12 Crucial Skills for Remote Leadership

I participated in Remote Forever Summit last week. There were many good sessions. But Charlie Birch’s (@BurnoutBunisher) talk about Celebrating Human Connection in a Digital World ticked the most boxes for me . In this session she listed 12 skills needed for successful remote leadership. I spent few days thinking them from my perspective and decided to share my thoughts.

Remote Mindset

Working remote is not about location. It doesn’t have to hinder collaboration, instead offices hinder independent work. Of course, you need to collaborate but collaboration tends to happen in short bursts. Then it’s time for independent work such as writing this article. To be a great tribal lead for 20 remote working people I need to trust them. Which is quite easy since they’re all such professionals.

Overcoming Obstacles

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Yes, there will be obstacles in remote work. How do I maintain my focus? How can I be sure that I’m productive? As a leader one of my biggest goals is to inspire my tribe members. If I want to work remotely more often, I need to find a way to be an inspiration without constant face-to-face communication. Using Slack and mobile phone are good ways of reaching out. And most of them work at the customer offices so for me they are always “remote”.

Company Culture

Company needs to understand the value of remote work. It has proven to increase productivity and satisfaction. Open communication and feedback are key elements to foster culture that enables remote work. I value transparency high and luckily so does my employer. Leader who wants to encourage remote work needs also to set clear goals and manage expectations.

Cultural Competency

Effective interaction with people who have different cultural influences is necessity also for remote leader. That’s because you’re not working only with your hypothetical identical twin. So you need tolerance to difference. Only then can you match your coaching with the person you are serving as a leader. Same applies also when your people are working remotely. There might be even more variance in their needs. And I see great opportunities in this. I can gain cultural competence by traveling. And I love to travel. So it’s a win-win-win situation!

Social Support

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Socially supporting remote workers at least the same level as those working colocated is hard. It is one of the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a leader. I’ve solved this by paying extra attention to people online. I have also used enablers such as technical solutions to strengthen social interactions. Also, making sure that everybody gets enough 1-on-1 time from the leader is very important in creating trust.

Role Clarity

Making sure that everybody knows their role is one important task for the leader of a remote team. This does not mean that the leader should tell them how to organize. It means supporting them in their self-organization by communicating goals and targets clear. My tribe members don’t work in a single team or even at the same customer. But what I can offer them is coaching and mentoring in their obstacles. And many time it’s about how to bring the most of their competence in to use in a challenging environment. To me, that is clarifying their consultant role.

Communication

There is one thing that rises up many times when discussing communication in remote teams: asynchronous communication. It’s the backbone of effective remote leadership. But people need synchronous communication as well. So yes, I do use Slack or mail to send messages but I try to concentrate on phone calls or meeting face-to-face. The more important thing it is, the more “live and present” way of communication I use. Making sure that each conversation has a purpose is important, because people don’t want to be bother for nothing when they are working remotely.

Technical Management

Coaching and being an example. Those are my main tools as a leader and manager. Coordinating my tribe members and sales activities is closest to the actual managing I need in my work. This is due to the fact that our company is very Lean and trusts it’s employees. Finding ways to plan and design activities that makes the company go

Collective Knowledge

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” – Benjamin Franklin

Developing the whole group is important. In my tribe we share experiences and learnings in our projects time to time. We also try to generate insights and generalisations which can be again applied to other projects as well. And after such sessions we put those findings available so people can read them whenever they have the time. This way they are available also to those who were not online or at the same location. Investing in life long learning is something held in great value here at Siili. Enhancing collective knowledge enhances collaboration – especially with remote teams

Self-Management

Each person should take responsibility in one’s own behaviour and well-being. And encouraging this is one crucial task and mindset for a leader. Remote leadership underlines this need mightily. I see coaching as a good approach. Setting goals and helping tribe member achieve those goals is a process where the coachee learns self-management.

Self Care

This is very close to self-management in my perspective. One needs to have a healthy body and mind to succeed. And to be a good leader for remote people you need to be in shape both physically and mentally to be there for your team. One thing you can do this is to go to the woods with your team – remotely! Using modern technologies you could all go in the nearest trees and have a walk. Calm down and meditate a bit, if you like. Keep on finding ways to look for the heal and cure.

Lifestyle

Remote mindset tends to go together with a lifestyle supporting remote work. But the correlation is not clear to me. But I see that making time for your close ones and yourself is very important. People with both personal and professional goals have been the most enthusiastic folks I have been coaching. So balance is the key.

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So, I will continue coaching people to take responsibility in their own goals and to find meaningful ways of working and learning aside.

Employee Engagement – Towards Great Success

Jobs and tasks are now more demanding and challenging than before. Also changes are more intense and rapid. Additionally to this people feel they are in constant hurry and increased uncertainty. No wonder coping at work has become even more important! And coping is not only lack of symptoms of burnout or work stress. It is also not reasonable to describe people’s wellbeing unilaterally from the problem-oriented point of view. Measuring the lack of “badness” doesn’t often lead into actions that increases “goodness”. Thus looking from the flip side of the issue – the employee engagement – is the way towards success.

Burnout in few words

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To make the vocabulary clear, some words from the “dark side”. Burnout’s origins are in the interaction between work environment and individual. The needs and requirements and the person’s requirements are often imbalanced. It often means that the person’s expectations and available opportunities are also lopsided. Typical to burnout are excessive workload, low opportunities of influence, insufficient rewards, lacking the community and justice and conflicting values.

Ok, what about Employee Engagement?

