Idée fixe 1.4: Remote Work in 2020: Beyond the Concept

Part four: Managing Remote Teams

🤗Thank you for being here, when really you could be a thousand other places.

If you are new to Idée Fixe, welcome. This is the last part of a four-part segment on Remote Work, so if you haven’t read parts one, two and three yet, why not do that first. 🖐Heads up part four is 3,500 words and will take you approximately 22 minutes to read. ☕️So grab your beverage of choice and settle in.

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Part four: Managing Remote Teams

What you will learn from this segment:

  1. Managing remote teams 101

  2. Creating efficient one-on-ones

  3. Fostering collaboration

  4. Use time zones to your advantage

  5. Watch out for these signs

Managing Remote Teams

“Successful remote work is based on three core principles: communication, coordination, and culture. Broadly speaking, communication is the ability to exchange information, coordination is the ability to work toward a common goal, and culture is a shared set of customs that foster trust and engagement. In order for remote work to be successful, companies must create clear processes that support each of these principles.” Sean Graber

Managing your remote teams is going to require a lot of what we have discussed in parts one through three: building a strong culture, creating an efficient onboarding program, focusing on processes and clear communications... Here are some additional things to think about when managing teams remotely.

⚖️ Equal Parts Process and Spontaneity

Managing remotely (and/or remote teams) needs to be done in a way that is equal parts structure/process and spontaneity. Similarly to guidelines, processes, and rules, you need to know what they are so that you know when and how you can bend them when needed. Having the right tools and technology is going to be key, but they will only be as useful as the processes you put in place.

As Stephanie Hess, Head of Global Communications and Corporate Marketing at Asana puts it “as a manager I keep regular office hours and 1:1s as consistent as possible and have an open two-way dialogue with my remote teammates so they know they can reach out at any time. This also includes non-scheduled check-ins and little pulses throughout the week to make sure they are looped into what is going on 'at the office' and hear how their day is going too.”

🧭 Coaching and Not Direction.

This was one of my hardest but most rewarding lessons I learned. The moment you understand that it’s not actually easier/better/faster to “just do it yourself”. And instead you coach someone through the process of getting something done, things get a lot better a lot faster.

“Coaching, and not direction, is the first quality of leadership now. Get the barriers out of the way to let people do the things they do well.” says Bob Noyce

The best leaders truly get out of the way and let their teams shine and get on with the job at hand. And yet so few seem to be able to let go and not micro-manage their vision.

In the Netflix documentary, 7 Days Out, one of the episodes follows the count-down to a Chanel Couture Fashion Show under Karl Lagerfeld. I was absolutely taken aback at how hands-off he is during the creation process. In his own words, “most of the things I design, I see them when I am sleeping. The next morning I make the sketch because you know, I sketch everything myself. I don’t make the dresses myself. If I were to make the dresses there would be no collection because it takes so much time and it’s not my job. I don’t take other people’s jobs.”

None of this takes away from his genius, quite the opposite. And with his recent passing in February 2019, his unique leadership has shined as we look at how seamlessly Virginie Viard, named new Creative Director, has taken over the reins of La Maison Chanel. Talk about being set-up for success.

Basically, once his ideas were sketched out they were then handed over to the four premières (i.e. couture seamstresses). “You cannot do couture without them [the premieres] says, Karl”. Once they are done and only then were the designs shown to Karl Largerfeld, according to the documentary. He would then make a few tweaks and changes to ensure his vision is perfect. But other than that he left the work up to his premières.

Honestly, if more people took his approach we would be better off. Let’s not forget that La Maison Chanel puts on a total of 8 shows a year, with an average of 70 looks per show, all overseen by the Creative Director. That’s an average of 560 looks to create so really the only way to get it done is to trust your team and delegate.

If you create a culture of empowerment, ownership and taking action, the above will come naturally for you and your teams.

🤗 Let’s Talk About Empathy

A recent survey conducted for the 2018 State of Workplace Empathy reported that 96% of respondents rated empathy as an important quality for companies to demonstrate.

Despite this, 92% of employees believe that empathy remains undervalued at their company. This number has increased over the years. Empathy is a "cornerstone of emotional intelligence, and when a workplace demonstrates empathy, there are countless studies that correlate it to increased happiness, productivity, and retention amongst employees." Empathy is about being able to put your differences aside, and trying to understand where the ‘other’ person is coming from; it’s trying to put yourself in their position by understanding their frame of reference and context. 

