How to Lead a Remote Workforce

Robert Peake , 6 April 2020

Robert Peake, principal of Management for Design, offers his top tips for effective leadership with remote teams, including setting clear expectations and following through, giving trust freely, and managing achievement, not time. 

Many practices have already embraced working remotely for a proportion, if not many, of their people. But in the current climate, leaders are going to be spending long periods away from the majority of their people and most, if not all, work will be performed remotely. Leadership is now about leading all the people, all the time remotely. It’s a significant change for the industry and we won’t return to how it was! 

Leaders should not make the mistake of seeing this recent transition as merely a short-term inconvenience – it is an opportunity and valuable incentive for studios to make important, long-term changes. There’s no mistaking, though, that what will work best for your business will depend on the culture you have already built and the people you have around you. 

There isn’t a one size template for all studios but if managed appropriately this can lead to improved efficiency, wellbeing and engagement, and increased (and renewed) competitiveness in the long-term. 

How do you achieve this and what’s required from the leadership team to enable and optimise the current remote-working scenario? 

There are common practical themes and best practices that can be applied: 

1. Trust

You’ve recruited and trained talented and motivated people – they all want to step up and do a good job, even from afar. Trust in your employees is critical.

If that’s uncomfortable for you, then you may have bigger problems to navigate. Trust is the core foundation of teams, collaboration and working together. And if you genuinely believe you have untrustworthy people, then you might have some leadership or recruitment issues. Give trust freely!

Trust, transparency, respect, organisation, inclusivity, vision. Honestly, they’re the same qualities that make any leader great, but they’re more important in a remote environment. And it’s a two-way street – each of us must possess these qualities or the system falls apart.

2. Provide the required technology solutions

It’s important to support your team to set themselves up remotely and to provide and maintain infrastructure required – software and hardware. There will be increased demand on your infrastructure to enable and support all your people to work from home at the same time. Your team can only be productive if they have the right equipment to do so. It’s our responsibility as leaders to provide the tools and create the environment to enable our people to do a good job.

Assist your people to implement reliable internet, PCs, lap-tops – mirroring the studio setup. Survey them to obtain accurate and current information. This isn’t the time to be debating whether the expense is reimbursable or otherwise. Some companies are currently providing each employee with $300 to $500 or more so that individuals can purchase the items that best meet their needs – including additional monitors.

Provide mobile-enabled individual messaging functionality (like Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.), which can be used for simpler, less formal conversations, as well as time-sensitive communication. If your company doesn’t have technology tools already in place, there are inexpensive ways to obtain simple versions of these tools for your team, as a short-term fix.  Lean on your IT support to ensure there is an appropriate level of data security and redundancy as well before using any of these tools.

If you haven’t already, start exploring all the cloud-based platforms from the major CAD software providers, such as Autodesk BIM 360SketchUp Shop, and BIM Cloud. Besides composing drawing sets, firms will have to determine how to manage their files with a remote staff. Technology companies have long since migrated to the cloud, which means your data should in theory be secure, following best practices for account management and access, of course. Your servers may need to be upgraded in terms of bandwidth and capacity to handle your total workforce accessing them remotely. While the move to your home office may test the limits of your current servers, put faith in enterprise software companies to ensure that their business continuity plans include uptime and 24-hour access to your files.

3. Set clear expectations

Your role at any time as a leader is to provide clarity around expectations. How will you and your team deliver on your business objectives, your client expectations and your services, and how will you communicate this? This becomes more important when your people are remote as there tends to be less informal catch-ups and less regular team meetings where the team hold each other accountable. Develop systems for how you will determine that progress is on track and how you will monitor performance. Important as this is in business, it becomes even more important when leading a remote workforce – your people expect this. Two simple questions all employees have – “What do I have to do and how did I go?”

Let your people know what your business, project and team priorities are, what are the key tasks, who owns what, what needs to be delivered when. Your priorities will change constantly so make sure you are communicating as often as you can be. Provide that clarity. Use video as much as you can!

Your role isn’t to watch people, it’s to provide them with clear direction, the best systems and tools so they can do their job well and enjoy doing it. Whether someone is in the same building as you or not, you know if they’re not being productive.

4. Follow up

We care about people, but we also have the conversations we might not want to have. Where are we with it? What’s not working? What needs to change to get back on track? What else do we need to put in place? Have the priorities changed? Should we change the priorities? What’s become urgent and important? What’s important? What is for later? Embrace a coaching mentality. Don’t be afraid to keep people accountable remotely. Share an action list with priorities and go through this regularly – weekly or fortnightly depending on the role. Ask your people to reconfirm the priorities. What does your week look like now? Establish guidelines around this.

