Let it go! [interview on remote teams with Zuzanna Przybyła]

managing remote teams
Dawid Bartkowiak
Dawid Bartkowiak
Hey Manager, are you still hating remote work? Well, you would be... at least partly right! Managing remote teams can be a challenge. To make sure you hate remote work for all the right reasons, we bring you a deep interview with Zuzanna Przybyła - an experienced distributed teams consultant and a self-made entrepreneur as well! She teaches organizations how to enable teams to work well regardless of time and space.

Zuzanna Przybyła is a distributed teams’ consultant, business trainer, mentor and facilitator. Founder of World Is Your Office (worldisyouroffice.com), a training and consulting agency, specialized in supporting remote teams. Zuzanna helps companies manage remote work in a smart way so that it benefits both the business as well as the employees. We sat down with her to discuss all issues about managing remote and distributed teams, and what managers get right and wrong about the challenge. We also asked her to prepare two very brief case studies to show you typical issues companies have when starting to implement remote work.

 

[Dawid] Have you ever worked remotely?

[Zuzanna] Hell yes! It began during my corporate years, with home-office first sprinkled here and there, as the first level of remote work. Also, around that time, I worked my own business running an online store, and I set it up in such a way, that most of its operations were automated. Stuff like deliveries or logistics were in Warsaw, but I could travel the world – Mexico, Thailand and more. Later on, I worked for a company without any physical presence, and it was irrelevant where I did my work.

It was largely a choice of mine – I simply prefer this kind of flexibility, this ability to choose. Not just the freedom to choose my geographic location – but what usually follows, is time flexibility as well. If I need to hop out to some local city office, I can. If I want a two-hour break to get a workout – I can. That is a good feeling.

For you, it was mostly a choice. On the other hand, who needs remote work?

For others though, remote options may make or break their ability to work. Whether it is people with family obligations, or maybe thousands of people with disabilities – there are large groups of talent that can be accessed only if enabled with a remote option. Stuff that’s trivial to you – like air conditioning blasting in your office – may be a health hazard for someone else.

We also need to think about people who cannot access good jobs easily in their area. Transport considerations are extremely important to employees. Living away from hubs of tech activity creates pressure for remote options.

So there are many groups that WANT remote work. But who SHOULD consider it? What type of person succeeds away from a cubicle?

Simply put, self-reliance and self-discipline are key. Often the out-of-office environment where you work is more than a little distracting. It takes some willpower and habits to crawl from your bed in pajamas and immediately switch to high-performance mode. No scorching look from your manager will help you move.

This is a double-edged sword. Some offices can be pretty distracting as well. But they somehow still instill an atmosphere of work, which needs to be recreated in some personalized form where the remote worker is about to do his/her job.

Also, I would advise against discounting the very human and social aspects of work. Many of us underestimate how much we actually gain from the social relations we build with our teams, usually in-person. Some people will find pretty quickly, that the herd sometimes helps to structure our lives and keep us happy. We overrate our ability to adapt – and some people find themselves working two hours a day when at home, and spend the rest of the day migrating pointlessly from their sofa to the fridge and back.

 

case study decription

What specific skills you should train, to become a good candidate for remote positions?

A huge one is English. Despite its relative popularity, especially in tech, this broadens your appeal significantly if you do not have barriers in this language. And to follow up on this – you better brush up your communication skills.

In remote teams, flawless communication is vital to the success of the company. You need to understand the natural limitations of communicating over digital channels. There are some patterns – in most cases, there will be a more written communication, so you may need to be able to transfer complex ideas into writing easily. On the other hand, we need to watch our emotions even more in such cases – as the other side cannot read the context, the hundreds of cues we usually supply when talking face to face.

So as an employer, what can I do to check if candidate A or B has those qualities?

There are many ways to accomplish this. Starting from the simplest solutions, asking good behavioral questions can give us a deeper understanding of the candidate – and how that person reacts to specific situations that may be problematic in a daily work of a remote employee. If we want to check self-reliance, for example, we can ask how a candidate would react to a lacking onboarding procedure – if the period is very chaotic, and there are fires to put out everywhere, and nobody can really help you out much – what do you do, how would you feel?

The scenario is clearly suboptimal, but from a remote worker, you should expect a little more of a “can-do” approach, rather than calmly awaiting more precise instructions – which may not arrive soon. You need to be able to take care of yourself.

