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A 7-Step Quick Guide for Newly Remote Leaders

Everything You Need to Know to Stay Ahead of the Remote Leadership Learning Curve

As the World Health Organisation declares coronavirus a global pandemic, companies everywhere are scrambling to get their teams working from home — whether they have well-thought-out contingency plans or not.

The costs of this are massive and come in many forms — not least of all, losses in productivity and team morale. As a remote-first company, Impala are experts in all-things working remotely, including how to preserve company culture and ensure home-based teams are as happy as they are efficient.

That’s why, we’ve put together this quick guide to help you stay ahead of the remote working (and leading) learning curve.

From equipping your team with the right tools for working from home to managing the nuanced challenges homeworkers face — here’s everything you need to know to sustain employee satisfaction in a coronavirus world of work.

Remote Leadership Quick-Guide:

  1. The foundations: appropriate equipment and spaces
  2. Key tools and resources: the best of the best
  3. Setting the right mindset for remote working: make or break factors in your team’s success
  4. Looking after work-life balance: leveraging culture and benefits
  5. How to preserve your culture: championing fun & social engagement ‘behind-the-screens’
  6. Revising communication policies and remote working agreements: what you don’t want to leave out
  7. Oh, sh%t: what to do when things go wrong

1. Find & fill the gaps in your foundations for remote working

The most basic requirements for leading an effective remote team are too-easily taken for granted.

You should never assume your team has access to all the material resources they need to perform their work responsibilities effectively outside the office.

Quickly enable your entire team to access the following:

  • Appropriate Remote Working Devices: get your team the equipment they need, and fast!

Whether that’s a laptop, tablet, work phone, webcams, headsets, headphones, surge protectors, etc. You can rent these in bulk from some providers or purchase right-out depending on the size and needs of your team.

Don’t forget to create a registrar for company-purchased equipment, and gather serial numbers of any employee-purchased kit in one place.

At Impala, everyone gets a Mac laptop (engineers also have the choice of Lenovo Thinkpad), and we use SimpleMDM to track laptops distributed.

  • Appropriate Remote Working Spaces: there’s so much more to effective working than access to a laptop.

Don’t forget about your employees’ need for ergonomic chairs and desks to prevent occupational health hazards!

Create a dedicated budget for employees to set up a suitable home workspace. Further to that end, ask employees to complete a risk assessment of their home workspace.

At Impala we also offer all Impalans a Personalised Workspace Budget and a monthly WFH stipend to ensure Impalans can be truly happy, comfortable and productive whilst working from home.

With the budgets, Impalans can expense all sorts of kit — spanning home-office operating costs/utility bills, an office cleaner, desk lamps, office snacks and water coolers, desk chairs and accessories — even plants and wall art!

  • Strong & Secure WiFi: sure, you’re probably reading this from your own home WiFi connection (if self-isolating), but bandwidths aren’t created equally.

Meaning, to carry out their job responsibilities effectively, some of your team may require stronger, faster connections. Further, additional security measures and/or software (such as VPNs) may be required in order to protect business data and assets. And these all come at a cost.

That’s why Impala offers every fully-remote employee the option of expensing a portion of their WiFi bills and extension devices, to ensure equal WiFi for all!

We want our people to enjoy being in their workspace, so we make a point of removing as many barriers as possible to help everyone achieve that.

Additionally, we offer extensive advice on how to set up your office effectively and ergonomically, and how to incorporate more movement into your daily routine with desk-based stretches and exercises (although, WFH means these needn’t be desk-based at all!).

2. Share productivity tools, resources, and knowledge

Working on an entirely remote basis presents unique challenges for managers and employees alike.

Whereas managers now need to be more aware of their wider team’s productivity at a distance, employees now need to learn to self-motivate and collaborate in new ways.

Fortunately, there’s a tonne of great tools to help you hone focus, maintain visibility, productivity, and motivation. (And you’re sure to learn more as you go).

At Impala, our tools of preference include Zoom, Slack, Trello, Evernote, Notion, Todoist. Here’s why:

