Ten ideas to lead, manage, and coach remote teams as a humanistic leader! - Welcome to Dr Craig Nathanson

The Pandemic has placed the spotlight on remote working. 

While remote working is not new, the Pandemic has placed a new focus when working from home. Suddenly people accustomed to working at the office are now faced with a multitude of challenges. While work is essential, people suddenly have new priorities and worries. How to avoid family distractions and keep focused? Many people discovered they did not have the right home environments with private space for work. People struggled to keep motivated.

Some organizations assumed this would only be a short-term phenomenon and haphazardly put some processes in place. Managers worry that they would not be able to control their employees if they could not see them in person. Many companies and their managers continued to manage people with the same high expectations as if they were still in the physical office.

A year later, it became apparent that specific strategies would enable remote work teams to thrive, and in this article, I want to share this with you. One such strategy will be the ways in which we lead people. A more humanistic leadership approach is required in this new environment. Humanistic leadership is about putting people first.  The skills of humanistic leadership are leading, managing, and coaching. Using these skills of humanistic leadership can be learned and applied in this new environment of remote work.

1. Develop and share team goals as a collaborative process

Humanistic leadership establishes the vision and describes what the environment will look like at the end of a given timeframe. It can help at this stage to describe the group’s mission, which should explain what the group does, how they do it, and who they serve as a customer base. It is also essential to identify the group’s values and what is most important for the group.

It is essential in a remote environment to develop and share team goals in a coordinated way. This is a critical element of leadership. This process might start with a brainstorming meeting where the group can look at the organizational goals for the year and figure out how to break them down into quarterly objectives. With remote teams, it is important that people must have a voice in the overall goals and understand how their work fits in.

2. Measure and discuss regularly

Additionally, a crucial part of humanistic leadership should be to establish clear goals and measure them periodically. It is essential to have a regular process to measure and discuss team progress against goals. The goal should have four components, and I call these 4W plus H.

Each goal should clearly define what, where, why, when, and how.

For example, if the group was developing a new software product, it is essential to define what is being created, where the development will occur, why the project is necessary, when the project is expected to complete, and how it will be done. These factors can be applied in any team activity. These indicators should be written down and measured regularly. The measurement process does not have to be that sophisticated. Depending on the project, I suggest a monthly review with all team members. Together with the members, the leader measures each goal as 1, complete, ½, partially done, or 0, not done. Most important, this grading process should not be punitive. Finally, after grading, the team discusses what can be done as the next steps. Sound too simple? It should be. When leadership and the entire team have the same shared goals and understanding of how the team will measure goals, people can thrive.

3. Establish routine communication processes

Establishing a standard communication process is an important part of managing remote teams. There are several layers to this. First, I recommended teams be no larger than eight people; otherwise, quality relationships are harder to develop. Each leader of the team should have regular one-on-one meetings with his or her followers every two weeks. The follower is a term I like to use since the word employee has always seemed too impersonal. The follower brings the agenda to the meeting and discusses what he or she wants to discuss. Then as time is usually left over, the leader can discuss their list. From this regular meeting, trust, openness, and good working relationships are developed.

Next, the leader should have a regular staff meeting. I suggest every two weeks, and this is called a process meeting. In this meeting, the leader passes down information and gathers new information from team members with a specific agenda. Minutes are taken and published directly after the meeting. In the minutes, tasks are assigned owners and completion dates. This process keeps the entire team organized. Next, there should be some operational review, perhaps every quarter. Members can present their crucial project status in a transparent way. I suggest the following format. For example, each person might give four areas of their updates:

  1. highlights and what went well since the last time,
  2. lowlights and what didn’t go so well,  
  3. issues where the person needs help from their leader,
  4. plans for the next period.

If everyone presented in the same format, the information would be consistent and could be rolled up and published. 

Finally, there is a different type of communication meeting, which is called a mission meeting. Teams should have lots of mission meetings. Mission meetings are the opposite of process meetings. Many leaders don’t understand the difference between process and mission meetings. Mission meetings are collaborative, used for brainstorming, solving problems, and creating new solutions with much collaboration. Mission meetings should be held at a minimum weekly or every few weeks.

Finally, in the remote environment, I have observed that meetings over 90 minutes via Zoom or a similar platform can be challenging for isolated people. So, I recommend that all remote sessions be 90 minutes or less with at least one 10-minute break. While these are standard effective processes, they especially need to be in place for remote workgroups.

4. Share learning

Sharing learning is vital for remote workgroups. Joint training sessions along with a repository to place this training should be easily accessible by all. The more complex the training process and access to materials, the less time people will spend to learn new information and be up-to-date.

