director of Product for the Stack Overflow's public platform. As we work through the pandemic, it's important we remain realistic about what is feasible at a time like this. “For example, our leadership team provided parents with an option to go on a caregiver accommodation plan, which allowed parents/guardians to set up a modified work plan so that they feel supported and set realistic expectations with their managers.”

If possible, allow your employees to communicate how and when they would like to get work done while maintaining some “core” hours for the team to connect and collaborate. “The empathy and flexibility demonstrated across the company have been greatly beneficial to me personally as well, as I strike a balance between work and home life with two young children,” says Gursharn Dhami, a Senior Global HR Business Partner at Stack Overflow. “When employees have greater control over how they meet their work and personal obligations, they are more likely to have higher productivity and engagement while working.”

Be clear about communication rules — for others and yourself

It’s important to reach out to direct reports regularly, but don’t enter the realm of constant check-ins or micromanagement. This can impact productivity and interfere with your team’s work-life balance.

Recent research hasn’t been too kind to virtual meetings. One survey found that most professionals think they’re a waste of time. While another found that 56% of employees wished they took up less time.

So don’t call meetings every time you need team collaboration. Our managers suggest that, whenever it’s appropriate, leaders communicate updates and feedback through documents, emails, and project management tools that everyone can work on asynchronously.

If you decide that you have to meet, Darilek suggests setting out a clear agenda to make the best use of everyone’s time. Stack Overflow’s Chief Product Officer, Teresa Dietrich, also notes that knowing when it’s not necessary to meet is key.

“Yes, you need face time with teams and individuals,” she says. “But alignment through asynchronous means is just as important.”

Our managers run scheduled check-ins with individuals, as well as structured team meetings, using tools like Zoom, Slack, and Google Meet. But they also rely heavily on asynchronous tools. Darilek recommends Trello or Jira for project management, as well as Stack Overflow for Teams for knowledge sharing and asynchronous collaboration across your business.

Where possible, put in place effective tools and clear processes to facilitate asynchronous communications across your team. When meetings are required, set out a clear agenda which will help to keep your team engaged.

Be the exemplar

The steps you take to help your team will only work if you follow them too. All our managers emphasized the need to lead by example as the new normal develops. Research shows this promotes cooperation among teams. So, as a role model, make sure to protect your health and take time off.

“Don’t work late—or at least hide offline!” says Swaminathan. “If your team sees you, they’ll feel they should work late too—even if that’s not your intention. So think hard about how others will interpret your actions.” At Stack Overflow, Haney displays his new Covid hours on Slack. And we get to say hello to Swaminathan’s child in video calls sometimes. This makes the whole team less stressed about doing the same.

Instead of trying to play the invincible, tiger-wrestling leader, show your team that we’re all in the same boat right now. As you transition to new communication styles and remote rules, lead the way. In the end, it will make the changeover smoother and bring your team closer together. “As a manager, you must have patience—with yourself and with your colleagues. This is a learning experience for everyone,” says Haney. “But if you build trust and empathy now, you’ll come through this with closer relationships and a more tight knit team.”

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