  • Zoom — totally trumps Google Hangouts as far as video conferencing systems go. (Fightin’ words, these are not!) Besides offering a wealth of features and functionalities to other video conferencing systems, Zoom sets the stage for super-seamless group conversations and presentation delivery. This is particularly beneficial for larger teams, but has associated costs/plans.
  • Slack — otherwise known as the one instant messaging platform to rule them all! Slack is the single-best tool for synchronous working — enabling teams to communicate and collaborate in real-time. It’s an absolute staple for remote working so don’t even think email qualifies as a substitute. (Emails are hard to search for and refer back to, but Slack can pin-point that message or conversation you just can’t quite remember with a few keywords.) The other thing that makes Slack absolutely essential is its propensity for community-building. You’d not likely circulate an email thread looking for your teams yoga-practicers, bookworms, or wannabe-Michelin-chefs. But with Slack you can set up dedicated channels for your team to share and celebrate common interests (or take an interest in something new entirely!). It’s not just another communication tool; it’s a culture hub.
  • Notion — speaking of culture hubs … we use Notion! Notion is our single repository for all-things life at Impala. From company policies to resources, guides, company goals, values, etc. Impalans can easily search for information and share ideas of their own to enhance our operations, product, or remote work experience. We even use this to create onboarding plans and checklists, draft meeting memos/notes, and build our complete ‘Remote Working Manifesto & Handbook.’ (Peek inside of it soon…)
  • Todoist — best task manager ever. Todoist makes it super-easy to organise, plan, and collaborate on projects (no matter where you are or what device you are using). If you’re more visual, Trello is an alternative.
  • Evernote — never lose or leave meeting minutes unactioned again. We use Evernote to distribute key information on progress to OKRs and provide core team updates. We follow up any meeting with minutes prepared in Evernote which makes them easy to refer back to and develop action points for relevant team members. It keeps us on-track and informed.

3. Get into the right mindset for remote working

Remote working can only work for organisations willing to extend a high-level of trust; that means, trust from the top-down, bottom-up, and laterally.

If you’re worried about going remote because you think your team will Slack off, you have it so wrong; you should be worried that your team might overwork and struggle to establish a healthy work-life balance. If you don’t trust your team to work remotely, then you need to think long and hard about what might really be holding your people back.

Getting into the right mindset for remote working means you pledge to:

  • Cultivate trust; you can cultivate trust by setting clear expectations. And you can cultivate trust simply by giving it.

If you go into remote working trusting that your team is going to be productive and responsive regardless of physical locale, you set the tone for a team-focused and self-starter work ethic for all.

At Impala, trust and autonomy are some of our underpinning principles.

  • Assume and assert positivity; there are no negatives to being positive.

A big thing to understand when you work remotely is that tone is difficult to decipher in text — go out of your way to write in a pleasant and supportive way; Assume that any message you receive is coming from a place of positivity and support; Be an intent seeker. If you sense a conflict stirring, do not attempt to resolve it in writing. Initiate a video chat ASAP so that you have access to the more expressive elements of communication like facial expression, tone, and body language.

At Impala, we set expectations for a very low threshold for video calls, meaning you can always jump on a call to discuss whatever!

  • Become ridiculously proactive; and we mean ridiculously proactive.

At Impala, if we sense we’re running two minutes late to a meeting, we reach out to the organiser and communicate why. Impalans unclear on expectations or new policies proactively reach out with questions. Impalans worried about meeting a deadline against workload proactively open a discussion with their line manager.

Impalans are also proactive in becoming aware of their unique remote life challenges and working to address them. Whether it’s learning to self-motivate or sustain focus independently, or building the confidence to reach out to peers when feeling lonely — proactiveness will make or break a remote employee’s journey to effectiveness and a satisfying work experience.

  • Over-communicate as a norm; and I can’t communicate the importance of this one enough. You can’t be too clear, but you can break a working relationship, product, and entire business from misinterpretation.

Clarification is so much less dangerous than misinterpretation. And when working remotely, the risk of misinterpretation is greater than when you’re based in an office (owing to less external cues and limitations on more expressive forms of communication such as tone and body language).

At Impala, we make it normal to over-communicate; to repeat information; to seek clarification again; to store information in more than one place. We make it safe to ask questions because the whole team’s success depends on it.

4. Empower your team to establish clear work-life boundaries (self-included)

76% of telecommuters were willing to work overtime and felt more loyal to their company with the option for remote work, according to a study by Staples Advantage.

While remote workers typically outperform their office-based counterparts, they also struggle to switch off at the end of the day (or as the statistic suggests, sometimes simply don’t want to).

Working from home blurs the lines between our professional and personal lives, which is why you need to be intentional about helping your team to create and enforce boundaries. Make sure remote employees understand what’s not expected of them just as clearly as they understand what is expected.

Here’s some pro-tips from Impala for doing this well:

At Impala, we use the hashtag ‘#leavingloudly’ to help to announce and normalise the act of leaving work on time. Whereas it can be tempting in a physical office for some employees to wait for signals that it’s okay to leave — such as leadership leaving first — dropping a ‘goodbye’ message into Slack can help your employees give themselves permission to leave at the end of the workday.

  • ‘Remotify’ your wellness schemes, benefits, and perks; promote healthy offline practices.

A survey of 200 full-time remote employees found ‘unplugging after work hours’ is the biggest challenge remote employees face in the working-from-home lifestyle' … so ‘remotify’ your wellness scheme! Give people the tools they need to make healthy choices during and after the workday.

