Joanna Travis Roberts talks to us about her experiences as a remote manager for 10 years before the Coronavirus hit. Here are her answers to our questions.
1. Introduction – who you are and what you do
I am the CEO of an international charity with a team of 10 staff, scattered around the world and all working from home. I have always worked for international charities, both from home and in an office, but have been leading a home working team for the last 5 years.
2. What are your team doing and where are they in the world?
Our team is small, but covers a range of work: in house web development, finance and admin, communications, research and knowledge exchange, regional coordination and event management. They are mostly based around the UK, but we have staff in Europe and USA. We also work with a series of contractors, equally scattered around the world. It is often the case within small not for profits, that staff have to step outside of their day job to support each others work, and ours is no different. But, this is made harder when you are not all in a shared physical space.
3. How do you communicate with your team? Is it daily?
What’s the best way to talk to them?
We have found a communications pattern that works well for us, and everything remote is done on video calls to keep that face to face interaction. It has evolved over the years, and I am sure it will continue to adjust to the staff and organisation’s needs.
As a whole staff we talk every Monday, to update on what we’ve been doing the previous week, and any important issues for that week. This meeting is structured as a ‘reporting in’ session, to make sure we all have an awareness of what the other members of the team are doing, and where we have been (in our travelling days!). To prevent it from being too dry or repetitive, we keep the report backs brief and table any points for discussion for follow up calls. It rarely takes more than half an hour. I take this opportunity to keep everyone informed of developments within the organisation, so that everyone is kept equally in the loop.
We then have weekly team meetings, where planning and task setting alongside decision making happens. It is a collaborative but informal process, with a lead person, keeping the discussions moving and reinforcing agreed actions. Each team meeting works slightly differently according to the individuals’ styles of working.
For small regular more informal questions we use a Teams chat, and email each other when a longer written communication is needed. We ensure we use email for formal decisions such as approving leave, sending expenses, minutes, circulating discussion papers etc. This keeps all our official communications in one place.
As an aside we have a WhatsApp chat group, where we send anything informal and chatty. Like a picture of your lunch, some impressive baking, or just a view from that day’s walk. This allows us to keep in touch on a more personal level, and allows us to keep separate channels for personal and professional interactions.
3. In person
Twice a year we hold an in person staff meeting, which allows us to discuss direction, strategy and annual objectives. We also work through any trickier areas of work that need our joint attention. We always include a couple of tasks such as deciding upon a homepage layout, or agreeing which countries to run a project in, and we involve everyone from all the teams. This gives a broader perspective and ensures that we are all engaged with the broad spectrum of the organisation’s work. I make it a priority during these get togethers to allow adequate time for the team to socialise and build their relationships. We have a challenge at every meeting, decided upon by one of us. We’ve done everything from paper aeroplanes, quizzes, speed map challenges and eating cakes. They’re always light hearted and fun, trying to avoid anything that feels too much like a traditional team building exercise, although ultimately that is what they achieve!!
There are other meetings and events throughout the year when smaller groups of staff might work together, but they are all being undertaken online at the moment!
4. How do you lead a dispersed team? From: “How do you communicate your 5 year strategy?” all the way to “How do you make sure they get their day to day work done?”
First of all, I lead by being clear on the organisation’s culture when people start. We are a very relaxed and informal group, and that can be hard to adjust to, but when they do, staff appreciate that lack of formality.
We do everything as a team and focus on developing shared goals. So, the annual objectives, indicators and workplan is developed at our in person staff meetings; monthly or weekly priorities are agreed in team meetings; and staff create their own to do lists from these two workflows. Everyone knows the headline objectives, the timeline, and how we are measuring our work. This gives them the tools to set their own tasks, and the motivation to work independently. As a manager, I would know if things are slipping, or staff are burning themselves out from the weekly updates, and individual’s monthly written reports. If that is the case I can check in with them and adjust everyone’s expectations.
I try to find the balance between keeping in touch, and giving autonomy and independence.
More formal meetings like individual staff appraisals give structure for issues to be brought up, in cases where staff feel less comfortable with inpromptu conversations.
5. What are your top tips for motivating them from a distance?
Independence, confidence, loyalty and kindness!
I have confidence in their abilities; giving them independence over their work, and asking for their input wherever possible. We make communications both structured and informal.
I am honest and open about the challenges of the job, and working from home from my perspective.
Don’t make it about me! Set up systems and teams that have the confidence to operate without my constant input.
6. Any other golden rules or failures that you’d like to share?
I know its common practice, but shared files are essential to us, as we’re on different time zones, and they keep our email inboxes clearer!
Be nice 🙂 Showing confidence in someone’s ability increases productivity and loyalty in my experience.
It’s worth remembering that staff over working, being stressed or burning out is as much of a risk to the organisation with remote working as under delivering.
This management style has failed or frustrated staff when the organisational culture and expectations were not made clear. Having had that experience I now make it clear from the first 5 minutes of the job interview that independence and autonomy are expected, as well as showing how much confidence I have in the team.
Be realistic and honest about what it’s like to work remotely from your own and others’ perspectives.
Thanks Joanna for your interesting and open conversation.