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Listener Question: Can I Lead Remotely? (part 2)

Published 3/17/2017

In today's episode, I answer a listener question about whether or not it's possible to lead a team from a remote office. We go pretty in depth on this topic, and this is the second of two parts.

Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
What do you need to do to be a good leader if you are a thousand miles away from your team members? We're going to talk about that in today's episode. My name is Jonathan Cutrell. You're listening to Developer Tea. In the last episode I got a question from an anonymous listener who's interested in getting into a leadership role. They're looking to change their career up. Part of the reason why they decided to send in the question anonymously. And they asked whether or not it's possible to lead a team, which they know that leadership is highly a relationship oriented. They asked if leading a team remotely is even feasible if it's possible to lead a team as a remote worker. And the answer is yes, but there's always caveats in these situations. Because relationship is so important to leadership, there's always going to be things to consider. And that's what we're going to talk about on today's episode. Specifically, I'm going to give you tips on things that you need to do to be a great remote leader. In the last episode we talked about different aspects of leadership. And we also talked about different scenarios where remote leadership is going to be more appropriate. Than other scenarios in today's episode. I'm going to give you really just some practical tips about being a good remote leader. Real quick, let's recap what we talked about in the last episode. We talked about the different types of leadership. For example, technical executive leadership. This is reviewing and writing code and developing standards. Principled leadership by example, setting forth ideas and talking about your values from a kind of a distant perspective. Rather than doing that in a one-on-one meeting, you set these up as values that your company or that your department wants to follow. And then people attach themselves to those values without you having a personal relationship with them. Once again, that happens mostly at scale and it's not likely that you're going to find yourself in that scenario. And really you shouldn't be pushing for that scenario until it's absolutely necessary. The last type of leadership that we discussed and perhaps the most common and most important type of leadership for the people listening to this episode is one-on-one mentoring. And we discussed the fact that it's almost impossible to talk about one-on-one mentoring in a single episode of Developer Tea, both because this podcast is intentionally short, but also because really a five-hour podcast on the topic wouldn't even be enough to talk about it. There's a lot that goes into effective mentoring. We have talked about mentoring in past episodes of Developer Tea. If you just go to spec.fm and search the word mentor, you'll see a couple of episodes there where we have talked about mentoring. So we talked about all these different aspects of leadership. Again, you're going to have different balances of all of the aspects of leadership beyond this list. And you're going to have to learn how to balance those different aspects. And some of those things are going to be more effective by whether or not you are remote than others. After that, we discussed when remote leadership works well. For example, if distribution is already a part of the DNA of your team. If you have a contractor-heavy team where people are coming in and coming out, coming into projects as contractors and then leaving a few months later. And then also in teams that have well-defined rhythms. And really, that's the type of team that most of you are probably wanting to build. The type of team that has a well-defined rhythm. So let's talk about what it takes, what do you need to do to be a great remote leader. And the first thing that you need to do, and we're going to stick on this one for a few minutes, be explicit about the value of remote work. If you are going to be a remote leader, you have to understand and talk about the value of being remote. It can't go unnoticed. Remote work is absolutely different. And it's important to recognize the differences explicitly with your team. At the same time, it's important to recognize the added value provided by Remote Work. For example, flexibility and diversity of team interests, diversity of team locations, time-shifted work schedules. It kind of gives you a 24-hour sense of momentum. Results-oriented efforts. And the list goes on and on and on. Don't treat remote work as if it's the same type of work done in a co-working space. And perhaps most importantly, don't treat remote work as if it is handicapped. This is really the point here. If you talk about remote work as if the remote portion of that is only detracting from the work. If you blame the remote nature of your work or the remote nature of your leadership for the problems you are experiencing, then people will always resent the remote work until you are working in a co-located space. Instead, focus on the benefits of the remote work. This is super important. Just from a psychological level for people to understand the value and the equality, or at least the parallel quality of remote work to co-located work. The second thing you have to do, and this is just matching right up with our previous episode, you must establish a rhythm. This is your job as a leader. You can't expect a rhythm to suddenly establish itself. You can't expect a rhythm to come out of nowhere. You will establish habits accidentally, but you will not establish a rhythm accidentally. What does that mean? Well, a habit is something that kind of depends on your situation. A rhythm does not depend on your situation. That's kind of the primary difference. Habits are done unconsciously, or perhaps even accidentally, whereas rhythms, intentional rhythms, are executed on purpose consciously. We already said this in the previous episode, but good remote leaders establish a predictable rhythm, especially with access. If you are a good remote leader, you are going to be available on a regular