MashTank, Managing Partner
Michael consults with companies to diagnose and fix the root causes of underperformance. He works at client sites all over the world, and from his home office in Philadelphia.
Curotec & Freelance Writer, Director of Communication
Dawn is a former executive with 17+ years of experience as a leader. She is now a professional writer, leveraging a decade of remote work and leadership from her home office.
Brian founded Curotec in 2010 initially as a 100% remote company. These days there is an office where the team reports, however they still enjoy 2 – 3 days per week from home.
BRIAN DAINIS: We’re going to go ahead and kick this off. Thank you, everybody who’s on. This webinar’s going to be about how to transition your company to be remote, which a lot of you are suddenly finding yourself doing in the current situation. So without further ado I’d like to start.
So we’re going to have Michael White, who is the managing partner at MashTank. Michael consults with companies to help them diagnose and fix the root cause of underperformance. He works with clients all over the world both in person and from his home office in Philly.
Next we’re going to have Dawn, who is the director of communication at Curotec as well as a freelance writer. Dawn is a former executive with 17 years of experience as a leader, a senior leader. She’s also now a professional writer and leverages her decades of remote work and leadership from her home office in Austin, Texas.
And lastly is myself. I’m the CEO of Curotec. And Curotec started out initially as a 100 percent remote company. These days we have both face-to-face office time as well as remote work as well.
And if anybody has any questions during the webinar, feel free to send the question in. We’re going to have a Q&A session at the end. So feel free to just send in your questions as we go. We’ll receive them and answer all questions in the Q&A. Without further ado I’m going to hand the microphone over to Michael White.
MICHAEL WHITE: Thanks, Brian. Good morning, everybody. So, many of you may be aware — you’ve probably seen these notes going around, but Shakespeare and Newton were both really creative and productive during their time of quarantine to the bubonic plague. I’m not saying there’s an exact parallel, but you kind of get where we’re going with this. So they did some of their best work and their most valuable work ever during these periods.
But what fewer people know is that Don Quixote, which was written by Miguel de Cervantes, the guy up there in the upper right, was written from prison. And as well Nelson Mandela wrote and theorized through most of Conversations with Myself from jail as well.
So, yeah, they didn’t have to deal with the never ending onslaught of the 24-hour-news cycle, but technically neither do you. So we’re going to talk through a little bit of these things today, but this is more a conversation about looking at this not just as a challenge but as an opportunity because if you’re unfettered by the components of the daily grind, like you don’t have a commute, you don’t have people stopping by your desk saying hey, you got a sec, then you might find a wealth of opportunities to discover and create and excel in this situation regardless of how long it lasts. So if you can learn and improve on the skills and habits we review today, you’ll position yourself and your organizations to be remarkably more effective through the emergence.
So as we begin the section on being productive from home, kind of bear in mind that this is a toolkit, right. So not every tool is going to work for every person in every situation, and it’s important that you look at your first week or two of work from home as ramping up your experiment. So you shouldn’t expect to be an expert at this in a day. Get comfortable with the idea of trying new things and scaling the ones that work. It’s kind of like Darwinism but for your personal productivity. So some things are going to not work and you’re going to go ah, this kind of sucks. I mean give it a couple shots. Then once you’re flowing with it, you’ll be able to say you know what, this is working for me; let me keep doing this or wow, this kind of was a fail and I’m going to write this down as stuff I don’t want to do anymore.
So you can hop to the next slide. So a lot of you might think that to work from home successfully you have to develop this disciplined sort of militant approach. In some ways you could say that’s true because on the surface the people who are great at it have learned to just sit in a chair and do their work, but the secret that kind of all of us share is that none of us are that disciplined. We’re all just in command of our dopamine sources.
So I’m going to talk about dopamine for a second. The reason that you have endless scroll on Reddit or Facebook or Instagram is because those things are designed to make you chase the dopamine dragon. So every so often you see something that gives you this drip of dopamine because it’s generated a moment worth paying attention to. So I’m not saying it’s pleasurable; I’m saying it’s attention worthy, and you want to see something like that again. So while the science is still kind of catching up on this, it seems like there are different brands of dopamine that correspond to different types of things to pay attention to.
So for those of us who like feeling accomplished like we got something done, checklist people — I’m sure there’s some of my fun checklist people here in the actual webinar here — we kind of have figured out how to run experiments, and most of those experiments have yielded us these for tenets of how to move through your productive workday.
So the first one is that you get more done when you plan your day. It sounds obvious, but we’ll get back to this in a second.
The second one is you have more success when you work on things in order of their impact, not how fast you can get them off your list. So a lot of us have this thing called task completion bias. You write a list, it’s got 20 things on it, it’s the stuff that you’re going to do this weekend, but you see something in there and you’re like oh man, this is only going to take 10 minutes, I’m going to knock it off the list. Well, what happens there is you’re pushing all of the other important stuff back by 10 minutes, which hurts you in the long run because the big important stuff isn’t going to get done if you keep doing that. So really successful people tend to work on things in order of their impact, not how fast they can get them off the list.
The third one is that you get more done when you work on just one thing at a time, only one thing at a time.
