Shawn Ahmed is the Vice President of Product Marketing at Cloudbees (known to many as the Jenkins Company). Working with automation orchestration, and software development solutions, continuous integration, and continuous delivery, Shawn says, “Software is the backbone of every company.”
What is the most important skill for a leader of remote teams?
That is an interesting question. A lot of skills are needed. I think that you have to be able to use a healthy dose of empathy, especially with the situation as it is now. There is the remote working environment and the remote working environment with COVID-19 as is happening now. The stresses that are put on team members now are higher than generally. That turmoil can come from different things. You could have a spouse or partner working at home. You might even have children at home that need supervision. Multiple worlds are colliding together.
You can often end up dealing with guilt. You might ask yourself, am I doing enough to help? Am I supposed to help my child? Is it OK that I take a long lunch break so that the children each lunch? You might have parents that need you.
We have to have an incredible amount of empathy for our co-workers in our day-to-day interactions with them.
You might have health-specific issues and scares that you are dealing with. In an environment like that, I think the most important trait or skill you can bring is a healthy dose of empathy. Understand where your team members are at and their individual situations. While you do have to talk about work, avoid engaging in micro-management and be more outcome-oriented instead. Let the employees guide you as a leader, as to how they will reach those outcomes in the best way that is possible for them.
Practically, once that physical presence that you normally have in an office is not there, try to recreate that by allowing 'open-office hours' where there is no agenda. People can just 'drop-in’ and you can see your colleagues' faces on screen. You either work there or, talk if you want to. One of my favorite activities is, “Bring your own beverage on Friday”, where we share a virtual drink on Friday afternoon, and celebrate some of the wins.
Additionally, it is important to respect time zone differences. People work all over the world. So, avoid setting up a meeting, that for someone will be at 4:00 am.
What have you learned the hard way?
One of the most important things that I want to share, specifically now, is that full-time remote work is not for everyone.
Not every human being is built the same way. I tell people all the time, “That's OK, we don't have to all be the same.”
Some of us thrive off of human connections; we thrive off of being in the same room with a whiteboard and a few markers. Some of us thrive off of being able to go have lunch with somebody or have a conversation with somebody. That requires much more thinking and structure when you’re remote. Scheduling can get trickier.
You may not be the kind of person that likes remote work and you have been put in that position right now. Please don't feel guilty about feeling that way. Don't burn yourself out working harder than before, trying to love it. Don't be negligent to yourself.
There is a certain anonymity that comes with working remotely. For example, you speak to someone on a call for 30 minutes and then they are gone and you may not speak to them for a while. If you would be communicating in person, you may read body language in different ways. But you don’t have that here.
I learned to seek out that feedback from our employees (or, teammates as we call them). When you feel the need, find ways to ‘recharge the battery’ while working in a remote environment.
I also suggest to people to fill the need for in-person connection. Try and find it in a safe way, by seeking out your family. Instead of spending time on Unicorns or Monopoly, have a coffee break with your spouse, or gather in the kitchen. Try to have a conversation during lunch with your kids, or cook together in the kitchen in the evening.
Tell your employees: Don't feel guilty. Someday we'll get back to the norm of working together in an office.
How can someone avoid the overload of calls and communication while working?
Some practical tips that might help are:
1. If you are the person setting up the call ask yourself, "What constitutes success? What do you want to achieve by that call?" Communicate that message to the people invited to the meeting, so that they can mentally prepare and bring that to the meeting. Let those 30 minutes be productive.
2. Give participants permission to drop out of a call if there is non-essential discussion or venting. We use this rule: if within 15 minutes of the call, they feel that they are not adding value or getting value from the call, they may make that decision to drop-off.
3. Make sure to put purely informative content in a direct Slack channel communication with an individual instead of a meeting. If you can do that, you can save someone 30 minutes.
In that way perhaps, the volume of calls can be reduced.
How do you recruit remotely?
This is something you have done all the time, but it is a new activity for many companies. Our practice has been one where we say video calls are a must. The first time it may seem a little strange, but much of the awkwardness goes away very quickly.
For video interview calls, I suggest keeping it short, not longer than 30 minutes. In that way, you can use the interviewer’s time to interview more people.
You should focus on specific topics. We tend to share notes between interviewers so that you can see the process that each person has gone through.
Try to locate people who are geographically close enough to the interviewer. Potentially, you could have an in-person coffee meeting to supplement the video call.
In general (not under COVID conditions), try to find an opportunity to meet them in person, as an opportunity to get to know them, as one last interview, lasting a couple of hours. Practically, save time in the video call itself by avoiding general opening topics such as "So, tell me about yourself." Instead, scrutinize their profile ahead of time, for 30-40 minutes. Be very prepared.
The hiring manager should be very involved in the process. They should know what they are looking for. What outcomes is this person going to be driving? They should have a very well-documented plan for the interviewers as to what to look for, and what to talk about.
In a remote environment, you may find that the process will take 2 to 3 days as opposed to getting it all done in one day.
So, expect the process to take a little longer, have short video calls, and try to do something in person, if possible. That is how it is done at Cloudbees.