There’s a new wave of books beginning to arrive that focus on how to best manage remote teams—based on the assumption that some portion of Americans’ work will remain virtual after the pandemic.
Among those released over the past 10 days are How to Thrive in the Virtual Workplace by Robert Glazer and Leading at a Distance by James M. Citrin and Darleen DeRosa. This week’s briefing focuses on the latter. It’s written by two employees of the executive search and consulting firm Spencer Stuart, where Citrin leads its North American CEO practice—and the nearly two dozen blurbs inside the front of the book from CEOs including Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Goldman Sachs’ David Solomon attest to Citrin’s prominence in the field.
One comes away from reading Leading at a Distance with the impression that many top executives found positives in the past 15 months of remote work. Some especially love the ability to communicate easily with staff by video.
“I will do as much or more customer travel, because that’s still the most important way to build relationships,” Boeing CEO David Calhoun told the authors. “But most travel when leading big companies is visiting your own teams. I won’t be doing that nearly as much.” He added that when people adapt well to video communication “the digital tools do a better job for meetings than being there in person.” (p. 80.)
Citrin and DeRosa tell the story of an unnamed executive who became CEO of an industrial multinational early last year. As the pandemic hit, she set up one-hour video meetings with the company’s top 100 executives around the world to help shape her strategy. When that ended, she created an ongoing schedule of 30-minute video calls to touch base with the leaders and then with others further down in the organization, including up-and-coming leaders and experts. She credits the practice with raising employee engagement and continues it to this day, though has concluded 15-minute check-ins are sufficient.
Hiring is another area where business leaders surprisingly see advantages to operating remotely. Organizations can more efficiently screen candidates and ensure the right people interview them because video calls make scheduling easier.
Onboarding is the top area that the leaders Citrin and DeRosa surveyed found most challenging to do virtually—almost 70% said it was worse. Their recommendations are that companies:
- Get new staff off to a quick start. Best practices include establishing an onboarding liaison separate from the employee’s manager to welcome them, coordinate their schedule, and answer questions.
- Establish relationships across the organization. This involves the new employee attending a lot of video meetings with colleagues.
- Explain the company culture and how work gets done. One element of this is documenting unspoken assumptions about company history and norms.
- Set clear expectations and connect the new employee’s work to company mission, vision, and goals.
Some other tips from Citrin and DeRosa for managing when at least part of the work is done remotely:
- Don’t try to coach employees by email or text—which research shows recipients experience more negatively—and instead do it live by video or phone.
- Build team trust by hosting “lunch-and-learn” sessions where team members take turns presenting on topics they’re expert in, whether or not it’s related to work.
- Practice as much transparency as possible, openly sharing project timelines, agreements, and processes, and leading by example by sharing challenges as well as successes.
- Tell stories to help create a connection with colleagues. Several leaders started sending weekly emails to staff with professional and personal highlights during the pandemic that proved extremely popular.
- Build an individual team's motivation and pride by branding it with a team name, slogan, or logo.
Citrin and DeRosa’s research shows that virtual teams that are higher-performing tend to be made up of 12 or fewer people, have members from the same function rather than a cross-functional mix, and have had an initial face-to-face meeting within 90 days of their formation. They propose a model they call “RAMP” for managing virtual teams by focusing on Relationships, Accountability, Motivation, and Processes.
To be sure…
- The introduction and first chapter, seemingly written well before the majority of American adults were vaccinated, feel like they’re answering questions that have already been widely covered and many of us have already moved on from. They rehash some of the experiences of the pandemic and reach the unsurprising conclusion that “remote work is here to stay.” (Their tips do generally apply to the more-widespread hybrid approaches to the return to the workplace, where employees split their time between the office and remote.)
Memorable facts and anecdotes:
- Goldman Sachs during the pandemic shipped desk phones to the homes of thousands of employees so that they had the equipment needed to do their jobs.
- David Zaslav, the CEO of Discovery in the news for its merger with WarnerMedia, told the authors that he played one-hour tennis sessions 80 days in a row to break up his long days on Zoom.
- To anchor employees in the company’s purpose during the pandemic, Hasbro shifted focus from its high-level strategic vision to four priorities: supplying its services and products amid disruption, increasing consumer demand, maintaining financial liquidity, and looking after the community of its employees and their families.
- “With this pandemic, we’re all in the same storm, but in different boats.” —Yanbing Li, a Google engineering VP (p. 7)
- “When well run, virtual meetings can be startingly efficient.” (p. 79)
The bottom line is that Leading at a Distance offers sensible tips that could be useful for any manager. A lot of them relate to relatively well-known themes, such as the importance of building trust, communicating frequently, and spelling out company culture and norms. They cover basic practices, such as the value of a meeting agenda.
But it’s interesting that a book so anchored in the perspectives of large-company executives is so positive and constructive about virtual work. That alone suggests that remote and hybrid work approaches could truly take root for good and change how we all work permanently.
You can also read all of our book briefings here.