Alone together: on productive working from home. Part 3: Virtual Leadership

At first glance, leading virtual teams seems to be not very different from traditional leadership and team management. However, there are critical differences regarding feedback techniques and planning strategies, with particular emphasis on risk management.

This is part three of the article series about effective work from home. Please read the preceding article here.

I am aware of the fact that the amount of literature about leadership, management, and planning is likely to be measured in metric tons instead of pounds. I am focusing on the specific aspects related to working from home.

New hires

The way new team members are hired has evolved. The pandemic has accelerated the trend towards social media-based candidate ratings. Nonetheless, personal interviews remain indispensable, at least for critical hires such as team leads, lead designers, and project managers.

But even in other cases, I would still recommend personal interviews in a physical office. The amount of non-verbal information is not comparable to electronic data transmission.

If it is not feasible, you will have to rely on the written CV and further information you can find on the net. The best way to mitigate this shortcoming is to interview past employers or business partners. Written permission by the candidate is compulsory by law in many areas. Also, be aware that researching personal information via social media outlets may be illegal in some countries. For background checks, you might want to outsource it to a professional company that knows how to proceed according to local laws.

Make sure that you introduce new hires to the team during an on-premise get-together. Purely virtual teams are uncommon, even in the age of the pandemic-induced, working-from-home world. You will still have frequent personal meetings in on-promise offices. The goal is to overcome the trust barrier. The new hires must have a chance to socialize with the team to familiarize themselves with the non-verbal cues and different working styles. Without a sufficient amount of “face time,” it may take weeks or even months to achieve an adequate level of trust.

Again, trust is the key to making working from home successful. No trust = no success.

Leadership Style

Leadership and charisma are hard to define. Some say that outstanding leaders can be recognized instantly the moment they enter a room. How can such kind of a magnetic leadership and personal charisma be substituted by a voice chat?

My impression is that the age of “toughness” and borderline bullying into submission is over. Steve Jobs, for example, who was legendary for his magnetic kind of leadership style, would likely be struggling in a purely online environment. In a work-from-home world, exceptional sensitivity is required. Just one e-mail may permanently ruin the team’s motivation unwittily. You must overweigh praise and be sparse with criticizing. In a way, you must be walking on proverbial eggshells all of the time.  The only way to exercise feedback is in a one-on-one personal chat room.

The problem is that there is no direct and easy way to communicate critical feedback to management as it is usual in the on-promise world. Now, in the world of online meetings, you have to extract this information from the team members. I recommend implementing the new kind of virtual “management by walking around” (see HERE for the original concept of “MBWA”). As a manager, frequently make voice or video calls to the team members and have 5 minutes of friendly chat. A friendly chat, not an assessment of any kind, is all that is required. It is amazing how much useful feedback you can get from those brief and direct conversations. Resist the temptation to ask, “what have you been doing?” Instead, offer help and be genuine about it.

Say “thank you” whenever a team member has delivered a piece of good work. Don’t praise otherwise – have virtual, one-on-one feedback instead.

Active listening is even more critical than it has ever been. Since you cannot “nod” in approval, confirm your attention audibly. And, in general, listen more than you speak.

Your goal is to lead by example, not by chatter. Propagate this principle; it is a good policy.

Planning

Planning with paper, flipchart, and e-mails have become ineffective. Since your team is likely to be distributed across all countries and time zones, a suitable task and planning database is a must. In theory, task planning is possible with a spreadsheet, of course. In the real world of virtual teams, the teams must feel comfortable and motivated by a tool, not hindered by it. Thus, relying on a spreadsheet is usually a bad idea.

Many software-driven organizations use JIRA as a planning tool. The popularity of JIRA has grown over the years. The acceptance of it is very high, and the management increasingly adopts it. It does have weaknesses, however. For example, if your organization needs to comply with functional safety requirements, an  ISO 26262 tool qualification will have to be established, which can be expensive, especially in ASIL D – rated projects. As of this writing, JIRA is not out-of-the-box formally qualified.

Regardless of your status quo in terms of which planning tool you prefer, be prepared to be forced to justify your choices without using JIRA — especially with new hires. Always give a polite and sensible response to such queries. Experts are often quite emotional about their tools. You don’t want to start “tool wars.” Ignoring the aspects will likely make it worse, so be pro-active about this issue. My general advice is to go with the flow. Learn to like it — it is not a bad tool.

The team members should be required to schedule, estimate, and update the task status in the tracking tool. Team leads need to have a real-time status at any given time. Organize team status queries in a standardized way. You might include it in your written project plan.