To many, empathy seems like a skill that is easy to develop and benign, but it’s rare to come across true empathy which is not to be mistaken with sympathy - which is far more common and easier to offer. If you are wondering what the difference is between the two, Brene Brown does a great job explaining the distinction between the two concepts.

Things you should be empathetic about:

  • Geographical disparities: The weather, for example, will affect your teams in regions where come winter, the weather turns miserable, the sun rises later and sets earlier, the days are shorter and gloomier. Some will never experience this. For example, I cannot tell you just how impactful moving to California has been on my mood and motivation. At the time of writing this, I am in Canada, Vancouver and the bad weather has hit me like a ton of bricks.

  • Lifestyle disparities: Childcare, chronic pain and diseases, visa struggles and long commutes are all disparities to be aware of. 

  • Unknown factors: Most of the time we simply do not know what is going on for others. Below we will talk about a few ways to foster trust amongst team members so you can all feel comfortable opening up about what is going on for you.

👂Active and Reflective Listening

Active listening is often used when trying to solve conflicts. It requires the listener to fully concentrate on the speaker, understand, respond and then remember what is said.

Reflective listening is where the listener repeats back to the speaker what they have just heard to confirm both parties understand. As you can imagine both of these require a fair deal more from you than our standard passive listening.

Both of these are incredibly useful when running a business, selling software, managing a remote team, and/or just being an overall great human. They are also skills that women, in particular, are very good at. I talked about it in this piece I wrote for the Elpha community.

A great way to kick-off calls and a great way to create the muscle for active listening is creating time for personal and professional check-ins at the start of every team call. You are creating and holding space for each of your team members before you dive into the job at hand. You never know what is going on for one another if you don’t ask and give space.

As Alicia Donovan Brainerd, a Senior Manager Front End Engineering at Salesforce puts it “this is a concept that was very new to me when starting at NationBuilder. Before we started our meetings we would hold space for one another. We did this by adding a human element to meetings a personal check-in. Your check-in could be anything from - I went to yoga this morning to the kids kept me awake all evening. This type of awareness serves multiple purposes in my mind. It creates a safe environment for people to share what is going on in their life. This format gives you a sense of community and connection with one another in a remote setting. Perhaps you didn’t know that your peers were interested in the same hobbies. Then you can create that connection outside of the work. As a manager, it is especially helpful to have an awareness of how someone is feeling to hold space for them.”

🧯Creating Safe Spaces

When you are physically together in an office people can connect more easily, we can read each other's moods and see the signs. And as a result, you can pick up on cues and ask the right questions.

None of this is possible with distributed teams. No matter the level of Emotional Intelligence you have, guessing what is happening for someone is impossible. So you will need to tell them and ask. As a remote team member, and even more so as a remote manager, it is your responsibility to speak up and tell people what's going on for you and it's the responsibility of everyone else to create the space and a safe environment where speaking-up is possible.

One thing most people are scared of is being forgotten. By creating different spaces you allow people to show up, be seen and heard and hence create a sense of ongoing being.

👋 Facilitate Informal Communications

As mentioned in parts one through three, exceptional communication skills are required when working and managing remotely. It’s a lot like playing an endless game of Pictionary - you need to be focused on the details, use very specific words and constantly guide others on their progress.

Creating opportunities for frequent informal communication that is facilitated is also going to be key. As much as it sounds counter-intuitive such facilitation is actually extremely helpful. The teams at Gitlab put it best with the following, "one must be intentional about designing informal communication when it cannot happen more organically in an office."

  • Create chat rooms in Slack where people can “hang out” virtually and interact throughout the day on any work or non-work issue (i.e. pets, book clubs, running group, movie, and TV show suggestions…), just like you would naturally in a physical office environment.

  • Create virtual happy hours for 30 minutes where people can connect to a video conference and just hang out together. Every week, remote workers at Stack Overflow meet up via Hangout just to chat and catch up. This grew out of our New York office’s “Bev Bash” tradition, and it is basically a happy hour. There are a plethora of ideas like this you can do to foster human connection - happy hours, daily check-ins, donut times, a 60sec dance party... 