You want to offer wellness schemes that are accessible no matter where your team lives (and if they are self-isolating). At Impala, we offer healthy food vouchers and subscription box services, even virtual fitness classes; no gym or equipment required. (See Perkbox.)

We also happily offer all employees a free annual subscription to meditation app Headspace. Based on scientific research, the benefits of Headspace’s meditation app have been shown in a breadth of areas — from stress management to better focus, improved sleep and mood, and the alleviation of anxiety.

Besides benefits, what else can you do to promote better offline practices?

Encourage your team to create ‘close-down routines’ — a better alternative to commuting — to help employees detach wholly and re-immerse themselves in their home-lives at the end of a workday. Recommend people shut their devices off and spend at least 20 minutes pursuing personal interests, hobbies, and methods of relaxation at the end of the workday.

Some of our favourite COVID-19 friendly close-down routines involve: at-home yoga or exercise videos, reading a good book, knitting, cooking, and even busting out the watercolour paints! (All of which, sound so much nicer than a trip down the Northern Line, and are equally effective in letting you decompress after work, to come out afresh on the other side …)

5. Preserve your culture and community ‘behind-the-screens’

Your culture needs your attention! When working remotely, there are higher barriers to entry for being social. To keep your sense of community alive and inspire team connections, you need to intentionally plan social interaction (and schedule it during the workday so that it actually happens)!

As a company, you want to encourage all demographics, and the entire spectrum of extroversion, to get involved in your culture and community.

At Impala, we do this by running a variety of social initiatives that cater to different people’s interests and personalities.

The benefits to team dynamics, happiness and morale are invaluable. This is especially important at this time of extreme uncertainty given COVID-19.

See our Culture Doc to go more in-depth into this super-interesting topic, and see some sample initiatives that you can implement today at no cost. But here’s a brief break-down of how to preserve culture when everyone’s working from home:

  • Create dedicated calendar blocks for socialisation

Why? Scholarly research shows that remote workers often take fewer breaks and struggle with feelings of social isolation and loneliness.

The act of putting time into company calendars for virtual watercooler chats or team breaks removes barriers and sanctions the act of break-taking itself. Taking this proactive approach can also help you to mitigate the risks of burnout and loneliness for remote workers.

At Impala, creating dedicated opt-in socialisation blocks removes barriers to entry and encourages our more introverted Impalans to also take part.

  • Create dedicated channels for social engagement

Slack is fantastic because it allows you to create dedicated channels or chat rooms for different topics.

Maybe your team is into #current-affairs? Or #sports-chat? Give your team the ability to strike up conversation and discover common interests, hobbies, and values.

At Impala, our social channels range from #impala-cooking and #impala-active, to #impalstagram and #impala-reading-recommendations, and everything in between!

  • Launch virtual social initiatives

Some of Impala’s virtual, COVID-19 friendly, social initiatives are listed below. These work super well for us in encouraging interaction and teamwork and improving morale during these strange times!

  • Lunch Buddies.

Impalans can opt-in weekly to be randomly grouped together for team lunch via Zoom. (Don’t worry: we encourage everyone to clean/disinfect their workspace before dining al desko.) Team members then schedule a video call at a time that suits them and dine together, and can expense lunch up to £10 if a selfie is posted to the rest of the team.

  • Virtual fitness classes

We just hosted our first-ever virtual team yoga session — connecting via Zoom with a certified professional instructor. Having a fitness buddy can make new regimens easier to stick to, and overall classes easier to show up to. We also have an #impala-active Slack channel where we invite team members to share fitness challenges, workout videos, online training resources and more to lead a healthy life.

  • Scavenger Hunt

To encourage people to take walking breaks and get outside of their workspace, Impala hosts a recurring virtual scavenger hunt. The competition gets real as we send randomised teams out in search of obscure items.

To earn points, team members must submit selfies with that day’s mystery items and coordinate their efforts as a team to complete additional challenges and ‘wildcards.’ (such as, capture a cartwheel on video!).

The competitive element, perhaps, bolstered participation at the start. But by the end, teams remarked how the initiative specifically encouraged them to take more screen breaks in the day than they would on average, and how increased break-taking began to feel totally appropriate and fun.

6. Revising communication policies and remote working agreements

If you skip creating fresh remote working policies and communication agreements, projects are more likely to hit a wall.

Plus, interpersonal conflict can spread like wildfire! (Shoutout again to ‘tone’ for being practically-impossible to decipher in text-speak.)

In order to cultivate trust and strong remote working relationships, everyone needs to be aligned and know what the expectations are in terms of availability, response times, and what communication channels are dedicated for what purposes.

