Managing Remote Teams: Advice From the Experts (Part 2)

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Key insights from Adi Hanash, VP of Product at Tempest, and Original Remote Program Product Owner at General Assembly.

Last week we kicked off our three-part series on managing remote teams. As many companies transition to working from home for the first time to help curb the spread of COVID-19, we wanted to offer some advice to help our community navigate this adjustment. GA has deep experience working with a distributed team and has also helped thousands of learners upskill and reskill through live-online formats. With these things in mind, we’ve tapped into our network of experts to answer top questions we’ve received from our partners, and to share tips and tricks that you can use with your remote teams.

For our second segment of this series, we sat down with Adi Hanash, VP of Product at Tempest, an organization focused on building a digital support platform for people recovering from alcohol use disorder. Adi is also a former General Assembly colleague and built the remote learning experience at GA as the original live-online product owner. Adi has transitioned 10 courses to be delivered online and also has 4+ years of experience working remotely himself.

Read on to hear Adi’s insights on:

  1. Engaging your distributed teams.
  2. Getting into the work mindset from home.
  3. Motivating your team remotely.

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

GA: Thanks so much for sitting down with us, Adi. We’ve heard from our community that one of the biggest remote work challenges is tracking teams. What is the best way to track attendance and engagement? 

Adi: There’s a piece to attendance worth addressing that is “How do we know someone’s in the office from nine to five or for the prescribed hours?” Having worked on product teams, we start every morning with a quick check-in to set the goals for the day and then hold an end of day check-in. You need to be comfortable allowing a little bit of freedom to do the work in the middle of the day. 

Another piece to attendance is making a decision as a team about what it means to be attending a meeting. For me, the number one thing is being on camera. So, if I’m using a video platform, my expectation is everyone who’s in that meeting is on camera for that meeting. If you turn off your camera, I assume you’ve walked out of the room. Being visible also prevents someone from just listening in while doing other work; it forces them to be more present.

GA: What do you talk about during those daily check-in meetings?

Adi: My product team has a ritual called “stand” that we practice every day. It can be held over a chat platform or in live sessions, but every morning, the team will go around and talk about what they did yesterday, what’s on deck for today, and any blockers or external constraints. At the end of the day, we check-in again and cover what was done that day, any blockers that still exist, and what’s queued up for tomorrow. It’s a really quick check-in that should take 10 to 15 minutes total.

The key is to focus not on the meetings or activities a person will have during the day, but the deliverables for the day. That’s where, as the team leader, you can be very clear on what your expectations are for the work that needs to get done. Or, if you are an individual who is now working remotely, you’re aligned with the rest of the team on what your workday entails. It’s a really helpful way to get everyone on the same page and to make sure that you are setting expectations around deliverables — even in this remote environment.

GA: How do you get into the work mindset before that “stand” check-in at the start of your day? It’s definitely a little different starting your day from home versus going into the office.

Adi: Establish what your rituals are for starting and ending work in your remote environment. This may sound silly, since I know one of the benefits of working from home is being able to be in pajamas all day, but my ritual was that I very consciously decided that when I started work, I put on a collared shirt. I was still in shorts, and that was fine, but the act of putting on the shirt meant I was at work, and the act of taking that shirt off meant I was no longer at work. I’m not saying that’s the right one for you, but I would just encourage everyone to establish rituals.

GA: You also mentioned giving the team a little bit of freedom to do the work in the middle of the day. What do you think about flexible work hours when working from home?

Adi: The most important thing is to not conflate remote working with flexible working  — you have to address them independently of each other. Remote working is the ability to do the work that you have to do from home or in various locations. Flexible work hours mean that you allow a person to set their own schedule for when they are working and when they aren’t. The question of flexible work schedules needs to be addressed in its own way.

When I worked remotely, I was working eight hours, but my mistake was spreading those eight hours over 14 hours, which made me feel like I was working the entire day even when I wasn’t. So when you work remotely, you should be very clear on what is okay to do with your schedule in your day (for example, leaving for lunch) and what is not (for example, cleaning). Do not make the mistake of spreading eight hours of work over too long of a period. The way I’ve managed this is to be very clear on my calendar about my scheduled time. You have to create  boundaries for yourself and for your team to make this work successfully.

GA: What about when you have team members who treat everything as an emergency? How do you deal with that if it falls within an unavailable slot in your schedule? 

Adi: This can be especially challenging for remote workers. I think the number one thing is defining the levels of emergencies with your teams. There should be some version at the top, which is that the business cannot move forward unless the emergency is solved. If it is a company-wide blocker, then everyone has to stop what they’re doing and help solve the problem. Then down at the bottom, there are things like a typo on the website. At that level, you need to ask, “Is it preventing us from doing anything? How many people have reported it?”

Once you get to an understanding of the emergency spectrum, you’d be surprised by how many actually have to be addressed in real-time. So that’s the number one thing I would encourage you to do.

GA: What tips do you have for managing and running large format meetings?

Adi: The most important thing with any meeting, especially larger ones, is to remind people of the opportunity cost of a meeting, and make it clear that there has to be true value driven by the people in the room. So for example, if you have 15 people in the meeting for 30 minutes, you’re not taking 30 minutes, you’re taking seven and a half hours. And if you start to think about it in terms of time as accumulation, you start to become a lot more judicious as a leader around what type of meetings you want to be calling and who’s going to be involved.

Then, if you do decide to proceed with a large format meeting, the number one thing is to have super-clear agendas. You have to be explicit as to what the deliverables for the meeting are. If you cannot define clear deliverables, there are probably better ways to do the meeting than to actually have a meeting. For example, if you need a decision on X, then the meeting attendees have to be defined by who’s responsible for making that decision. So that at the end of the meeting, you’re able to say great, our decision is X.

GA: How can you motivate your team members when everyone is remote?

Adi: For those of you who are in a leadership position, you need to think about what recognition looks like in a distributed room. It’s very easy to say “Great job!” to an individual, but you need to find the ways to publicize their victories and their wins, and more so in this distributed environment because it’s almost a requirement for them to know that even though they’re on the other end of the computer, their work is having an impact and is being recognized.

Chances are, you have some sort of chat platform that you can use. At Tempest we use Slack, and so we have to be creative about how to use it for this purpose. For example, one thing that I love to do with our team is to create a shout-outs time. Every week there’s a certain time where we get onto Slack and just shout out all the victories and wins for the week. Those small ceremonies and rituals help establish the connection, especially with remote employees, that the work they’re doing isn’t being lost to the ether, and that you’re actually seeing it and recognizing it.

A huge thanks to Adi for these amazing tips on rituals and leading a remote team. We’re always here for questions, email cheers@ga.co if you’ve got any!

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