Further tips regarding the planning:

  • Each task in your task management system must have an assignee.
  • Many teams use “story points” or an equivalent instead of working time. Unfortunately, management has been trained over the decades to think in terms of person-hours. You need at least a rough conversion of “story points” to person-hours. Nearly all commercial estimations involving people are calculated based on the number of hours required to achieve a milestone, so for the time being, you don’t have any choice but to comply. 
  • Review the progress of each team frequently. If you are a higher manager, you should still get involved in planning meetings to “feel the pulse.” You should be able to see the problem directly based on the task management system. If you can’t see it, your reporting needs to be immediately improved. What you need is relentless transparency, reliably and real-time. Refer to the chapter “risk management” for more details.
  • Every task must be closed in a sensible timeframe. It is a fundamental quality requirement that must never be neglected. Otherwise, your task management system will soon become useless. Search regularly for the “laggards” and confront team members regarding the task status. It is a good practice to require time targets for each task and follow-up on the missed deadlines. Note that it takes a lot of work to review the “backlog,” but it is a crucial activity, so plan for it properly. 
  • For higher ranked managers: it is good practice to participate in virtual team standups and status meetings frequently. There is no better way to understand the current team sentiment. However, it may be a good idea to remain defensive and mostly quiet during such meetings.
  • Make sure that all teams use the same project configuration. Categorically reject opening “side-projects in JIRA; otherwise, your planning system may soon get out of control.

Encourage improvement of your planning tool. Some team members will often be quite passionate about making it better. My advice is: let them. Set up a process improvement in such a case, so that every “release” of the planning tool setup is appropriately planned and rolled-out. 

I expect that the importance of project management tools will further increase. In broader terms, the very nature of management and leadership is likely to change the fundamental way salaries and compensation will be calculated. The long-term goal must be to establish a new kind of “management-by-objectives” (see the article about MBO+).

Reporting

JIRA is well-integrated with the content management software Confluence. I recommend this or an equivalent system. Old-school, manually created spreadsheets and PowerPoint reporting have become embarrassing obsolete in the age of the work-from-home office. With Confluence, the full status report can be automatically updated in real-time, based on the JIRA task lists. It takes some patience and perseverance to figure out how all the desired features work, but the result is a real time saver. 

Export the report to a PDF file to distribute it to stakeholders that don’t have direct access to the Confluence tool.

Establish the institution of the tool expert to take care of all tools of such kind. Typically, investment in the tool pays off many times over. 

Make sure that the distribution and access rights to the reported content are formally defined, typically in the project management plan. Correct rights management may be safety and cyber-security relevant, so consult with the appropriate authority before proceeding.

Risk Management

Risks may be technical, organizational, financial, safety and security, or strategic. In conventional, on-premise organizations, a simple chat at the water cooler would reveal many risks which then can be swiftly mitigated.

In a work-from-home environment, the information flow may be easily disrupted. The consequences may range from annoyances to loss of business.

Therefore, the team leads must pro-actively take care of risk identification and management. Add the risk question to your status meetings. Lack of any indications about risks over days or even weeks most likely means that the risks are growing and, most likely in the least expected moment, become acute. As annoying as it may appear, I recommend encouraging complaints and taking risk assumptions and unspecific concerns seriously. 

I discourage using spreadsheets to manage risks as they often become outdated and forgotten until it is too late. Your risk register must be accessible by everyone with the proper clearance. Consequently, I would recommend using your task management system (like JIRA) to track and manage risks.

Establish an “open risk identification” policy in which everyone is allowed to add risk to the risk register. It ensures that no risks are neglected. Admittedly, it adds extra work for the risk manager, as effective risk management takes a lot of work. Make sure that you allocate the appropriate amount of resources for risk management. Risk management does not come for free but is nonetheless indispensable.

Always communicate and escalate risks in written form. It is often perceived as awkward to discuss risks. It is a psychological issue, as critical questions and risk indications may not be welcome. Make sure that the appropriate risk communication policy is approved and documented, typically in the project management plan or a separate risk management plan. Make sure that, on the proper organizational level, active risk management is welcome.

Concluding Remarks

Virtual team require strong emphasis on two factors:

  • emphatic leadership, and
  • usage of well-integrated planning and tracking software tools.

Also, with -from-home teams, a comprehensive, team-based risk management strategy is absolutely critical. The lack of non-verbal communication has the potential to lead to surprising management escalations. I am fully convinced, however, that working from home can, in fact, significantly reduce the project risks, provided the right team tools (software) is available and effectively used.

The next article in this series summarizes the work-from-home tips. Please follow this link to continue.

Roman Mildner
About Roman Mildner 47 Articles
Roman Mildner is a Project Manager Professional (PMP), executive management consultant at United Mentors, and a book author . He has worked in the IT industry since 1992 and as a manager consultant since 1998. He focuses on process improvement services with an emphasis on Automotive SPICE and strategy consulting. For more details, please visit his United Mentors home page.

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