In the remote environment, at the end of a meeting, the leader needs to ask the question: “What is it that you want to know that I have not explained?” Often so many meetings end with the leader asking: “Are there any questions?” This one-way communication can be very intimidating, and many people remain quiet. The most critical element with remote workgroups is to learn together in a collaborative way.

5. Have a standard technology platform that works for everyone

Many technology platforms are competing to be the vehicle for remote work. I will not recommend specific technology platforms for remote workgroups as there are many, but I will suggest that a common platform should be used. The platform should be scalable, easy to use, and accessible to all. If the chosen technology is too complicated for all group members to use, it will severely inhibit collaboration with remote work teams. Joint training and ongoing information should be readily available for all team members to use the platform.

6. Enable autonomy

Remote team members should be allowed to work in ways that fit them best. There are so many challenges with working at home that have to be overcome. People have to find a schedule that suits them, an area of their home that works best for them, and the right equipment at their disposal. Everyone has their natural rhythms as to how they work best. Some of us work better early in the morning, while some work better in the evening.

The humanistic team leader should recognize the importance of being flexible with schedules. Team meetings can be rotated so that everyone’s time zones are accommodated. There is nothing worse than being a remote worker who always has to get up in the middle of the night for the meetings. Nothing will ruin morale more than this.

With transparent regular working processes in place, people will be able to work autonomously. Many companies have gone the other direction insisting on daily check-ins and countless documentation, and so on. This micro-management is the best way to lower morale and productivity and even worse, lose team members.

7. Develop strong working relationships

Like in the physical office, there are many ways to develop strong working relationships remotely. Icebreakers can be quite impressive in the remote environment. For example, I like to have virtual potlucks. People will share pictures of the food they like virtually while the team members discuss the recipe and perhaps its origin. There is nothing better than food to bring people together.

I like to ask each member to share key learning and/or insight from the meeting. When people have a place to use their voice in a forum, they feel more vested in the team’s outcomes. Perhaps the leader might ask each team member to share one strategy that they have used to thrive during the Pandemic and working remotely.

Just like in the physical office, there are multiple ways to develop formal and informal working relationships in the remote team environment. Pairing up small teams to work on specific projects can be useful. Make time in every meeting for informal social interaction. Rotate leadership. Give adequate time for people to present problems and what they would like to see.

The humanistic leader develops strong working relationships much like a parent through putting people first, having empathy, listening, and being supportive. This is the coaching aspect of humanistic leadership.

8. Show empathy and be flexible

Be a good coach and show empathy, especially in the remote working environment. Showing compassion means being sensitive to individual needs and situations. As we all know, working from home is much more challenging than the physical office. It is essential to be flexible with remote teams. People appreciate it when their leader is flexible and open to change.

9. Enable joy at work

Enabling joy at work is my life’s work and I do have a few things to say here. Despite the challenges of any organization, the humanistic leader should not forget that people will thrive when they enjoy their work. The importance of enjoying work doesn’t change in the remote environment.

Enabling people to align their abilities and what they are motivated to do with their deepest interests will allow better working relationships, productivity, positive energy, and joy at work. In my research, I have discovered that when joy goes up at work, all other indicators go up. This lesson should not be forgotten, especially in a remote environment.

10. Be humanistic

Humanistic leadership is a key area of my research for many years and the pandemic reveled this need as never before. Being humanistic means putting people first. Being humanistic also means placing people over profit. For a business to thrive and survive, making a profit is also crucial. The challenge, however, becomes how do you go about making a profit. Is it by working with people or working over people? There is a tendency I have observed in the remote environment to ignore the challenges that people have when working at home.

Being humanistic means putting a priority on people, showing that you genuinely care about each person and their situation. Using collaborative and democratic leadership styles in the remote environment can be especially useful. As a leader, it is essential to be thoughtful and conscientious. If you tend to be more spontaneous, you can adapt your behavior to be more organized, thoughtful, and think about your actions and the possible unintended consequences that might occur before any decision or action is made with your team.

Being humanistic isn’t just a good idea; it is mandatory for sustainability.

Key Learning

Working in a remote environment has become the new normal, and the lessons learned on leading, managing, and coaching people should be used in any environment. As a reminder, the skills of humanistic leadership, which are leading, managing, and coaching need to be all used on a regular basis. It is not sufficient to be just a great leader, a great manager, or a great coach and all of these skills need to come from the same person.

Some days a leader might discover that people are unclear on the vision. When working remotely, people need constant reinforcement on the vision, this is when leading comes in to explain the vision. Other days, a leader might see that the goals are not getting accomplished, therefore, more managing is needed to review progress and expectations. Finally, many days people will be stuck and have problems and that is where coaching is needed to invest the time to work with people.  People need to understand that their leader cares about them and is available for mentorship, support and guidance.

The Pandemic has forever changed how we think about work. With the right approach and the humanistic spirit, people and organizations will thrive.

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