At Impala we have ‘Ben’s 5 Magic Cure-Alls for Text-Based Comms’ to align us on communication etiquette, which eventually has become our unspoken agreement.

To outline your own team communication agreement, start here:

Outline available communication tools and their purposes. Start by creating a list of all the communication tools available to your business. Then write a sentence or two next to each tool, outlining what they should be used for and what each person must agree to in order for these tools to work effectively. This could end up looking something like this:

  • Zoom is our virtual meeting room. Each of us agrees to scheduled meetings on time. We don’t tolerate lateness to meetings, especially online ones.
  • Email is our primary mode of communication for bigger tasks/projects. Each of us agrees to respond to emails within 48 hours of their receipt.
  • Slack is now our virtual office. Each of us agrees to respond to direct messages within an hour and notify the team when we will be unable to respond to inbound messages.
  • Notion is our living playbook. Each of us agrees to read Notion pages we’ve been shared, and keep page information up-to-date where we are the owners. We can all contribute to Notion and should seek to in the interest of betting Impala’s policies, processes, products, and people experience!

Retrain on information security; make sure your teams know what constitutes a secure WiFi connection.

If you’re planning on enforcing VPN use, make sure employees have sufficient resources and knowledge on how to set them up. Additionally, consider leading a training on how to create strong passwords and how to manage passwords through a secure storage platform, such as LastPass.

At Impala, we have a security session as part of our onboarding process for all remote workers.

Document everything; organisations that are used to communicating face-to-face might hamper their team’s ability to stay up-to-date on project statuses, policy changes, etc. if they rely on verbal conversations alone to convey information.

This relates to info on policies and expectations, as well as specific strategic or team decisions.

Here are some pro tips we suggest to ameliorate this:

  • Team Meetings, 1:1s, (even certain one-off conversations) should all yield minutes. A good rule of thumb when trying to determine if a conversation should be documented when working remotely is … Yes. Yes, it should.
  • File minutes accordingly; team members should always know where to look if they’ve been out of office to catch up on information. Again, set expectations for response times such as, ‘each of us agrees to read meeting minutes within 48 hours of returning to work.’
  • Progress reports and project statuses; staying aligned on projects whilst working remotely can be an issue. You must set clearer deadlines and define metrics for monitoring productivity. Follow the three M’s here: ‘modemetrics, and milestones’ to do this effectively.
  • Mode → define the mode by which you will track productivity or project progress. As an example, I’m using Google Docs to write this blog. I can grant direct access to my manager so they can monitor my progress. Simple.
  • Metrics → define the metrics that will be used to measure project success. For example, is it word count? Is it average read time post-publication?
  • Milestones → define when you expect to deliver against your metrics. For example, when will the first draft be completed by? When is the final draft set to be published?

7. Expect to get some things wrong and be prepared to adapt quickly

If you’re making the shift to remote working for the first time, you are going to make some mistakes. Remote working is still an evolving area and resources on how to do it effectively are growing day by day.

One of the greatest tools available to you in making the switch to remote work is feedback. Asking for feedback can keep you alert to shared challenges and problem areas.

  • Seek and deliver feedback at a higher frequency; gathering regular feedback across your team and encouraging a feedback culture can help to ensure everyone is aligned to objectives. It also opens the door for employees to share ideas in a more timely fashion, so you can improve your remote working experience and efficiency faster.
  • Set up processes for team members to sound the alarms, if necessary; when working remotely for the first time, new challenges can emerge — from feelings of isolation and loneliness to not being able to self-motivate and stay focused, to an actual product or customer-related problem that a team needs to address together. There’s really a tonne of obstacles for newly-remote workers and managers. Make it safe for people at your organisation to admit struggle, reach out for help, and crowdsource solutions along the way.
  • Increase check-ins between employees and managers but shift the conversation’s focus; keep conversations about mental health wide open, especially whilst in the midst of a global pandemic, touching the lives of everyone! Your employees are people. Be the type of companies and managers that constantly hammers that fact home — in your policies, words, and actions: put people first.

Share What You’re Learning as COVID-19 Changes the World of Work

As coronavirus forces more businesses to make the leap to remote working before they might feel ready, knowledge-sharing is king.

To prevent further spread of this illness and sustain overall business productivity, we need to promote working from home. So, whether you’ve just made an unexpected transition to remote working or are considering making the leap very soon, bookmark this quick-guide to avoid costly mistakes and get remote working right from the start.

Bookmark and share this quick-guide with other newly-remote teams and leaders. Share your learnings and expertise gained through the new ways of working framed by COVID-19.

Follow Impala on Medium and LinkedIn for further insights on remote working and solutions to keep your remote team engaged, efficient, productive, and happy.