And then the fourth one is you get more done when you take the breaks you planned and not the ones you insert when the work starts to get tedious or hard.
So with that kind of as a backdrop, I want to talk through the core challenges that we’ve seen and some straightforward ways to meet those challenges. So we kind of asked around a little bit, we did a little bit of research, and it turns out that the very first question we kept getting was how should I set up my workspace. So we’re going to address that directly. Also prioritization, what do I work on first. How do I manage distractions was a big one. And then the one that surprised me in polling people was am I going to snack myself to death. So we’re going to address that directly, but I realize that I probably should have been one of the people to eliminate that because I definitely have a tendency to do that.
So we’re going to address these things, but we’re going to address them in two buckets. One of the pieces is preparation. How do you get prepared to be productive and then the second piece is how do you then execute on that.
So workspace. There is no perfect workspace. So get that idea out of your head. You’re never going to have a perfect workspace. You can have an office with a standing desk, a giant monitor, multiple whiteboards, a beautiful view of the city, and that might be great for certain types of work, but unless you can immediately adapt it sort of matrix style, you’re never going to have the perfect workspace. It’s an artificial concept. So kind of get that idea out of your head. There’s really only two things your workspace has to be able to do in your home. One, it needs to be defined. So use painters’ tape if you have to, put a cardboard box with three panels up on the kitchen table, whatever it is, but you need to have a dedicated place to sit and do work. We’ve all seen images of the ironing board or the kitchen table, but the key here is it has to be a defined space that everyone in the house regards as the office during office hours. It can totally go back to being the top of the dog crate at 6:00 when you quit for the day, but for the hours that you’re working, the entire house needs to agree on what is the office.
The second piece is it needs to be defensible. So once everybody agrees what the office is, there needs to be a process to ensure that interruptions are avoided. So I recognize that a lot of people have kids. So I had to rack my brain for a hot second and said who is somebody I know who’s a really successful mom. So I reached out to Caroline Banks. She’s the founder of SunRaye, LLC and she’s a former remote employee of the world’s largest consumer goods company and she currently manages SunRaye’s remote team. So she’s kind of got this remote thing figured out. She’s also got two adorable children.
So her and her husband provide a whole home full of fun and laughter and love, but they thrive on the structure that she’s provided. And so I said, you know, what are your hacks, how do you do this. So the first thing she said is if you have a partner at home, you run intervals. This is one to two hours coordinated on who gets the office and who gets the kids. And then as you run through your day, once the kids are in bed, plan tomorrow with your work calendars in hand. Then rinse and repeat. So you’re just doing this on a daily basis, making sure that you have a plan for the day and that you’re running offense and defense, if you will, with the kids.
The second piece which I thought was genius was two pieces of construction paper; one’s red, one’s green or stop and go signs if your kid is color blind. I’m not judging. It happens. So hang the red one on the door or the chair or the table when the working person isn’t to be disturbed and a green one when it’s okay. Even super-young kids respond to this system.
Caroline’s third piece of advice, and it’s our segue into planning, is to write up a calendar for the week so the kids know what your expectations are. Create structure for them even if that is 9 to 10 a.m. play in a sheet fort. This way they’re going to wake up, follow a routine, and stay sane. The weekly planning is also helpful for you because you can take a look at how many hours you have during the week to do what I’ll call work-work and then that allows you to see also like when are you doing house chores, when are you doing kid time, when are you doing meal prep.
And I kind of need to give everybody this permission slip in their minds. You might find out that you have less than 40 hours planned for work-work. If that’s the case, I want you to think about this. If you sat down and could hammer out uninterrupted work for an hour or two at a time, how much more work would you get done than in a normal eight-hour workday. There are lots of studies around this, but just sort of imagine, if you will, the idea of getting an hour or two of work done straight and uninterrupted. It’s remarkable what you can get done in that time. So if you plan your week and you go wow, this is way less than 40 hours, don’t freak out. It is entirely possible for you to get a tremendous amount of work done in the time that you have allocated, and as long as you treat every day as an experiment that you’ll get better at each day, you shouldn’t feel this unburdened, sort of this tremendous burden of pressure to get it perfect day one.
So I hope all of that makes sense as we move into this idea of continued planning. So we’ve got the workspace picked out. We’ve got it protected. We’ve done our weekly schedule. Now you got to get specific about the day. So I have discussions with executives and managers constantly. I’m talking to big businesses and small businesses. I’m still surprised at how many don’t have a formal dayplanning process. So for the ones that do plan their day, I find more that prefer to plan tomorrow at the end of today. So I’m an advocate of whatever works for you, but I typically plan my day first thing in the morning when I have the most information possible. That said, either timing works; you just got to do it.
So when you do this day planning, it’s best when you use time blocks. I’m going to explain time blocking in like 30 seconds, but if you ever get a chance, read a book called The ONE Thing. It’s Jay Papasan and Gary Keller of Keller Williams. A really amazing book, but this time blocking concept works really, really well. So you chunk your day out into blocks where you do specific things. The reason you use chunks is because you lose the most amount of time moving from thing to thing. It’s caused switching costs and it’s a heavy discount on your productivity.