  • Create 'Donut times'. The concept is very straight forward, every week two people will be randomly paired together and are invited to meet/talk for 30' and learn about each other. Once you opt-in, the Slack integration, takes care of the rest.

  • Wences Casares, CEO and founder of Xapo, uses an always-on Zoom videoconferencing to implement a virtual “open door” policy that generates serendipitous meetings between employees on different continents.

🙌 Thank You

Give credit where credit is due, acknowledge your teammates and say thank you. Seriously, saying thank you is a dying art these days.

Why not give people high fives at the end of the week. It can be as simple as creating a Thank You or High Five channel in Slack or as sophisticated as using performance management software such as 15Five (with a Slack integration). I have seen it used spectacularly for this sort of thing (it also allows you to track your OKRs and the overall health of teams/company). Any of these things will immediately boost morale.

Creating efficient One-on-Ones

To efficiently manage people who are not ‘sat next to you’ you are going to need regular check-ins that are both scheduled and spontaneous.

Clear roles and responsibilities:

In part three, we spent some time going over the company, team and manager onboarding. Take everything from the manager onboarding section and do your best to apply it on an ongoing basis.

The most important being setting clear roles, responsibilities, and objectives. Don’t leave any of this up for interpretation. As a manager, your role is to lead by example and model all of this. Come prepared to your 1:1s, take notes, keep track of progress and make sure all this is easily accessible to both parties.

Some basic principles for efficient one-on-ones:

  1. They should be brief (20-30 minutes) and regular (weekly).

  2. They should be a priority and only pushed back, moved or canceled if absolutely necessary.

  3. They should be structured (with an agenda) but also be flexible.

  4. I find them to be most productive when both parties have a list of items/needs they want to discuss. After all, it’s a two-way relationship.

  5. This is not the time/place for feedback as feedback should be done immediately (or as soon as possible). See the section below about giving and receiving feedback.

  6. Why not start with personal check-ins ad described above.

👉GitLab has a great section in its handbook on efficient 1:1s. In addition, the Remote Work Encyclopedia has put together a list of guides from trusted remote leaders.

Fostering Collaboration

We are all different

We are all different, work differently, have different needs and will react differently is important. Understanding what this means on a team is crucial. There are different ways of going about this - personality tests are generally a good way. But you can also just start with a manager blueprint or a personal README.

The idea for all of the above is the same: understanding what gives you energy, what drains you, what’s your communication style, how best to work with you… These are only useful if you can discuss them and their results as a team, and if they are available and accessible to all.

Asynchronicity is key

The core decision-making needs to happen outside of the physical office. For example, don't just drop in to have a chat, no more last-minute meeting round-ups, no more quick straw polls in the office to get a sense for something... All of this has to now be done online.

Otherwise, your attempts at creating a one team dynamic will fail and you will slowly but surely choke off and discourage the remote people from any real input and decisions. Which in turn will take away any sense of ownership and enthusiasm they may have.

As mentioned at length in part two asynchronous communication requires patience, clear and over-communication, and timelines. In addition, asynchronicity can really only work if you have transparency from all team members.

Alicia Donovan Brainerd, a Senior Manager Front End Engineering at Salesforce and someone with lots of experience when it comes to managing remotely and managing remote teams, uses the In and Out concept to ensure transparency and understanding around availability.

In Slack my team uses the In/Out communication to update the rest of the remote team. By using this you can share your availability with the team, help solve blockers, and also create space and disconnect at the end of the day.” says Donovan Brainerd.

It looks a little like this: As each team members start their day and log into Slack they kick off with the below (thank you to Alicia for sharing her below process).


🎯Goals: List of goals for the day

📞Calls: List of calls for the day

🥨Interrupts: Lunch/Gym/Obligations

Then when you leave for the day you post the following in Slack:


👋Leaving for the evening

Feedback is extremely hard to do

The main rule of feedback is to do it in person, in a timely fashion, be specific and use "I" statements. When you can't do it in person, do it via video conference (avoid doing this over the phone).

