The hard way

The first lesson on leading a remote team when the world’s on fire is the most obvious one, but it’s shockingly easy to miss: the operative phrase is not remote team but world’s on fire. This is true whether you’re a veteran of remote practices or you have recently had to instruct people in the correct use of the mute button on video calls. If you’re in the latter camp, it’s likely you’ve had to deal with all kinds of unfamiliar and annoying logistical challenges these past few weeks, but don’t let them distract you: remote practices are a MacGuffin. Your attention must be turned to managing through the fire.

The second lesson is harder, I’m afraid. You have no idea how to do this. I’ve managed remote teams for a decade and I have no idea how to do this. None of us has experience leading a team through a global pandemic. You are going to get more things wrong than you get right. You are going to have to hold yourself to a high standard—because your team needs nothing less—while also being patient with yourself, and with everyone around you. You will fuck up. You will also likely get a number of things right—but you may never know it because good feedback is even scarcer than normal under the circumstances. Your job is to learn and adapt as fast as you can and you are going to have to keep your heart and mind open to do so, even when—especially when—doing so hurts like hell.

If you are new to remote then you may have already begun to learn this next lesson the hard way: the difference between good remote communication and passable IRL communication is that the former requires you to be intentional and explicit, while the latter encourages a certain amount of ambiguity. This is, ordinarily, a boon. Offices permit a great deal of casual communication, but it’s rarely distributed evenly. You may sit near the office of a powerful colleague, gleaning all kinds of information about what’s happening based on their mood, who goes into to their office (or who doesn’t), or the snippets of conversation that slip through those thin office walls. Or you may be stationed out of the way where none of that context ever reaches your ears. If you are in the former camp, you are more likely white, abled, cis, het, and male than none of those things; and your ability to understand the nuanced and partial information you glean from this ambient communication is in large part dependent on those demographics and the cultural lodestones you share as a result of them.

It’s this mechanism that permits co-located teams to delude themselves about how well their communication is working: those who sit in offices with doors talk mostly with those who sit just outside those doors, and conclude that there’s a great deal of alignment and understanding around them. They don’t notice the people sitting around the corner who aren’t quite in the loop; they don’t see the information hoarding and trading that happens in the hallways when they aren’t passing by.

Remote communication won’t completely erase those inequities, of course. But done well it does give you a bit of leverage to diminish them. Great remote communication—great communication, that is—flattens those inequities as best it can, by building clear, accessible, and methodical paths for information to reach people equally.

And nothing is more important while the world burns than clearly communicating to every single person on your team. You need everyone around you to rise to the present challenge as best they can, but they cannot do that if some of them are in the dark.

I fear that those of you who are new to remote will learn the wrong thing from this lesson: you’ll conclude that communicating effectively on a remote team is either too much work or impossible to do well, and someday, on the other side of all this, you will find yourself arguing passionately for a co-located team even if it means everyone has to don masks and wipe their desk down three times a day. But in the future, even the most committed co-located teams will need to be prepared to go remote at a moment’s notice, whether for a few days or a few weeks or months. The reality is that while remote communication is different, it isn’t harder than IRL communication; it’s just that when you communicate poorly, a remote team will grant you few illusions that you did otherwise.

The last lesson comes back to the first: you are not leading a remote team. You are leading a team that is scared, stressed, angry, frustrated, worried, and worse. You are leading parents who desperately need a break from their kids and can’t get it, people who rightly fear for their own lives, people in the throes of trauma and grief. Your first job is to make sure they have everything they need to be healthy and safe; only if that’s achieved can you turn to anything else. And when you do, you better be as clear as possible about what they should focus on, and why, because no one has tolerance for even the slightest bullshit right now. You are going to have to listen fiercely, speak openly, make decisions even when no good options present themselves, and admit that you just don’t know what’s coming. You are going to have to stay calm and present even as the fire rages.

Leading a team is a great privilege, never more so than when things are at their worst. Don’t miss your chance to live up to it.