How to work and lead remotely

How to work and lead remotely

The very first thing you need to know is, don’t panic: leading remote teams isn’t as difficult as you might think – here are just some things you need to keep in mind.  ViRTUS has run virtually, with remote team members spread across Canada, since September of 2009, so we have a lot of experience in the best practices, tools, techniques, and technology needed to support successfully running your business this way. We created this article to share with you what we’ve learned.

1. Start with a mindset of trust and empathy.
The biggest challenge for leaders in leading remote teams is one of mindset, “If they aren’t in the office and I can’t see them, how do I know if they are actually working? And if they aren’t at their computer from 8am-5pm, how do I know they are as productive as they could be?” I hate to break it to you, but for knowledge workers, sitting in a cubicle or an office doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not work is actually getting done. When it comes to remote workers, start with positive intent and trust. Give them clear goals and the autonomy to structure their day in the most productive way for them. Daniel Pink and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work around drive, motivation, and flow truly come into their own when leading remote teams. Daniel describes motivation as a combination of MAP: Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose. Give people the development opportunities they need to master their craft. Give them the autonomy to figure out how to do their role in the way that works best for how they work. Provide them a connection between how their role and their work matches up to the purpose of your organization.

2. Establish team norms.
Set team norms around how your teams start and finish the workday, expectations for response time, self-responsibility around individual wellness (it’s really easy to just keep working non-stop), remembering to take lunch and breaks (these tend to slip at home quite easily remember to take them at the times you normally would) and respect those who are in the midst of doing so.

3. Check-in before you interrupt someone.
In an office environment team communication can flow easily through open conversations or by dropping by someone’s desk. In a virtual environment, the same thing is possible, with a little bit more sensitivity to ensuring that now is the best time for them to talk. It takes the average person, 15-30 minutes to get back into the same creative mindset or level of thought after they’ve been interrupted while working on a knowledge-based task. Whether it’s instant messaging, text, phone, or video chat, the best question you can ask someone before you dive into a conversation is, “Is now a good time for you to chat?” If it’s not, then you can schedule an appropriate time.
4. Set up team communication software.
Moving the majority of your team communication to software like Slack, Microsoft Team, jabber, or Skype for Business is a far more efficient way to communicate than emails and the dreaded reply-to-all. Once you set up channels, direct messages, and team chats, you’ll fall into a rhythm on what works best, inline with the boundaries you’ve setup in your Team Norms. The most important thing to remember is that text, email, and instant messages are the very worst way to have any conversation that has an emotional context to it or may trigger yourself or the other person. The best practice for conversations that have an emotional context is video conference followed by phone. Since so much of communication is non-verbal, having video ensures the other person can truly understand your intent and content better than without it. The overall rule for communication in a remote team is this: if you’re not sure, over communicate.

5. Err on the side of providing more frequent feedback and recognition.
Remote workers may feel isolated at times so look for ways to provide direct feedback and recognition. Post recognition on the team social channel so the rest of the team can chime in and recognize others as well. Remind everyone when they want to congratulate someone for a success that the best way to do it is on the social channel versus just one-on-one.

6. Start every meeting with a social check-in.
One important difference when you’re leading remote teams is that you need to bring the social connection piece to the forefront in a deliberate way, since remote workers don’t get the normal daily social interactions they would normally get in an office environment. It’s as easy as starting each of your meetings with a quick check-in to see how everyone’s day is going, almost like a mini-coffee catch-up before you dive into your agenda. Whatever you do, do not skip this step. It’s an important part of keeping team connection, morale, and motivation high when you aren’t able to socialize in an office environment.
7. Have these three regular meetings set up and one bonus social connection:
∙ Have a Daily Team Huddle. The daily huddle can be over zoom, hangouts, or skype, and run the same way you would normally run your huddle: everyone does a quick check-in to say how they are doing today, recognition and goods news, metrics update, key upcoming events, and any Q&A. We found that for smaller teams it’s easier to have everyone chime in on Slack in a group instant message or channel at the same time each morning to post their top priorities for the day and any stuck points they have (something that is holding them back from being most effective in their role today or a problem they are stuck finding a solution to). 
∙ Keep the pace of your Weekly Team Meeting, with a twist. The weekly meeting runs similar to your existing weekly meeting with the addition of using project management software to track your project and action steps (basecamp, asana, Trello,, and Microsoft project are all great options). Start the weekly meeting with your personal check-ins: we use a format called the ViRTUS Four Arenas and give everyone a 1-2 mins to update and check-in on their Four Arenas of life: Managing Self, Developing Relationships, Focusing on Career/Business, and Sharing Resources (helping others unrelated to our work roles – charity work, coaching soccer, helping a friend move, supporting someone who’s struggling, etc.). From there we dive into our normal structured agenda as a team: recognition and good news, metrics and financial updates, discussion topics, decision and actions, and we always wrap-up the meeting with appreciations (what you liked about the meeting), difficulties (what bugged you about the meeting) and final statements (I just need to stay this to feel complete). We like to hear from everyone but you don’t need to have something from all three of those categories.
∙ Schedule 1:1’s with each member of your team. Continue the same 1:1 structure you use with your team right now with the addition of the social connection check-in before the meeting begins. Remember this is an opportunity to hear what’s the mind of your direct reports, where they are seeing success, where they’re stuck, and how you can help them ensure they get unstuck or have the necessary resources they need to get their job done.
∙ Random Check-ins between team members. There’s a great plug-in for Slack called Donut which sets up random virtual coffees between team members to promote individuals chatting with team members that they don’t normally connect with.

