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Leadership

How to Lead Your Team Remotely 

Managers across creative teams share their best practices to thoughtfully lead from afar.


“These extraordinary times require more awareness and thoughtfulness around expectations,” remarked Deepa Subramanian, Chief Product & Digital Officer for the ACLU. Deepa is overseeing a team of 60 people as they’ve made the transition from working at the office to working remotely over the past few weeks. Communicating expectations has become even more paramount to her team’s success. No longer connected by physical space, but instead dialing into meetings and connecting throughout the day via chat, she reflected on being tasked with how to think more carefully about managing her team from afar as the boundaries between home and work blur. She’s not the only one. As managers navigate the new landscape of managing their teams from home, Deepa and several of her manager peers shared emerging best practices and what they are doing to provide their teams with clarity and support as they work remotely. 

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Support your team’s ability to be flexible.

With eight years experience working remotely, the CEO of Squared Away, Michelle Penczak, has managed a team of 100 people around the globe, from Japan to Germany and the US. Her team checks in daily and is on Slack during working hours, however that doesn’t mean her team is always available. With Michelle’s support, her team is able to block time throughout the day for personal tasks and caring for kids as needed. “Most of our staff are extremely driven perfectionists. Having kids at home and tasks to complete can increase anxiety. Reminding them that family comes first, no matter what, has given them the confidence to handle both without worrying about the professional side.” 

Even with the never-ending demands of work, Michelle encourages her team to have patience with themselves as they attempt to balance a long list of personal and professional demands. Knowing they will have time to take care of their personal lives allows them to show up more fully to work when they are on the clock. 

Be an example in helping your team set clear boundaries.

Even when working from home, our ability to be connected digitally can pressure us to believe we have to be constantly available. Deepa Subramanian, Chief Product & Digital Officer for the ACLU, has made it a priority to help her team of 60 set clear boundaries between on and off time. On a practical level, her approach has included: 

  • Asking team members to mark their individual calendars with times they are available and unavailable
  • Requesting team members more broadly share times they are consistently not available in team calendars and Slack channels
  • Encouraging team members to honor each others’ availability when sending invites to meetings
  • Having team members be clear in invites about what will happen if someone can’t attend a meeting (i.e. the organizer will email notes or follow up 1:1) 

Deepa noted that part of helping her team set clear boundaries means personally following the directives she’s given her team and requesting her managers do the same. “If members of my team hear leadership say, ‘Take time for yourselves,’ but then don’t see us doing that, how will they actually believe that is a true directive? Leaders need to clearly embody the healthy practices they are putting in place for the broader team to trust and consequently leverage them themselves.”

The practices Deepa has incorporated into her own workday include: 

  • Setting up a pleasant workstation (switching where to break up the monotony) 
  • Only post online once taking care of myself in the morning
  • Respect a real lunch break and mid-day break (ironically, I never did this when I actually went into the office)
  • Updating my Slack availability to indicate when I’ll be back online, which helps me feel less guilty 

Regularly assess your team’s professional well-being.

Brian Smith, a Design Director at FullStack Labs who has been working part-time remote for four years and full-time remote for four weeks asks for regular feedback from his close-knit team of five so he can gain insight on how internal processes are working and where he may need to make changes. In addition to daily and weekly check-ins, Brian asks his team to respond to a quick survey each month so he can gain insight into their professional well-being. The questions are rated on a 1-5 scale with room for comments. Here are examples of what he asks his team to respond to: 

  • I feel like I know what is expected of me on a daily basis
  • I feel like I know what is expected of me in my current role 
  • I feel like I can continue to grow at FullStack Labs
  • I feel like I can contribute to improving the way we work at FullStack Labs 
  • I feel like my opinions are valued by the team

Based on his team’s responses, Brian has a better understanding of what his team members need from him, including where he can provide more clarity and support. It also prompts him to have follow-up calls with specific team members to address individual needs. This approach can scale with his team to help identify hiccups in the process and know which team members might need more 1:1 attention. 

Set realistic expectations for yourself and your team. 

“What we get done we get done,” said Mike Trozza, who co-leads a design and development team of 18 full-time staff for P&G’s Tide brand. Personally, Mike has worked from home often in the past, but has never worked remotely with his team as a whole until now. He had hoped to have more deep work time like he previously experienced while working from home, but that hasn’t been his reality. 

Now his days are chopped up because his team needs more interaction, and he’s okay with that. He’s changed his schedule to get up earlier for uninterrupted time before his team is online. His shift in expectations around productivity extends to his team as well. There’s always work to be done and it can be all-consuming, but he reminds his team that it’s also important to step away from work to stay connected to family and loved ones. He expects his team to get a reasonable amount of work done in the hours they are available and after that, it’s personal time. 

Similar goals, different approaches. 

Each of the managers I spoke with are navigating specific challenges depending on the size of their team, the time zones they’re spread across, the demands of their work, and other variables. However, each was optimistic about finding an approach that works well for their specific team and making changes to that approach as needed. As leaders, supporting a team’s flexibility, teaching by example, directly asking how you can support, and adjusting expectations to reality are all helpful in managing from afar to provide clarity for and support to a team. It will look different for every manager, yet despite the differing rhythms of our workdays, it’s clear from the managers I spoke to that the goals are similar: to help team members feel supported, cared for, and connected as they continue to do the same work, just now from home. 

More Posts by Tina Essmaker

Tina Essmaker is a New York City-based coach, writer, and speaker.


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