So we don’t have time today to talk about all the science behind it, but I’ll just make two quick points. One, there’s no such thing as multitasking. If you pride yourself on being a multitasker, you’re living a lie. There is no debate on this. Every shred of science indicates that you’re worse at both tasks and they’re each taking longer when you do it. So the next time you think of multitasking, instead think texting and driving.
Two, if you move between four things in one day and you’re oscillating between them, you lose more than half your day to switching. Half. So don’t do it. So when you block, you can do this in one to twohour blocks for doing your work. It matters because that’s a good chunk of time to get a lot of work done but not so much where you’re going to fatigue.
So that brings me to the next piece, which is plan your breaks. When you know that you have a break coming, it makes it a little easier to focus on doing your work now. If what you do is you interrupt yourself constantly with breaks during your time block, it’s usually because the work’s getting hard or that little ADD monster in your brain goes I need to look at something else. Push through that. We’ll talk a little bit about beating the resistance in the minute, but ideally you’re doing one to two-hour blocks, kind of what we talked about with Caroline’s plan for doing it in tandem if you have a partner at home, but ideally you’re using one to two-hour blocks to get your most important work done.
You won’t be amazing at this day one, but you can practice. After you get off this call, put a time block on your calendar for the end of the day or tomorrow for just like 20 minutes and call it day planning. Then keep that appointment with yourself. You’ll be surprised how great it feels to have a plan.
So now you’ve got a workplace, you’ve got a space. You’ve got a schedule. You need a list. And the list is important so you know what to do when it’s time to do the work. So how does this work? It’s prioritization. So in order to understand this, you need to separate the idea of a calendar from your todo list. Your calendar helps you see what pockets of time you can make available to do certain types of things, but your to-do list or your success list, as I like hearing it called, tells you what things are available to work on.
So I think some of you people on the call are familiar with Scrum. So this is a stack-ranked global backlog of all the work you could possibly be doing that has reached a ready status. If you’re not familiar with Scrum, think of this as like a massive to-do list of all of the stuff that you could start today, but it’s in order of how important it is, not how easy it is to get done.
So that’s cool in theory. How does it work? Write down the top 10 or 15 things you should probably get done. If you work on a team, you should collectively agree on this. And Dawn is going to talk to you guys a little bit more about that in the next section, how teams can put together their list. But you get this list together and you put it in order, but think about this question. What one thing can I do such that by doing it everything else will become easier or unnecessary? So one thing that I’m borrowing from the book called The ONE Thing, but that question of saying what can I do such that by doing it everything else will become easier or unnecessary makes it so much simpler to stack rank your stuff.
Now I’m saying it’s simpler, but it’s as hard as you think it is. You really only have to do it the hard way once, and then after that you’ll knock the top thing off your list and it will be easier to figure out each time after that. So your real assignment is get your list together so it has a number-one item on it and then everything else after that you can kind of reorder each time if you’d like. I’m a huge fan of just stack ranking the whole list, but you just have to get number one in place in order to start working.
So a quick recap. Define and defend your workplace. Use visual cues to help the whole household stay in sync. Two is plan your week, schedule your day. That’s where you communicate your week plan to your household and then you time block your day with the most current information you have. And then finally you stack rank your work list. So that’s your prep piece.
You guys can see in the execution bullets none of this stuff is going to be earth shattering, right. The rest of this stuff I’m going to just touch on briefly because you’ll get it instantly. The first one is dress for work. It’s as simple as it sounds. If you dress like you’re at a sleepover, your brain will attune to that. I’m not saying you have to wear a tailored suit, but dress like you might have to take a video call with your boss because you’ll probably have to take a video call with your boss.
The next piece is work design. When you have your thing to work on, before you start crushing it out, just jot down or make a document of the steps from start to finish. It seems like a basic thing to do, but it forces your mind to visualize the pathway to success, and it allows you to consider if there are any hiccups along the way. You’ll never think of everything, and I don’t suggest you try to write every click of the mouse, but a basic outline of the steps is a huge help when you’re executing work.
Work on one thing at a time. We talked about this, but this is the one thing that people mess up. If your email is open, your phone is flipped screen up, the news is on in the background, you’re moving between the sales flier to your building and a training doc you were supposed to work on, you’re experiencing death by a thousand paper cuts, and the worst part is that the novelty-seeking part of your brain just loves it. It just eats this stuff up. So it’s as addictive as it is unproductive. The way to override your need for novelty is to replace that brand of dopamine with a stronger brand called getting things done. So if you’re truly interested in that brand, like actually accomplishing things, then you need to put your phone on silent, shut off your email or at least go into airplane mode, turn off the news, and shut down everything that isn’t germane to what you need to complete. This will help you immensely.
The fourth piece is pushing through the resistance. This is super hard, but once you get practiced at it, you just sort of learn to do it. When I talked about shutting off all that stuff, a lot of you probably got this icky feeling like oh God, what do you mean, that sounds terrible, I’ll be like so bored or whatever. This is part of the fuel for the resistance. The resistance is that feeling you have when you first sit down to do work and things aren’t perfect. It’s not Goldilocks, right. So like the conditions are never going to be perfect, but what I need for you to do is push through it for like seven minutes. As weird and strange as it will feel to shut off distractions and sit down and do one thing, you can actually do it. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but the only known defense against the resistance is discomfort.