8. Make sure you have the right software in place.
There are four different types of software packages that really help virtual and remote teams to be more effective: project management software, video conferencing, team communication software, and document collaboration. Here are some of the best tools on the market today that are very easy to use and don’t require any training to get started (your HR and IT depts can help you setup these tools):
∙ Project Management Software: Basecamp, asana, trello,, Microsoft project 
∙ Team Communication Software: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Jabber
∙ Video Conference: Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Skype, Webex
∙ Document Sharing: GSuite by Google (google docs), Microsoft365, Dropbox

9. Setup the right work environment in your home.
The environment you create for yourself at home is also important. Ensure that as much as possible you and your team have private, quiet, spaces to from work at home, away from distractions. If you can setup a workplace that is separate from the rest of your life then you’ll find it easier to shut-down at the end of the evening. Ensure everyone uses their headset for video calls and mutes if they have background noise. If you’re in a noisy environment and that can’t be helped then try something like or use a noise cancelling microphone. If you have a window in your home office space make sure you are facing the window; if the window is behind you it will blind the camera and people won’t be able to see your facial expressions. Another part of the environment is actually getting dressed for your workday. Getting out of your PJ’s and getting ready for work as if you were going into the office, with maybe a step down on the dress code, actually puts your mind into work-mode. As well, when you’re meeting with your team, subconsciously they will see you in work-mode and not make the difficult to control judgments that because you’re wearing PJ’s or overalls casual clothes that you’re not working at your normal pace. At the end of the day, switching from work mode to home mode can be difficult and lead you to not being present for your family. Going for a walk around the block or meditating using the,, or MUSE apps in 5-10 minutes can help you shift from work to home mode.

10. You need habits and routines to help create stability but…
Habits and routines help create stability in our lives but trying to take old habits and routines that worked when you were working in an office environment and just duplicate those at home doesn’t work. So be gentle with yourself as you slowly start to figure out the new habits and routines you need to help create some consistency and normalcy. If you used to workout before work or after work, maybe midday makes more sense now. If you used to try to work on projects in the afternoon, maybe the morning works better for you. If you used to eat lunch at your desk maybe actually going out for a walk and eating your lunch outside works better. These routines matter, a lot, and they take time to figure out. The key is to be thoughtful about what parts need to change so that you feel more in the flow in your life.

Further Reading
We’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at the best resources online for leading virtual and remote teams and we’ve found a number of great resources we wanted to share with you as well:

Consolidated Research on the Effects of Remote Work from Fingerprint for Success

Remote Leadership Toolkit

LinkedIn Learning: Remote Working Course

Harvard Article on Running Great Virtual Meetings

Harvard Article on Engaging People in Virtual Meetings

Trello Article: How to Embrace Remote Work

Forbes Article: How to Lead Remote Employees

Dr. David Rock Webinar: How to Make Virtual Work Reliable

BriteWeb: How to Engage People in a Virtual Meeting

Mike Desjardins

Mike is a a graduate of UBC’s Sauder School of Business with a Bachelors of Commerce, Mike has spent the past 21 years transforming businesses.

  • Adam Lawrenson
    Posted at 19:31h, 16 March Reply

    Thank you Mike for sharing your thoughts on virtual work environments !

    • Mike Desjardins
      Posted at 23:49h, 16 March Reply

      Thanks Adam. I appreciate your feedback. If you run into anything else you think is worth sharing please post it in the comments below.

  • Kevin Bush
    Posted at 14:53h, 17 March Reply

    Thanks mike. Helpful for those of us delving into this fo the first time.

    • Mike Desjardins
      Posted at 15:26h, 17 March Reply

      My pleasure my friend,

  • Catherine Roome
    Posted at 21:39h, 17 March Reply

    These are excellent tips Mike…thank you to you and your team.

    • Mike Desjardins
      Posted at 21:41h, 17 March Reply

      Thank you Catherine. I hope you, your family, and your team are all well through this. Let me know if you need any support around WFH for your people. Happy to help as always.

  • Kamal Bhaatia
    Posted at 06:53h, 12 July Reply

    Great Teamwork virtual Tips Mike! I am better off now.

  • Trisha Miltimore
    Posted at 23:47h, 10 August Reply

    Virtus 4 Arenas is an inspiring model. Great article. Thank you.

    • Mike Desjardins
      Posted at 14:09h, 11 August Reply

      Glad you like it! Thank you for taking the time to share your feedback with us!

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