Managing Remote Teams: Advice From the Experts (Part 1)

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Top tips from Matt Brems, Managing Partner at BetaVector, and Global Lead Data Science Instructor at General Assembly

There has been an unprecedented shift to remote working as companies and individuals do their part to curb the spread of COVID-19. We’ve heard from our global partners that this shift has been a difficult adjustment and that teams could use some tips and tricks to cultivate connections with their remote employees and maintain productivity during this uncertain time. General Assembly (GA) has deep remote work experience and has also delivered live online learning to over 5,000 students and remote workers around the world. With that in mind, we’re sitting down with our experts to get answers to your most pressing questions and the right tools on managing remote teams and adjusting to remote work from home. 

For our first segment of this three-part blog series, we sat down with Matt Brems, Managing Partner at BetaVector and Global Lead Data Science Instructor at General Assembly. Matt has taught 1,000+ students since 2016 and has been working and teaching remotely for the last two and a half years.  

Read on to hear Matt’s insights on:

  1. Identifying blind spots in the shift to remote.
  2. Building company culture and employee engagement in remote teams.
  3. Juggling work and life when they coexist more than ever before.

For additional perspectives on remote team management, check out part two and part three.

GA: Matt, thanks so much for being here with us today. To kick things off, what were some of the concerns you had when you started to teach online, and how might these concerns apply to people transitioning to remote work?

Matt: Glad to be here! One of the challenges in shifting to an online classroom was that I just didn’t know what the blind spots were going to be. I knew the content I was supposed to teach, but the blind spot was how could I ensure my students’ success when everybody was now connecting remotely. Part of it just took some experience, but really, it was about listening to my students. 

As a manager, you know the business objectives that you’ve always had. However, you have an additional blind spot: how do you get your team to succeed with the uncertainty of everyone working from home? Within these unique challenges, you have to create space for your team to share what they need and what isn’t working. Then you have to listen to what your entire team is telling you and act on it. Finally, you need to accept that there will probably be a period where it feels weird and uncomfortable. 

GA: It sounds like it all worked out! We’ve heard a common blind spot is not knowing how to collaborate with teams remotely. Do you have any tips or collaboration tools you’d recommend for managing collaborative work?

Matt: When collaborating with others remotely, it’s important to be as explicit as possible. When I started teaching remotely, I would ask vague questions like, “What’s wrong with this?” or “What do you think about that?” Since my questions were vague, my students’ answers were all over the place. That wasn’t a failure on their part, it was a failure on my part. So when it comes to working collaboratively, I have a couple of recommendations. 

First, break the task down into smaller chunks and make the tasks as specific as possible to your remote employees. Let’s say you need your team to write a report by the end of the day. Instead of just putting the task out there, work with the entire team to divide it up. I’m not trying to encourage micromanagement, but it’s much easier for communication to break down remotely. People jump into their next meetings, people make assumptions about who does what. 

Second, be explicit. Instead of using terms like “end of day,” specify what “end of day” is. Does it mean 5 p.m. or midnight? If you’re managing remote employees in different time zones, which time zone? Being explicit, wherever possible, is a really helpful tool for effective communication.

GA: Really great tips. Another blind spot we’ve been hearing frequently is around cultivating a sense of community while remote — how do you manage to keep your entire team connected?

Matt: When it comes to developing that sense of connectedness in the programs that we teach, we start every lesson with an icebreaker. For example, earlier today, my colleague asked, “If you were forced to be part of a talent show, what would your talent be?” This gets the whole team engaged in social interaction that’s a fun way to share things about themselves that you wouldn’t otherwise know, a promising tactic for building trust. Think about the “water cooler” talk where people share things that aren’t directly connected to work. We can still do that; we just have to be a bit more creative and intentional about creating that sense of a dependable company culture and community.

As another example, General Assembly develops community by doing daily trivia. Katie, our “trivia guru,” announces a time for trivia, comes up with five trivia questions and then asks them in the trivia Slack channel. People compete to be the first to correctly answer the question. It’s a lot of fun because so many people get really into it. Everybody laughs because some people are right on the money and some people are sharing weird, off-the-beaten-path answers. We’re leaning into everything that we would do in-person to build that community; we just have to be more intentional about it when we’re remote.

GA: To expand on company culture even further, what advice do you have for creating norms for your remote teams?

Matt: To come up with norms, start with a shared blank document and let the whole team contribute their thoughts about what’s important. Then transition to discussing these thoughts in a virtual meeting and have people come to a consensus on norms for the group. Specifically, you want to provide a safe space for people to share what they need out of your team environment, and you want to make space for people who have different experiences than you might have. 

I want to be abundantly clear about this: Once the team agrees on a norm, the whole team needs to follow it. And that includes the team leader. There is sometimes this tendency for people in leadership to say, “Hey, we established the team norms, but that’s for everybody else. Because I’m the team leader, I don’t necessarily have to abide by that.” That can be the quickest way for norms to deteriorate and works against building trust. Being clear and making sure everybody adheres to the norms is huge.

GA: A lot of people have children or parents to take care of in addition to working from home – what are your thoughts on flex hours as part of those team norms? 

Matt: I think that’s really important right now. Everybody needs to come together and be flexible and empathetic because this is a difficult time for a lot of people. Recognize that maybe somebody will be able to do good work from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. before their kids get up, and then there are times during the day when they need to take breaks to play with their kids, and then they’ll be ready to hop back on later in the evening.

This ties directly into setting team norms. Norms can include being explicit about the hours that people are available, as opposed to assuming that everybody is still going to be on the nine to five office schedule while at home. In my opinion, assuming that what you did in the office will simply work at home is one of the quickest ways to set yourself up for failure.

GA: On the flip side, how do you set boundaries with family while you’re working, given remote work and home life coexist in the same place? 

Matt: With my fiancé, we had to have very direct conversations about what worked for us and what didn’t. For example, I said “If you come home and my headphones are in, just wave at me but go into the other room. If I’m able to talk to you, I will take my headphones out and come talk to you.”

Some people recommend even having a little sign, like a yes/no sign. If it says yes, you can come up and tap them on the shoulder, but if they flip it and it says no, don’t bother them at that moment. That can be really important. 

GA: One final question. We know that working from home can be stressful, especially when juggling family obligations and health concerns. What advice do you have for people who are having those feelings right now?

Matt: It is very common and normal for people to feel stressed, to feel isolated, or to feel upset about what’s going on. I read on Twitter recently that this isn’t a normal working from home scenario…we’re working from home during a crisis. I have worked from home for almost 2.5 years, and I still feel like something is fundamentally different, given all that’s going on in the news. One of the things that I personally believe is that community is really, really important. And it’s possible to have community with one another, even if you’re not physically in the same room. 

With my fiancé, we sat down with his parents and did a virtual drink. For the first three minutes, it felt bizarre to talk with people on a computer screen, but after a few minutes, you don’t even notice that they’re not in the room. Virtual connections can happen with family, friends, colleagues and co-workers to the extent that you want. Leaning into my community has been really cathartic for me, and I hope that it is for many of you too.

A huge thanks to Matt for taking the time to sit down with us to share his remote work tips and tricks. As we adjust our everyday lives to our ever-changing world, it’s helpful to know that our sense of work, community, and work/life balance does not have to be compromised. 

Do you have questions about managing remote teams that you’d like to ask our experts? Email us at cheers@ga.co.

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