So let me be clear. I’ve done this thousands of times, and I still encounter the resistance almost every single day, but it’s a little like running. The first hundred or two hundred yards suck, but then each little bit after that sucks a little bit less until finally you’re home and you think that wasn’t so bad. So that’s kind of pushing through the resistance.
The next piece is going to be a nice handoff for Dawn, but it’s the complete, communicate, and celebrate. Part of this is personal; part of it’s the team. When you get something done, tell the person who needs that thing and the rest of the team if you’d like that the thing is done. This communication is something that’s kind of automatically happening when you’re co-located with people, but you actually have the opportunity here to go I did this thing, you’re telling the people that it’s done, and then you get the ability to take a moment and celebrate. And I’m not talking about handing out participation awards like you came to the soccer game. The reality is that a lot of you are new to the whole work-from-home thing and you’re not accustomed to having to like high-five yourself. Personally the way I high-five myself is usually I get a reward from the snack drawer, which also keeps me honest about how much I’m ingesting, which is our final topic of execution. So earn your snacks.
The last piece is earn your snacks. If I was left to my own devices, I would have an endless bowl of trail mix, a coffee fountain, a box of Federal Donuts, a grilled cheese machine, all this stuff just mounted to my desk. But being cooped up these last few days has only served to magnify that. So there are two things I use to keep that in check. First I plan my meals, right, so I’m like this is when I actually need nourishment. And then I use little snacks as my rewards so that I don’t just eat my way through the day.
So I know that’s a lot, a lot of stuff to take in, but I wanted to give you guys a really good solid base for getting yourself set up and prepared and then having an execution plan.
So for those of you who are fortunate enough to lead people, Dawn’s going to take us through the next section, but I just want to have this one thing as your takeaway. Plan your day. A planned day has a pretty good chance of success and an unplanned day is almost surely going to fail. So just plan your day. That’s it for me. Dawn, tell us how this works when we’re managing people.
DAWN KUCZWARA: Thanks, Michael. Well, good morning, everyone, or afternoon as the case may be. So leading remotely is definitely a challenge and we’re going to try to give you some background and then some tools that you can implement immediately to help you get through this.
So let’s start here. A few years ago Google researchers embarked on a study to understand what the perfect team looked like. They wanted to use their vast abilities at crunching data to understand the factors that make up an effective and high performing team. So it’s too much to talk about today. The project was called Project Aristotle if you’re interested in looking it up. But what’s important for us today is that the single biggest indicator of productivity with a team was trust. They had to trust their leadership, they had to trust their teammates, and they had to trust in what they were able to do and expected to do.
The study also found that there were five important characteristics that an effective team possesses. The first is they have a feeling of psychological safety. So this relates less to probably what you immediately assume. It relates more to the ability to feel comfortable to take measured and controlled risks without the fear of consequence. Now, in today’s environment people are dealing with a lot more on the psychological side so this is an important element to keep in mind as a leader when you start talking to your teams and when you’re trying to understand what might be holding them back a little bit.
A second element is dependability. Team members need to know that they can depend on their leaders for help, that they can depend on their overall leadership to have the group’s best interest at heart and to be leading well and to depend on their coworkers to do their part.
A third element was structure and clarity. People need to understand their role, they need to understand what’s expected of them, and they need to know what the work ahead for them looks like.
The last two items were the meaning of the work that they were doing and the impact of their work. Now we could do an entire webinar on just those last two, and they are primarily subjective to the team member themselves. So we’re not really going to touch on those last two very much. I don’t think that they’re going to be useful for you to be immediately becoming productive as a team, but they are things to take a look at at a later time.
But those first three really are important when it comes to work from home in today’s environment. So here’s the crux of that. They also found a lot of things that were unimportant to being a highly productive team, and one of those was colocation. So co-location is kind of a crutch honestly. It acts like a shortcut for a lot of things, especially communication. What they found was management of an effective high-performing team is less about where they are physically located.
So why is leadership of a remote team so hard? Just because co-location isn’t a critical characteristic of a high-performing team, it doesn’t mean remote work doesn’t present special challenges. As a leader, you have specific things that you have to focus on to be effective at your job, right. You need to be able to make sure that your team is meeting customer expectations and deliverables. You need to keep on top of projects and you need to keep on top of task management. You need to give your team the attention, the development opportunities, and the feedback that they need to be productive. And you need to be able to measure how effective the team is at getting their work done. Measurement helps you identify where your team needs help, but it also helps you to be able to give your leadership the information they need to know how the work is progressing.
The challenges of remote leadership are much like the challenges of a traditional office-based leadership but on steroids. There are a few additional things added. Michael talked about these, distractions at home, things like that. But leading at its core doesn’t change. Your job is to help your team be effective and to deliver what your organization and your leaders need. Remote work just means you’ll need to work harder at achieving a few of those things.
One of the first things you need to do is understand the challenges that you face as part of a remote leadership. And it’s important for identifying the right leadership tools that you’ll need to use to implement both in the short and long term.