Employee engagement is a state which is general, permanent, positive and affective-motivational. It’s typical qualities are energy, dedication and immersion. Employee engagement doesn’t focus on single point, event, person or act. One can say that employee engagement is enjoying, loving and being proud of the work! People engaged to their job wants to invest in it more, they are persistent and eager to push it even when facing obstacles. They feel their work meaningful and even inspire themselves in challenging situations. So instead of cynicism where temporary experiences of high one feels like being in a constant flow!
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How can employee engagement be increased within an organisation? One way is to offer them more autonomy so that they seek for meaningful challenges that stretch themselves the right amount at the right time. As Ayala Pines has said:
“To be able to burn out, person must first be in fire.”
It is possible to feel stress and exhaustion without the lacking of autonomy. But I’d like to agree with professor Pines that burnout requires the phase of being engaged. Challenge is to keep the flame of engagement burning at a sustainable pace.
Also certainty in matching expectations and opportunities facilitates the feeling of employee engagement. Constant constructive feedback empowers one to improving oneself. This enables the positive and dedicated state which is the cornerstone of employee engagement. Combining work and personal life gives inspiration and energy.

This all is very interesting… but what next?

So, it is clear that we would like our colleagues and employees to feel engagement to their jobs. Studies states that it’ll lead to higher productivity and increased profitability.

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Giving software artisans and craftspersons the means to reach mastery, purpose and autonomy is way to make us motivated. Daniel Pink elaborates this in his TED talk and RSA AnimationAgile teams with enough autonomy tends to seek the purpose (common goal) and develop mastery (ways of working) in their journey.
But solely bolstering teams in the expense of the individual needs does no quite cut it. Yes, the team is the main unit in agile development, but some attention should give to personal expectations, needs and motivations. Good coaches do this to enable the personal engagement.
So, don’t focus on only removing the things causing burnout. Strengthen things that makes people feel more engagement to their jobs.

How not to suck as an agile team member?

Do you think of agile development as an act of freestyling and cappuccino drinking with no plans attached? Let’s just do something and deliver it to the customer, they will surely appreciate it?

I have news for you: that could not be further from the truth. My experience says that agile team and agile team member needs two thing above everything else. Those things are discipline and communication. The latter is quite self explaining (I’ll come to that later) but discipline? Is that like waterfall?

Agile is about reacting to changes and delivering small deliverables often. And to be able to do that a team must have a structured process and agreed ways of working.

Let’s take for example DoD which stands for Definition of Done. DoD tells the team what are the conditions a requirement has to fullfill in order to be called “done”. Like unit tests and code review. What happens if somebody is not disciplined and didn’t write unit tests for a task? The rest of the team thinks that they are done! And yes, I do know that there are ways to make sure that no untested code get’s into master branch in version control. Another example could be a scrum board. What if a team member doesn’t update his/her progress in real time? The rest of the team doesn’t have a clue how the team is progressing. Discipline.

One attribute of a successful agile team is continuous improvement. Of their processes. It is impossible to have a perfect process in place from day one. And if you don’t improve you rot. Teams start with some process and work actively to improve it. One way to make improvement happen is to agree on an intermediate goal and actively work to reach it. Everybody in the team has to do their part. Discipline.

So discipline makes sure that the team is moving into right direction and the whole team is in the same boat. And communication is the way to make sure discipline is in place.

Thoughts about technology leadership

Nowadays we see the software development more like product development. It’s more common to work in teams instead of separate rooms alone (and communicating over tools). Today the team can really affect the working methods, tools etc. (like Agile Manifesto says).

Still there’s organisations who still prefer to use the old “traditional” way of managing top to bottom style, but assuming working agile. Strict processes might be recommended or required when we are dealing with for example life-critical systems.

If we look at the picture of Evolution of Management (above), it says that management and authority and trust is moving inside of teams. That’s a good direction because especially in software development the coders really have to know what to do to write the right business logic – so they have the actual authority to build the right solution which is based even more on Lean startup approach. There’s no responsibility handovers anymore – people are taking responsibility as a team, not based on roles or hierarchical levels – e.g. It’s not a designer’s responsibility to test  or code the system. Everyone must do everything they can to build a perfect solution regardless what the actual roles are – there’s only team of people, not team of roles.

About leading the people instead of commanding and controlling the resources and processes: it’s understandable hard to reborn as a leader instead of commander especially if the career has started in waterfall era. Nowadays managers are required to have a great social skills like empathy and flexibility. Today’s leadership in technology field is all about continuous improvement by making blockers or waste visible and focusing to removing them.

I see technology as a material like wood or metal. Technology can be crafted by developers. Somedays developers need to craft the tools of their own to do the things right, actually that’s pretty rare because there’s a pretty high level of standardisation of tech tools (for VCS or ALM).

The main focus of tech lead is to reduce the time between getting to know what to do and production installation:

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Technology leadership is rarely evolved only in technology nowadays, because we have so much out-of-the-box tools or overall solutions for implementing the common scenarios, such as forms, wizards, web shops etc. It’s more about dealing within the team in social level (to enhance the team dynamics) – and at my point of view it’s definitely shouldn’t be related to technology at all. I see that the technology is going more high-end (naturally), but human-to-human communication should be in natural face-to-face form instead of communicating over tools. When interacting face-to-face, we have all senses in use, but if we work constantly remotely, it’s always harder to communicate over Skype – then you have only voice, maybe video, but there’s so much information you don’t see, and I see that harmful to team dynamics. It’s important to encourage the team to work as much face-to-face it’s possible – especially when the development is just started. It’s understandable not to strictly avoid remote work either – flexibility is one of the key assets of modern work culture.

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Agile implementations like Scrum gives the framework to focus on the right things to answering the needs of rapidly changing world. As a tech lead it’s important to see also the social level as valuable as code – I mean how the team members support each other and really focus on the process and improving constantly.

There’s pretty effective principle for leading the tech team: If the product is broken in production, the problem is in the process – so fix the process to build the perfect product (actually it’s never perfect, or it shouldn’t be because of Kaizen).