Next, if it is easier to add remote employees to a team if some of its members already have such experience. This may not always be possible, but remote work is different and the team needs some empathy towards the “outsiders”. For this reason, I always advise companies to meet in person when possible, to create closer bonds and understanding.

In terms of the recruiting process – why not test the candidate in some real circumstances? You can easily set up a test that mimics what he/she may encounter. Recently I helped design just such a process, during recruiting a remote IT Project Manager for one of my clients. We created a scenario, where a project is in rather bad shape, here is your access to Jira, here is an email from an angry client, here are the nicknames of relevant co-workers on Slack, and you have three hours to sort this stuff out. Such tests take some time to design and run, but they are a very worthy tool to judge candidate fitness for the job.

How do you prepare your company for implementing remote work?

Going even partly remote is a large, strategic decision for a company. One that affects its daily rhythm, one that needs to be backed up by values, by how we work with each other. Never go there unprepared. Never go there without a precise answer to the question: “Why am I doing this? Why exactly do I need remote work?”.

This can create some problems – the team agreed to go remote enthusiastically, the manager is proud that he/she is progressive and nice, but a month later efficiency goes down the drain. Why? Because there is more to efficient remote work than just the decision. It needs to be its own ecosystem.

Aside from strategy, a thing that is often missed despite remote work growing popularity is, whether our staff actually wants it. Ask them first, if they imagine this as an effective solution and if this is something they think they need.

Next, if there is basic buy-in, gather more information. How does your team imagine remote work? What would be its scope? One day a week? Fully flexible? Avoid working only on the basis of your assumptions – they are often misguided. Ask the HR department and the board of their opinion and create a list of conditions of success. How will I measure if remote work… works? Running small-scale tests on select teams and seeing how they perform is an excellent idea, too.

 

mini case study

What about the work environment (for example, tools) necessary for remote work to be effective?

It is much easier to go remote in organizations, that are largely digital. Many companies despite having an office, are kind of atomized – most communication and project work go through the internet anyway. You talk to clients through email or the phone. This lowers the barrier of entry, as our teams already know how to manage the tools, and the change will not be as drastic.

Using the right tools is not the end though. You need to update the culture of using them! What goes through the asynchronous, and what through synchronous channels? When can you call whom?

But the key thing is the approach of the management. An important breaking point is often when managers need to stop thinking about the time spent working and switch almost completely to thinking about specific task completion. It is not a simple task.

What is the most justified concern of managers, who doubt the idea of remote work?

As a professional remote work consultant, I discourage many organizations from it. This sounds paradoxical, but we need to see real drawbacks for what they are. For example, I do not think that there is a legitimate way to avoid all communication difficulties. Slack and even video conferencing still is not the same as physical proximity and relations it creates. The interpersonal aspect will be missing for some (a minority may love it, though).

A band-aid solution is to meet as often as possible (quarterly or even maybe once a week if possible), but you cannot expect it to compensate for the intricacies of human direct contact.

From the other side, what objection to remote work makes the least sense to you?

The one about controlling your employees. “How will I control what my employees are doing?”. I always wonder how on Earth those managers function daily in their offices. Do they patrol the desks and look regularly over the shoulders of their employees? That is, fortunately, a rarity, so in effect, most managers do not really have that much “control” over their employee’s activities. Then what is there to fear?

This tells me a lot about the manager. Why does that person feel the need to have this kind of control? What exactly are you doing now to satisfy this need? At the end of the day, it usually comes down to trust issues.

What is the role of the leader of a remote team?

The leader needs to be a catalyst – a person who enables others to work. This burden is important especially for teams that recently switched to a remote or distributed way of working, where the habits are not yet there and the leader must facilitate the information flow.

The leader needs to ensure that people who are not in the room feel like they are a part of the conversation – a vital part that is. That they are trusted. The trick to managing remote teams is to integrate people around a common goal, where the leader essentially finds a way to glue atomized people together. The leader also guards the rules set up around remote work.

Most managers are not used to transparency, which helps a lot. Even such little things, like using cameras for video conferencing instead of just calling, up to giving access to more information about the context of the project, all help build trust on both personal and professional levels. Regular 1vs1 conversations are a must. Try to separate your personal feelings from data-based accounting of people’s performance.

 

If you liked this interview, check out the previous one we’ve done, head here to read what Hung Lee, a recruiting wizard, thinks of the future of the industry.

Dawid Bartkowiak

Dawid Bartkowiak

Dawid Bartkowiak

Dawid Bartkowiak

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