One of those challenges is visual cues. We talked a little about this just before where we were talking about co-location. Visual cues are those things where you can see someone sitting at their desk being frustrated. They’re confused. You can see the confusion or glassy eyed look in a meeting. You can’t see when your team is getting up and asking a co-worker every 10 minutes for help. You lose that ability.
Another challenge is balance, and this is a challenge for you and your team. You need to balance not micromanaging with also being available and not losing your own productivity, and you need to find ways to lead compassionately and empathetically.
You also need to make sure that you and your team has access to the tools that they need and the people that they need to get their work done. It’s a different set of tools. For some of us they’re very similar tools, but it’s a largely different set of tools when you’re talking about a remote team. Your team needs access to data and systems. So things like Slack for communication across the team, Zoom so that you can attend meetings, video calls, and making sure your team has the technology tools that get then that access and allow them to do their work. That’s part of remote leadership as well and a challenge to overcome.
And then also making sure that they have access to SMEs, to subject matter experts in other parts of the companies, sometimes that can be tougher when you can’t walk over to someone else’s desk and say hey, can you help so-and-so, can you help Joe with this particular issue. He’s got a requirement to build something and he can’t do it without the knowledge of someone who would be using it. Sometimes that coordination can be more difficult when you’re dealing with a remote team.
As a leader, the tools you choose to use should meet the needs of the team, and the biggest need again is trust. Those tools should also promote the five characteristics of an effective team. Again, the psychological safety, dependability, the structure and clarity, and so forth. There are a number of tools that you can use in a remote environment to get what you need done and to ensure your team gets what they need.
Here I’m going to talk about a few things that you can implement today though that can make remote leadership easier and more effective for you. You can put these into practice after this call.
So the first one is a team contract or charter. Establishing a team charter is a good idea when you’re working together in an office, but it should be required when you’re working with remote teams. A team charter lets you and the team establish a team mission statement. Now, this is not a project mission statement. This is not what your project is trying to accomplish but what the team as a whole is trying to do. It should uphold and clarify team values. It should contain an agreed-upon code of conduct that includes communication expectations. So how, when, and why to use which particular channels of communication.
It should set availability expectations. So for things like personal time and work times, when are people expected to be in front of their computers and when aren’t they. It’s not really realistic to expect people working from home to be in front of their computer eight hours a day, but you don’t have that crutch of being able to see that Sally got up and walked over to get a cup of coffee, but she’s really here. Setting expectations about availability gives your team a framework to know what they are doing is acceptable and expected and that it’s acceptable by the entire team.
Your charter also sets standards for things like deliverables and timeliness. So what happens if I’m going to miss a deadline? Who should I alert? How do I let them know? And what are the consequences of that?
And when it comes to remote work, the charter should also establish how and when work deliverables are completed and communicated. So as Michael talked about, that complete, communicate, celebrate cycle. By having a way to do this, you have an established and agreed-upon measurement of work. This is a double positive for you and for the team because it also gives you as the leader a means of measuring productivity and the team understands and agrees to that cycle.
As one of my personal heroes, Grace Hopper, as you can see here on the slide says, “One accurate measurement is worth a thousand expert opinions.” One way that you can facilitate that measurement and use it as a means of task communication is with a team dashboard. A dashboard has multiple benefits. It can track team tasks and activities, and it lets the team understand what’s being done, what needs to be done, and what’s the next priority. So it meets the clarity and structure piece of the Google research from Project Aristotle. It also offers a visual means of identifying, tracking, and reorganizing priorities. A dashboard gives a means for teams to self-report progress. So that speaks to the dependability piece that we talked about earlier. This also means that the team can see what’s being done and they can hold each other accountable for the work.
Thanks to the charter, you have an agreed-upon code of conduct for deliverables and timeliness and something for both you and the team to point back to when someone isn’t performing as they should or is missing deadlines and it impacts the rest of the team.
A dashboard gives you the visibility you need to see how people are performing and to be able to report that to your leadership, and it provides an opportunity for acknowledgement. Now, a quick word about acknowledgement, or as Michael points out, a celebration of different tasks. We all know that acknowledging people’s good work is an important element of team morale. This is especially true in difficult times and can be an especial challenge in a remote environment. So be creative in how you do that. Again, you don’t have to celebrate every single little task that gets done, but consider ways of letting your team know that you appreciate the hard work that they’re putting in, that you appreciate what they’re doing and how they’re helping their team.
I used to give out a monthly award that was voted on by the team. The team themselves would suggest to me I didn’t pick but they suggested to me the team members who should get acknowledgement. And so that way the award had a great deal more meaning to the person who received it because it wasn’t acknowledgement by leadership; it was acknowledgement by their co-workers, by their team.
So a second tool is an enhanced daily stand-up. Many of you are likely familiar with the daily stand-up. It’s something that started in technology teams, but it has been adopted by a lot of other disciplines as well. The standard format allows you as a leader to have visibility into what’s going on with your team, where people need help from you or from others on the team, and provides a forum to troubleshoot roadblocks and problems. It’s a great “now” tool, and it keeps things moving.
