To address the challenges of InterNations becoming a remote-first company, our Human Resources Team recently published a Remote Leadership Guide. Even if we’re not team leads or heads of departments ourselves, their insights can help us improve our self-management skills and our general team spirit.
Starting the Conversation about Remote Leadership
Becoming a remote-first company changes every aspect of organizational culture. InterNations is no exception here. Most of us have probably felt the impact on our daily routines and working environment first.
For our team leads and heads of departments, the remote-first setting comes with added responsibilities on top. Not only are they adjusting to this new way of working, but they also need to figure out what it means for managing their teams. That’s why we have introduced the InterNations Remote Leadership Guide.
“One of the starting points for what would later become the Remote Leadership Guide was a discussion about mental and emotional health back in 2020, during the first and second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Team Lead Human Resources Christa remembers.
“We were wondering how our team members were feeling, working from home and worrying about COVID-19. Some were stressed due to sharing their workspace with their partner and children. Others were living on their own, suffering from isolation and social distancing rules.”
“At the same time, the team leads were concerned they might not know how their team members were doing. We had to come up with additional support for people in leadership positions to help them deal with this situation. Otherwise, the InterNations Team would lose the ‘social glue’ that holds all of us together.”
Looking into the Challenges of Managing a Remote Team
By the end of 2020, it was clear that we wouldn’t go back to the pre-pandemic office environment. In a remote-first organization, remote leadership would be far more than a temporary stopgap. “We realized that we had to adapt all existing processes to a remote-first environment,” says Christa. “This obviously included managing a team.”
What does it mean to lead a team if we no longer see each other face-to-face, day by day? We might not even have met some of our co-workers in person. Remote managers often cite these challenges:
- Since working remotely generally requires a higher degree of self-management from all employees, managers are afraid of a potential loss in efficiency and productivity.
- The lack of transparency that comes with working in different places makes it harder to give feedback and do performance reviews.
- Working from home could lead to the lines between the professional and private spheres becoming increasingly blurred.
- Those who are responsible for other team members often feel the need to be available all the time.
- On the other hand, co-workers might not be easily available when they are urgently needed.
- The loss in team spirit and lived company culture — the “social glue”, as Christa calls it — does not only mean that coming to work is a little less fun. It can also result in fewer opportunities for spontaneous exchange among the team, which, in turn, might cause a lack of creative and innovative ideas.
With these challenges in mind, the HR Team set out to give our team leads and heads of departments some guidance on boosting their remote leadership skills.
“I joined an online course on remote management, and my team members did a lot of additional research on best practices. However, every team lead at InterNations had already started to find their own way of dealing with remote work and guiding their team members,” Christa explains.
“That’s why we organized exchange sessions moderated by HR and invited people from every department to discuss this topic. How had their experience changed with regard to recruiting? How did they go about onboarding new team members? What about performance reviews? We talked about the entire employment cycle and collected their findings.”
It’s the combined insights from theory and practice that make up the InterNations Remote Leadership Guide.
Laying the Foundation for a Healthy Team Culture
The guide touches on a wide range of topics, from virtual meeting culture to making and communicating management decisions.
In general, it is essential to cultivate a healthy team culture. If both the team lead and the team members let some key values guide their behavior, there’s no need for micro-management. All people know they can rely on each other and trust each other with their tasks. The essential factors for working together as a team were identified as the five Cs:
- Clarity: We need to understand what our priorities are and where to find important information.
- Caring: Key performance indicators matter, people matter even more. While it is important to reach our goals, human interaction is even more important when we no longer sit in the same room.
“Initially, I couldn’t bring myself to just schedule a coffee chat with someone. Then there’d be a meeting in my calendar, and meetings should be for work only. I had to overcome this resistance because such coffee chats are actually crucial,” Christa says.
“Whenever you deal with a difficult issue or a potential conflict, it’s a lot easier to solve if you have a good relationship with your co-workers. Every team soon started including such informal chats and offering space for the team members. This improved the general mood and increased the team spirit drastically.”
- Consistency: We need a schedule we can count on. We need to know when our co-workers are (not) available. We need to trust them to keep their appointments and to start and finish meetings on time. Moreover, we also need to schedule some time for focused work and the occasional break — and to log off at night and relax.
- Credibility: All of us can have a bad day when we’re tired, stressed, or frustrated. Of course, this doesn’t give us the right to behave unprofessionally towards our co-workers or team members. But if we’re “real” with our team members and ask for their support or patience, if necessary, they will do the same. It is okay to admit mistakes or ask for help.
- Curiosity: We should always ask everyone for their ideas or speak up ourselves if we think something could be improved! This helps avoid the loss in innovation sometimes considered a risk of remote teamwork.
Communicating Frequently and Efficiently
The five Cs lay the foundation for working well together as a team. The other vital factor for managing (or working in) a remote team also starts with C. And that’s communication, communication, communication. Basically, we cannot communicate too much.
Remote work means communicating more frequently to get people’s attention and to make sure they remember the important points. The same message may need to be communicated in several different ways to stick.
Documentation is key too. Important knowledge shouldn’t get lost, nor should we be losing valuable time by searching for useful information. This is particularly relevant if we’re no longer all working from nine to five — due to personal commitments or living in different time zones — and it’s harder to talk to our co-workers directly. Let’s write things down! That’s what shared documents and company wikis are for.
However, written communication has its downsides, such as the lack of immediate feedback, missing non-verbal cues, and a certain emotional distance. We should be aware of these drawbacks and communicate with kindness and consideration.
“Written communication is far easier to misunderstand if you are in a bad mood or if you are passionate about a topic. What is written is also kind of static. So, you really have to be more mindful of how a written message could be received. Especially when it’s about a complex topic or something potentially controversial,” says Christa.
“But it’s just as important to assume less and ask more if you receive a message you consider a bit rude. Don’t jump to conclusions about what the other person must have meant. The best way is to assume positive intent. Instead of taking it personally, have a brief chat with them instead. This attitude has made my life so much easier.”
Proving the Value of Remote Work and Remote Leadership
Overall, that dreaded loss in productivity hasn’t happened for the InterNations Team, or our management board wouldn’t have decided to go ahead with the remote-first project. “Our founders and co-CEOs made a very clear-cut decision,” Christa remembers.
“They saw that remote work is a lot more efficient than they might have initially assumed, and they believe that it has proven its value.” But what’s her personal verdict after managing a remote team for nearly one-and-a-half years and exploring the topic of remote leadership in depth?
“At the beginning, I was skeptical about a few things,” she admits. “For example, I wasn’t sure what giving feedback in a remote organization would look like. How would our annual Leadership Conferences and Personal Development Conferences work? How were team members supposed to assess their supervisors, and how would their own performance be rated?”
“But the feedback conferences were a big success. For me, the most interesting part was that we base our assessment more on outcomes in a remote team. That’s what we can see. Our feedback is based less on subjective criteria, such as personal favoritism or presenteeism. Such biases are ironed out to a certain degree — we focus more on the quality of the results and whether they were delivered in a timely fashion.”
But Christa has not only learned a lot about feedback in a remote-first setting. Like her peers, she keeps growing as a remote team lead.
“Our Remote Leadership Guide is just a starting point,” she says. “It answers some crucial questions and addresses the topics that pop up all the time in a remote-first environment. But now it’s all about implementing the guide, about making it part of our daily routine and finding out what works best for each team or department. It’s not supposed to be set in stone. It’s a living document.”
Image credit: InterNations/iStockphoto