basis. Perhaps eight hours a day, starting at an exact time in the morning and ending at an exact time in the afternoon. This access, this predictability, this rhythm, is the most important part of remote work. Being predictable and being reliable, being on time for conference calls, being on time for screen shares and pair programming from a remote perspective. That punctuality and predictability and reliability is incredibly important to your team. Not only do you need to be available, but you need to also be reaching out, initiating the conversation with those you lead on a predictable and rhythmic basis. This is hugely important. All of this stuff is important for non-remote leaders. Let me just say this for a second. If you're listening to this episode and you're just kind of logging this stuff away, in case one day you become a remote leader, but right now you're not a remote leader, that's not a license for unpredictability. That's not a license for being late to meetings, or for not developing one-on-one relationships with the people that you lead, absolutely the opposite. All of these things are important in co-located spaces. They just happen a little bit more easily, habitually, in co-located spaces. You still need to be consciously aware of these things, but when your remote is extremely important to be even more consciously aware, because you don't have, for example, water cooler conversations. Those personal touch points only happen when you make them happen as the leaders. That's why we are touching on this so heavily. Establishing rhythm is so important. The last thing that you need to do, the last thing we're going to discuss that you need to do as a great remote leader, is you need to, if possible, get real face time. Physical in the same room face time. And no, we're not talking about calling each other on face time on your iPhones. If possible, get your team, all of your team, not just you and one other person, but get all of your remote workers in the same place from time to time, once or twice a year maybe, or more often if it's possible, but get those people in the same room from time to time. When you meet, split your time between working together in the same space and simply being together. Some people may push back on this idea of working in the only time that you get to hang out with each other. You may think that you need to spend all of that time developing personal relationships with each other. But here's the interesting thing that happens. When you work together in the same space, this pulls back a curtain of mystery and it builds trust. Let me explain what I'm talking about. When you work in the same space together, let's say you're not on a remote team. You know how other people work. You know what their habits are. You see when they pick up and go home for the day. You know what kind of music they listen to, what kind of places they go to lunch to. All of this stuff is added information. And when you have someone who works remotely from you, it's hard to picture how they work. And oftentimes where there is mystery, we have a bad tendency as humans to fill in the blank with negative things. Even if your team has strong levels of trust between the workers. Creating this environment where you're working in the same space even once or twice a year. We're going to tend, this is a psychological reality. We tend to remember people in the same state that we left them. In other words, if you work together in a space, the next time you're working remotely from each other, you're going to picture that person the way they were working when you were in the same space together. And now the negative mystery that could have existed because of the remote nature of your workers, that negative energy is largely relieved. It's kind of a weird psychological thing, but I want you to try it. I want you to see how this works. I've seen this work in remote workers that I've worked with personally in the past. And I think you will see this as well. Misconceptions and suspicions about other people's work habits, they tend to clear up in these scenarios. Workers will tend to refer to the memory of working in the same room when their mind pictures their teammate working next week whenever they all go back home. On the flip side, of course, the second half of this FaceTime is equally important. So you need to spend time getting to know each other on a personal level. There's nothing that can replace it. Even for remote workers, there's nothing that can replace it. So if you're going to lead a team that is 100% distributed, I would challenge you to find a way to bring all of those people to the headquarters of the company. Or perhaps take a retreat together as a team once per year or once, even every other year, if you plan to stay on that company for a long time. These kind of connecting points are going to create anchor memories for you. They're going to create really what stands out as a person's identity or their personality and how they have a space in your brain. That's going to be largely impacted by the memories you create in those moments where you have FaceTime together. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I know this is kind of a heady subject in some ways and it's really difficult to really nail down all of the important aspects of remote work. We certainly didn't cover everything that we could have covered. But if you walk away with nothing else, remember that consistency and availability, eliminating as much volatility as you can, right? That's going to be absolutely key for you as a remote leader. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. Again, we didn't have a sponsor for today's episode, but I'll take this opportunity to encourage you to go and sign up for a brand new newsletter that I'm curating on a weekly basis. It's called Soft Skills Weekly. You can find it at SoftSkillsWeakly.com. It's going to be about seven resources per week, give or take, depending on how I'm feeling that week. But it's all based on Soft Skills stuff, conversations, articles, interviews, podcasts, books, whatever I feel like putting in that week. So go sign up, use a good email because this is going to come straight to your inbox. Thank you so much again for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.