It can replace the crutch of co-location by letting you get a feel for what the team’s mood is like or where they may need you to step in and provide some additional guidance. The typical structure of a stand-up, for those who may not know, is here’s what each person stands up or in a call each person talks and they indicate what they worked on since the last meeting, they tell you what they’re going to be working on between now and the next meeting, and then they also indicate what roadblocks they have or what they’re going to need to be able to achieve that task that they’re working on.
For remote teams there are a few more items that you as a leader can use to enhance that stand-up and to continue to build that all-important trust with your team. These are especially important during the current environment but also just with remote work teams in general.
You can give a company status. This is particularly important with remote teams because it lets them connect back to the larger organization and helps to remove some of that isolation.
What’s important is that you be honest. Tell it like it is, be transparent, provide the information that they need, don’t muddy it with information that they don’t need. If the company is struggling, say so. Give the team concrete ways in which they can keep things moving forward. So if, for instance, your company is struggling with everything going on right now, you can say so. You can say our leadership is doing everything that they can to keep things moving forward and to keep the doors open, and the best thing that you all can be doing right now is to keep your heads down, work on your tasks, let us know how we can help you continue to be productive.
Another way to enhance the stand-up as a leader is for you to help with task management. There may be team members that struggle with breaking out their tasks into manageable chunks or they may not even know where to get started. This can be one of the casualties of remote work. The team isn’t able to get visual clues or easily ask co-workers how to move forward. The stand-up give you the opportunity to fetter out the people who are having challenges with this and help them get back on track. In the standup offer the opportunity for team members to work with you directly after the standup if they are struggling with breaking out their work. You might even need to push on this for a little while until people get familiar and comfortable with the process. Eventually though it’s going to become part of the team’s regular cadence and you won’t have to work so hard to get people to stand up and say hey, I’m struggling with how to break this thing out.
The last tool in our toolkit that you can implement immediately is tool number three, a one-on-one. Now, some of you are probably already doing this with your teams in a formal way, but you want to do this — if you’re not doing it in a formal way, you should be, especially with remote workers, but also you should be doing informal check-ins. You want to make sure that these check-ins, you’re asking pointed and directed questions. In a remote environment if you ask hey, how’s it going, you’re going to get fine, it’s going fine, everything’s fine, everything’s good for a number of reasons. What you really want to do is dig in. You want to ask if they have questions about their deliverables. You want to ask what their structure of their work looks like. You want to ask how they’re handling a specific situation or how things are progressing on a particular project. Again, dig in. Really understand what they’re doing because you don’t have those additional cues that you would in an office environment.
Additionally, if you’re hearing something from your team in a one-on-one that you’re not clear on or you think they might be going down the wrong track or you just want to make sure that they’re clear on it, I’m a huge fan of Socratic questioning. Socratic questioning isn’t meant to lead, but it’s meant to give the team member an opportunity to verbally explore with you their thought process. So don’t answer things for them; just ask them to explain how they’re getting to their conclusions and let them talk it out with you.
Also, when you do your one-on-ones, check in with empathy. This is a difficult time. Leading with empathy doesn’t mean letting the team run the kingdom, but it does mean understanding where your team is coming from. You are there to help them. So be there to help them.
Finally, my last tip is to use the tools you have at hand. Use the technology tools available to meet with teams and with others and use them as much as you need to. Set expectations on those tools. You want your team to tell you when they are having problems, but you also don’t want them to be disrupting your work over and over.
If you take only one thing away from this, trust is the key. Measurement, communication, and clarity all build trust. The leadership tools you choose should strive to build that trust and answer those other pieces and promote those other characteristics. And that way you can build trust with your team and with your leadership.
Now, part of leading a team is also defining and promoting the company’s culture and promoting relationships between your team members. So Brian is going to share with us some thoughts on company culture when working remotely.
BRIAN DAINIS: Thank you, Dawn. A lot of what you covered dovetails really nicely into what I’m going to talk about here. So the question is can a great culture be built and nurtured remotely? So where I actually want to start is the first point up there. So companies with a thriving culture perform at their peak.
A really interesting metaphor that I love is that the sun produces almost 40,000 septillion watts of energy per second. And yeah, I did have to look that up. If you stand in the sun for a few minutes on a hot day, you’ll barely get some minor sunburn. If you take a one-watt laser and shine that energy onto your skin, you’re going to feel it burn very, very quickly. The difference and the reason is focus and alignment of energy. So the laser is pointing all of its energy in a single focused direction; whereas, the sun is just blasting it in every direction. So what does that mean for your culture? When your team is aligned and focused and working on the same goals, the same effect will happen.
So diving into the challenges that we have here. So one of the challenges that teams that are suddenly shifting from a co-location to a remote working style is a feeling of isolation, and that’s especially true if they’re new to it. Another challenge is keeping people motivated. This can be a challenge when people are typically relying on the in-person energy that’s created from their team and their co-workers and the background office chatter and just sort of the humming and buzzing of the company.