Note: Thomas Gordon developed the concept of an “I” statement in the 1960s and contrasted these statements to “you” statements, which shift blame and attributions to the listener. “I” statements enable speakers to be assertive without making accusations, which can often make listeners feel defensive. So instead of saying you make me feel unwelcome or you are not listening to me (which clearly points the blame at the other person). Instead, you can say, I feel unwelcome or I do not feel heard right now (which is about sharing how things are landing for you with no finger-pointing). 

Giving and receiving feedback regularly is crucial in a startup and even more so on a distributed team. The more you do it, the easier it will feel over time. As a manager, you could be setting an example and requesting feedback regularly. And never forget, giving and receiving feedback should always be done with one goal in mind: to help us be better.

There are a lot of discussions happening right now around feedback and we have seen a shift away from anonymous and very surface-level feedback sessions to rigorous, pervasive and candid feedback that may not work either. Feedback is more often than not more about the person giving it than the person receiving it.

What I learned after working in a culture of feedback for five years was the following: the only real (and useful) thing we can do is share our own feelings and experiences. That’s it - share how things landed for you, how they made you feel, what your reactions are to certain things... And the best way to do this is to talk in "I" statements when you share your own experiences, do not generalize any of this. You can tell people where they stand with regards to you, but that's it.

A Word About Time Zones

A lot of the habits around building a solid culture, creating an asynchronous working environment, focusing on output and being remote by default will all help you work better with colleagues in different time zones.

The biggest benefit of being spread around the globe is that you can absolutely be collaborating and serving your customers/clients 24/7. And with the right processes and habits in place, you can execute on a project much faster than you would normally.

That being said, it’s not easy to keep track of everyone (and their whereabouts) and will require lots of intentional planning. The key is to remain flexible and keep an up-to-date and open calendar.

“I'd quite happily sacrifice staying a little later or getting up a little earlier to avoid the stresses of a morning commute in rush hour traffic.” says Zapier's Lindsay Brand

A few tools to help with this:

  • Figure it out: this Google Chrome extension beautifully displays the time zones you work in.

  • hTime: allows you to find the best time to meet between different locations.

  • World Time Buddy: your basic time converter and world clock.

Watch Out For The Below Signs 

  • Compassion fatigue is a real thing: It generally happens as you introduce deep empathy practices into an organization and often happens to the same few truly empathetic people. It can be a lot for one individual to hold. Common symptoms are emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, irritability, self-contempt... to name just a few.

  • Unconscious bias towards certain groups and not others: It's often easier for us to be compassionate towards groups that are similar to us. For example, if you are a parent it's easier to be more compassionate and empathetic to a fellow parent. Make sure you really listen and understand when someone is sharing, when you remove assumptions and listen you will notice a decrease in such unconscious bias. 

  • Your Slack channels are quiet: you notice that people are mostly communicating in closed groups and DMs (Direct Messages), these are all signs that there is a lack of a feeling of a safe environment and a lack of openness.

💡I recently discovered the Joel test for Remote teams which is basically a series of yes/no questions to help software teams measure their quality. It takes less than 5 minutes and will help you improve your team. I can’t suggest it enough to anyone either starting out or wondering how they are doing.

When asked what skills were needed to work efficiently, Darren Murph from GitLab has this to say: “A shared belief in the values, being a true manager of one, and impeccable communication skills.”

And that’s all I have (for now) on Remote Work. Please let me know what you thought of this first Idée Fixe. Could it have been shorter, longer, less dense? Could it have used more examples or Gifs? All of your advice is welcome and needed. 🤩

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What You Do Is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz

A First-Time Manager’s Guide to Leading Virtual Teams by Mark Mortensen (HBR)
Why the 2020s will be the remote work decade by Chris Herd
The Great Tulsa Remote Worker Experiement by Sarah Holder
You're Not Listening. Here's Why. byKate Murphy (New York Times)
27 Tolls Every Remote Worker Needs by Deepina Kapali
How to Work in Different Time Zones by Zapier

Managing Remote Teams - a Crash Course by Andreas Klinger
Remote workshops
The Holloway Guide to Remote Work(waiting list for early access. I got a little sneak peak and I can tell you now it's very good and an in-depth body of work.)
Leadership Handbook by GitLab
How To Manage a Distributed Team by Friday App

Work Club Community
The Remote Work Summit

In the most simplistic way an idée fixe is any idea that dominates one’s mind for a prolonged period. This includes both the delusional and the pedestrian ideas.