Essential Techniques for Leading Software Teams in the Work From Home Era
Making change on your software team will require leadership. You need not be the boss to lead, but you must know how. Leadership best practices have changed in the work-from-home era. This article identifies the new essential techniques.
This is the blog post to accompany the Skills Matter talk of 13 August 2020, “Essential Techniques for Leading Software Teams in the Work From Home Era”.
Leadership is the practice of social influence. Anyone can lead; team leadership is not restricted to the nominated leaders. This article is for members of software teams; it aims to inform all team stakeholders - engineers, designers, product owners, and, yes, designated managers. I give the new essential work-from-home leadership practices.
There is a 2-part context for understanding the new essential leadership techniques. The first part of the context is understanding the new normal state of working from home, and the basic needs of the remote worker in that context. The second part of the context is understanding what leadership really is. With the context given, I will describe essential techniques for effectively leading software teams — techniques gleaned from 15 years of remote work with software development organizations.
This is not an article about how to better use Slack and Zoom. It is about techniques without which your leadership efforts will fall flat when working remotely.
Slides for this talk are here.
Context, Part 1: Work-From-Home Needs
Please see the separate blog post on work-from-home essentials.
Context, Part 2: Leadership
Please see the separate blog post on leadership.
Essential Techniques for Leading Remote Teams
Understanding the activities of leadership gives us the grounding required to question what about leadership must change in a remote work setting versus a traditional office setting.
What is essential to leadership remains the same. The techniques required to practice it are what have changed in a work-from-home setting.
Here are my choices of essential techniques for improving the day-to-day activities of leadership when they are being done in a work-from-home environment.
- Recognize what was previously communicated with body language.
- Document the vision.
- Use ROWE.
- Clarify expectations.
- Use words to replace body language.
- Allow time for this.
- Demonstrate exemplary remote tool use.
- Model online relationship-building.
- Conduct “public” conversations.
- Schmooze or lose.
- Watch for WFH habit problems.
- Monitor for burnout.
- Monitor for loneliness.
- Revisit how you build trust.
- Reach outside the company.
Recognize What Was Previously Communicated With Body Language
It is very easy to be oblivious to what is being communicated with body language. The new communication media used after the transition to WFH - chat, forum posts, email, audio calls - do not give body language signals. Now that body language is not a communication signal that you are getting, the quality of your communication risks dropping. Consider the following, for example:
- Nodding in approval, or lack thereof, when seeking buy-in.
- Smiling when presented with a proposed course of action.
- Physical energy when discussing a topic, a metric for enthusiasm.
These are all communication signals which you will now not get in a WFH environment. You must be conscious of this and compensate by being more explicit about thoughts and feelings when communicating.
Document The Vision
Leaders maintain the vision. Is your company vision documented? Where is it? Is your project’s vision documented? Where can team members read that?
While there may be a vision, when working from home it is easier to lose track of it. Make it front-and-center for your team members.
Grant autonomy. Institute a results-only work environment. Evaluate employees according to the work done, not how or when they do it.
ROWEs contribute to employee engagement and happiness, which in turn yield improvements in productivity.
Probably, a work-from-home situation requires managers to get better at clarifying expectations. Previous in-real-life interactions might have allowed for clarifying expectations “as you go”. Now, expectations must be better defined and documented in advance of dispatching work.
Results-oriented work environments (ROWEs) are described in the book “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution”.
Don’t be afraid of repeating communications that assist with your leadership. Being thought of as “a repetitive person” is better than employees becoming unaligned, disengaged, or otherwise under-led.
Use more messages and more words to replace communications that were previously accomplished with body language. This will seem to make communications more wordy, more laborious, and more time consuming. Allow for this.
Over-communicate. Repeat important messages often.
Demonstrate Exemplary Remote Tool Use
Show by example how best to use the remote work tools (messaging, video calls, asynchronous work). Become a model online communicator.
Conduct conversations “publicly” so that group members can see that other group members are aligned, engaged, and share the vision.
Create the accidental connections that would have happened in a physical office. They can spark new ideas, and are good for our health. (Schmooze or lose.)
Also, recognize that the current pandemic (as I write this in 2020) is not “normal” remote work. Stress from non-work situation is much greater during the pandemic. Employers can help by minimizing stressors from work.
Watch For Work-From-Home Habit Problems
If you care about your team, which you must do in order to inspire the trust required to lead, then you will help them to remain healthy as they work from home.
Be on the lookout for evidence of burnout. Many employees tend to work more when transitioning to a WFH environment, rather than less.
Also be on the lookout for loneliness. Note that one need not be alone to be lonely. It is possible to guard against this by encouraging online social meetings (for example, weekly “happy hours”).
Lack of body language cues means that you must ask about these things directly, and discuss. Be careful not to pry.
Revisit How You Build Trust
Consider how you build trust with empathy. Ask “have my behaviours been consistent with someone who is empathetic with the other?” “What have I done to display this?” “Have I listened?” “Can others see that I have listened?”
Consider how you build trust with logic. Ask “have I communicated my reasoning sufficiently well?” “Is it rigorous?” “What have I done to display this rigorous logic?” “How should I communicate this reasoning differently in the WFH context?”
Consider how you build trust with authenticity? Ask “have I been true to myself and my ideas?” “Have I been authentic and congruent in my interactions?” “How is this authenticity made visible in the WFH context?”
Reach Outside the Company
Take the opportunity to reach outside your organization for help. Now that “coming to the office” is no longer a requirement of the outside help, it is much easier for remote consultants to integrate with now-remote employees. This is an opportunity for up-skilling your team with short term consulting engagements. Reconsider whether that internal job, which will take months to hire for, can be partially filled by a consultant.