And lastly, relating to co-workers. This one’s really important because what we can find is that sometimes just that sort of in-passing conversation that takes place, the watercooler talk, the sitting down over lunch and talking about sports scores or your pets or your weekend plans, those sort of conversations have a lot to do with building trust among the team, creating connections, and relatability. So it’s important to really maintain that, to maintain your culture. When you do go remote, people sometimes can feel guilty about doing that stuff, having those conversations when they’re remote because they feel like they’re not getting work done. They feel like having conversations about sports scores or their pets may be counterproductive to their work and to their task load. So really reinforcing that sort of stuff, keeping people connected, keeping people aligned and relating with one another, that relatability is crucial to keep everybody tuned in together.
So moving down to the foundation. So what are the foundational pieces for building a culture? So defined core values, in my opinion that’s one of the most important parts of building a great culture. Whether you’re a culture that works remotely, a company that works remotely or a company that works in person, having well-defined core values is critical. Those are what your employees use to guide the decision-making process. When you’re not there as a leader and they need to make a critical decision, they’re going to lean back on the core values. Who are you? Who is your company as a culture? What do you stand by? What are the things that are your guiding principles? So the aspects of core values are more critical than ever when you’re working remotely.
The next one is a unified team vision. So this goes back to the laser analogy. The more unified and on the same page you get with your team, the more focused your output is going to be and the more momentum, inertia your team will pick up together. When you’re all chugging along in the same direction, it makes it a lot easier to win than when you’re playing tug-of-war with one another. So that clear vision that comes from the leadership and gets distributed to everybody on the team, that clear vision and alignment of the team is more important than ever.
And the last one is the tools. It’s not so much a cultural component, but we touched on it a little bit in Dawn’s talking points. The tools are important and being able to facilitate communication and have the right protocols for tools. For instance, if you have Slack and email and phone calls, when do you use which one? When do you send a Slack message? When do you make a phone call? When do you send an email? Having those protocols in place so you’re not creating distractions but you’re also tying your communication in to its level of urgency and when it needs to be responded to and how. So really just setting expectations, defining what your tools are, setting expectations on those tools, and having protocols in place.
Now moving down to execution. The first thing I want to highlight here is talking to customers. So your customers are your lifeblood of your business. They keep your lights on. They keep your payroll running. When you’re remote and going heads down on your work, sometimes it’s easy to get focused on the tasks that you’re working on and get into a flow with the work that you’re doing, but it’s also important to block out time to interact with your customers, to understand their concerns, to figure out what you should be doing more of and really figure out what do they need. And that’s a point that I want to really highlight.
The next point here is group activities and stories. So this is something that I feel is a really important part of our culture. It’s shaped our culture at Curotec. Our core team often works from home with one or two days in the office per week, and we also have some people on our team who are 100 percent remote. So one thing we do, typically Fridays are a work-from-home day for everybody, including our local team here in Philly. So one thing that we do every Friday is we have a meeting with everybody on the team and we have some sort of an activity or an exercise that just gets everybody excited and passionate about who we are, what we do, and working with Curotec and being a part of the team. People have said many times the company feels like a family.
Some examples of these activities. Sometimes we’ll do something silly like make origami and then we’ll have an origami competition and everybody comes to the Friday meeting with the origami they made that week and tells us what it is and why they made it and then everybody votes and we have a winner and they have a 50 or hundred-dollar prize for winning the competition. We’ve done things where it’s take a picture of your workstation at home and tell us what’s on your desk and why and we share stories about it. Sometimes it’s take a picture of something in your neighborhood or something in your house or an object or whatever. We come up with all different sort of topics.
We also use that time Friday during the meeting to really address core issues and just address the company as a whole. I recently had a pretty candid conversation with the team just letting them know that we’ve gone 100 percent remote due to the current circumstances, let them know what challenges we may face, but also wanted to reassure them that as a company we are strong and we will continue to work through this matter and there’s going to be a challenging road ahead for everybody. Every business leader has an uncertain road ahead, but we wanted our team to feel confident that we were going to stand behind them and that they didn’t have to fear for their job. We didn’t want them to think that any day they’re going to be getting laid off because of the economic circumstances. So really just having these group activities but also just being totally candid and totally open with your team so they’re not working in the dark, that’s critical more than ever when you’re remote.
And that dovetails into the building morale. I touched on a lot of the points of building morale, but it’s really the leader’s job to build morale in the team and set the tone and the energy of the team. Trust and confidence, those are really important things that the team needs to feel from the leaders in order to feel positively energized about their work.
So just to kind of close this out, culture is more than ping-pong tables and pizza parties. It goes from the core defining principles that the leadership sets and then how that is executed in practice.
And if you only take one thing away from what I just said, building a great culture, co-located or remote is fundamentally the same. The difference is working remotely will accentuate your culture’s strengths and weaknesses.
Now, I know with a little technology glitch there we started going into some Q&A, but if anybody else has any other Q&A topics about collaboration, productivity, management, or anything else, we’re open to hear your questions and answer them in live time.
MICHAEL WHITE: I think we started on Rich’s question, which is the requite tech services software apps for managing productivity when working remotely. I think this is probably going to get bifurcated. One is for yourself and then the other one is for your team. I think for your team we already sort of addressed this, but if they’re working in transactional work where it’s, you know, they’re booking loans, they’re selling cars, they’re doing something where there’s a unit of measure that’s clearly defined, that can be covered in any number of ways through dashboarding. So you’ve got your transactional system of record. Either it has canned reporting or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t have canned reporting, you can port that out to Excel or Power BI or Tableau, whatever your preferred platform is. And then the key there is individual attribution. Your system should make sure that the user ID is attributed with the unit and some sort of a time stamp so that you can get a sense of how long are these transactions taking. And some of that is basic fundamental blocking and tackling of productivity.