Clarity, connection, accountability and cooperation are required. Your responsibility is to lead from a position that reflects your values – your “guiding principles”, be what they may (for example, diplomacy, accountability, achievement, teamwork, challenge etc). We are in new and challenging times. Embrace them!

5. Manage achievement not time  

The sooner your business moves away from tracking time and the hours that are worked the better your business will be. Move away from tracking time and how many hours are worked – it’s irrelevant. What you want to know is how is the work progressing? Are your people engaged, productive and supported? How long they take is somewhat secondary. What’s important is whether you are delivering the services, working to the scope and that your people are productive. There are far more effective ways to assess this than hours worked.

Establish meaningful business objectives that are relevant and engaging to the individual and the role. An easy way to monitor progress is to track % complete and your conversations should be around this. Remember, you’re trusting your people! The amount of work required should be related to the fee you are charging. People earn fee income for your business – that’s the important issue.

Working from home means no long commutes and no strict one-hour lunch break. Examining your workflow, your people may find it possible to accomplish their work in six hours rather than the traditional eight hours (that are somewhat mandated by office hours). What’s wrong with using this “new time” as an opportunity to learn new software, develop the business systems, or study a new market expertise that will benefit your people and hence your business.  

6. Communicate

It’s even more important when you are leading a remote workforce to be more organised and structured in your work and with your team communication. So, before you think about getting on with what you need to do, take some time to think about what your team are doing and who you are going to touch base with. Who do you have regular meetings with? Think about any surprises that may come about. Try to think ahead of your team. Remember they can’t see you or your body language – they can’t see and feel the pressures that others are under. It is your responsibility to be on top of this.

Ask the following questions – How would you like me to communicate, to check your progress? How would you like me to follow up?  

Schedule in regular times – regular catch-ups – with your people and make sure your managers have this in place for their teams. That can be on a formal basis, but it can also be on an informal basis. Use technology, MS teams, Skype etc. to replace the regular catch-up. Continue to schedule a 10-minute coffee catch-up. (It’s just not face-to-face). And schedule regular times where you can all gather together (or most of you) via video conferencing | Skype. This is your regular employee get together and could happen weekly or bi-weekly. We recommend that leaders establish these protocols – ways of working – with employees as soon as possible and communicate these at your get together.

This is an opportunity for the leadership to make a difference to your people’s day. A great leader who knows how to lead remotely will create that connection. Bring your people together. Make it happen!

7. Show empathy

Each of your team will be responding differently to remote working. Some people will prefer this and see this as an opportunity to restructure their working relationship and some won’t. Very few people will be missing the commute to and from work though! However, don’t assume what people need. Just ask the questions – Can I help? How can I help you?

Understand that people have responsibilities outside the workplace and if they are at home it can be difficult to separate home and work life and to “isolate” themselves. In the current environment, with the sudden transition to virtual work, there is a much greater chance that employees will be contending with sub-optimal workspaces and unexpected parenting responsibilities. Even in normal circumstances, family and home demands can encroach on remote work. You should expect these distractions to be greater during this unplanned work-from-home transition. You need to make allowances for this and, quite frankly, don’t expect your people to be available at all times.

Work time from home tends to be less ordered and structured – make allowances for this. Your role as a leader is not to drive them to deliver more; your role is to get the best out of your team in the current situation. A great leader will tap into what your team needs in the moment.

“Soft” skills will be 10X more important in a virtual/work-at-home world. Team dynamics, individual growth, team creativity will dominate effectiveness”—Tom Peters

8. Take time out

Although leadership requires us to put our own needs to one side so that we can serve others, you won’t do this to the best of your ability if you don’t have balance in your life. Create time in your schedule to balance your work and outside work life so that you can be the person your team needs you to be. Exercise, spend time with your family, read etc. Perhaps use the time you would have spent commuting to take on an online course that you’ve been putting off for a while or learn a new skill that isn’t work-related. Teach yourself to touch-type! 

Discipline is important when working from home. While it is vital to maintain productivity levels during your core work hours, it is equally important to detach from work when needed. Lead yourself first!

The industry is in a period of significant change and uncertainty and no doubt you will or may be doing much of this already. To be sure, we won’t return to how things were.

The current environment presents your business with a unique opportunity to put in place measures that will enable you to manage through the present business challenges. Not only that, though, this may be a time to lead your business to improved efficiency, wellbeing, engagement and competitiveness well into the future. Leadership is even more important in times of uncertainty!  

Robert Peake is a director of Management for Design, and a member of the ACA – Vic/Tas Committee.