I think the stickier part is when you get into the project side of things or when you get into work that’s more creative work. While it doesn’t lend itself to single-unit measurement, it does lend itself to breaking it down into manageable pieces. And again there’s a mixture of how much of that the manager does and then how much of that the individual does. But once you’ve got a consensus on what things need to be done, you know, part of this is discretion. It’s do you think that this is a lot of valuable work, and if you’re staying in constant contact with somebody, you’re going to have the ability to understand whether or not they’re producing high-quality work regularly.
Measuring project work though is notoriously hard and so I don’t want to give you a false sense of well, this should be pretty straightforward. There’s a lot of different ways you can do it. There won’t be a perfect way, but again that’s mainly in the project work standpoint.
For your own personal productivity, again, projects versus transactions. Transactions are pretty straightforward. Having that success list and keeping it running, keeping it in Excel if you will or some other sort of sheets or document allows you to cross off the things that are done and then sort them to the bottom. And what’s fun is if you throw a date or a date timestamp in there, at the end of the week you can go back and you can see what you’ve gotten done by day.
I’m not suggesting this for everybody, but I have a running list that I’ve been using for about three years, and it is occasionally fun to go in there and pivot that thing and say oh wow, you know, I got 70 items done this week. What was I doing? So there are a lot of different ways to do that. I’m not sure if I’m answering both sides of that question, but as a manager, you need to know what type of work they’re working on to answer that question. And then for yourself, you just need to understand what is your unit of measure and how do you want to track that, but sometimes the simplest answer is usually the right one.
All right. So time evaporates. How do you track and manage time? Well, the fortunate truth about time is we all get the same exact amount. So clocks work great for that, but I’m not being snarky about this. Time tracking. If you plan your day, then it’s easier to understand where your working moments were and were not. So I can’t show you my schedule per se right at this moment, but if you go through and you plan your day — so imagine it’s the end of the day today, you’re planning tomorrow. You just planned tomorrow. You look at your time blocks, and you either print that out or you leave it in some sort of digital document. You can show yourself what I’ll call schedule adherence. And if you make a good plan and you are, I don’t know, we’ll call it 50 to 60 percent accurate on what you did the next day for that plan, you’ll begin to get a sense of was that a good day or a bad day. For me, if I get 60 or 70 percent right for my day plan, it’s a great day. I got a lot of stuff done and I feel good about it. And because I worked my list top down from the most important, I know that I did a good job. That is something that has come with practice though. So I don’t know what the launch sequence would get there.
If you really need something that actually measures minutes, there’s an app called Toggl. And Toggl does a very good job of you being able to hit start and stop and it gives you a thumb-scrolling list of your top four or five things that you typically find yourself doing. I found that better when I used to bill by the hour as a consultant, which is a construct I’ve gotten away from for years now. But if you’re really trying to just study your time and get a better sense of where it’s going, Toggl might be an easy phone-based way to do that.
I’ll pause there. Brian or Dawn?
DAWN KUCZWARA: Yes.
BRIAN DAINIS: Yeah. So just looking her, it looks like Jeff has sent out a useful tool called Motivosity. I’m going to look into this. I haven’t personally seen it, but his note here is that to communicate about our culture/values and praise our colleagues who demonstrate they’re embracing our values in their day-to-day actions, this tool Motivosity is something he recommends. So we’ll look into that and I will.
DAWN KUCZWARA: Yeah. Jeff, I love that idea. Thank you for sharing that. I want to take a look at that for sure.
BRIAN DAINIS: Yeah, definitely interesting. And then he also has a second question here. Will we have a recorded version of this webinar so that he can share that with his employees? The answer is yes. Tech quirks and all, we’ll send out the full video recording and we also plan to follow up — actually just kind of jump into the next slide. We plan to follow up with a one-pager cheat sheet that you can use as reference as you continue to navigate this transition to remote work. So those two things will be coming out via email in the next two, maybe three days.
We also plan to publish a blog article that talks a little bit more about the actual technology tools and what you can use and how and get into that a little bit more. But thank you for those working from home tips and questions, Jeff.
DAWN KUCZWARA: Brian, I know we’re running a little bit over time. Maybe if anybody has one more question ,we can go ahead and take that. Otherwise, we can close out.
BRIAN DAINIS: It looks like as of now that might be it.
DAWN KUCZWARA: Okay.
MICHAEL WHITE: All right. Well, thanks, everybody for coming out. I definitely enjoyed sharing what we know with all the people that decided to attend. Brian, thank you for putting this together. Well done, sir. I’m glad we were able to wheel this around in time for it to be useful to folks. And then if anybody has any questions for us for follow-up, you could always reply to the one-pager we send out.
BRIAN DAINIS: We got a couple thank yous. Thank you, everybody, as well for attending. We really appreciate the attendance.