How to lead remotely

Mónica Rodrigues
10 min readMay 19, 2020

Disclaimer: Forget the situation that we are facing at the moment that is Covid19. This article was started before the pandemic, so let’s imagine that you are able to work at your office and have your daily routine without constraints. Imagine!!

Why are you interested in remote leadership?

Nowadays, in my work, we have the possibility to work remotely anywhere and at any time. The basic requirements are a laptop, phone, and access to the internet — and that is enough for now.

You are thinking “Oh no, I have a lot of events like retrospective meetings, refinements, plannings, brainstorms on a whiteboard, etc .. How can I do this without meeting in person?! It’s impossible.” — No, it is not impossible, and I will share with you some ideas on how to tackle this.

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Let’s start with retrospective meetings

One of the goals of a leader can be to facilitate some meetings, but it is not required. Your team can also do that. To understand my situation right now, I’m working in Lisbon, I have my Product Manager in Porto and occasionally I have some team members at home.

A few months ago I moderated a Retrospective named Easy as Pie. In the picture below you can see the dynamic that I’m talking about. If you want to see more details go to this link.

Easy as Pie Retrospective

So how can we moderate this meeting? Each section has a number, you can use Funretro to put the numbers in each column and your team starts writing some Post-Its there. If you have only one or two people working remotely, another way is to have your teammate write their Post-Its in a Slack channel and you can put those texts on our whiteboard. This last idea might not work very well because the person who is remote may feel alone. I will let you choose which you think is best.

Before retrospective meetings, I also start by defining an agenda with a main subject and share with my team what I hope to achieve. This way the team can prepare for the meeting and we can have more time to discuss the topics and be more productive.

…and refinement meetings? Nope!

Another kind of meeting that we used to do was Refinement meetings. For those of you who don’t know what refinement is, it’s a meeting where you discuss each task in detail.

Most of the time in these refinement meetings we discovered that we did not have sufficient information to detail a certain task, and we had to look at the code implementation. For example, we might have to ask questions to our product managers and stakeholders to understand an issue. On the other hand, our stakeholders needed to think about our questions and make some decisions/analyses in the background to answer. All this takes time, resulting in one less task detailed. And this can happen a lot of times during the refinement meetings. Does this happen in your team too? Let me know in the comments!

These days, we no longer have standalone refinement meetings. Instead, we now have asynchronous refinements. Asynchronous refinements consist of selecting a task from the Jira board when a team member is free and starting to describe the task in detail. After that, the team member shares the task and asks for opinions/suggestions from the team with comments in Slack or in the Jira task.

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

Don’t neglect your team’s physical and mental health

And what about the physical/mental health of the team, how can we deal with it? How can we understand remotely how the team is doing? Well, maybe you are thinking that is impossible, maybe not. I’m delighted to be able to share some things that I’m doing now. To communicate with each other, my company uses the Slack app. One of the things that I’m trying to do is to analyze the interaction of the team in Slack, and how they communicate with each other. Is there any conflict? Is there someone who is stressed?

We have a daily meeting where we can see each other in a video conference. In that meeting I try to listen to my team, watch their behavior, I look at their eyes when someone is talking, their hands (when it’s possible), their posture, and their voice. You can’t imagine how much your facial expression can tell us, much more than words. It is a technique that rarely fails.

When I feel that someone is not well, I intervene immediately or try to talk to them after the meeting. Usually, I do it in one-on-one meetings, without the presence of the rest of the team. Why? To secure the team member’s privacy. It’s a way for them to feel more open and transparent with me. They know that there is someone there with whom they can talk/vent. A leader is there to help, support, defend, and not to judge and/or command.

Motivation is also important

Since we are talking about physical/mental health, we can take the opportunity to talk about motivation too. How can a leader motivate their team? Well, when your team likes what they do it’s much, much easier. My team likes to develop software, no matter where they are. The minimum requirements are a PC and access to the internet. Of course, a lot of people don’t like to work at home, but instead prefer to stay in the office and see the people around and talk in person. Sometimes I feel that way myself. On the other hand, there are people who prefer to work at home because they don’t have kids or don’t need to spend 2 and half hours commuting. These persons can win a better quality of life and can do other activities outside of work.

Regarding motivation itself, you also need to understand what your team is feeling, talk with each team member alone, book more frequent retrospectives to talk about a focus problem, one-on-one meetings, etc. Individuals on your team are likely feeling different levels of stress at different times, with different home situations, for different reasons. Sometimes creating space to validate what a team member is going through can go a long way towards helping their engagement and motivation. But ask your team first if they want these extra check-ins. Perhaps their schedule is fine with the same routine and they don’t need any changes.

You can also provide some games remotely (Board games, etc) or coffee.

What tools can you use to work remotely?

Let’s talk about the tools that can help you with some of your daily routines. I will share with you what kind of tools I’m using and for what. Of course, there are a lot of tools and please share with me your experience and your great tools and how they help you on a daily basis.

Jira: I’m using Jira to organize our work, create stories/tasks, prioritize per order, and I always try to create epics to categorize our stories, for organizational reasons.

Slack: We use Slack to communicate with each other. It’s a powerful communication tool. You can ask Slack to remind you about a message that someone sent you and you couldn’t answer at that moment. You can do conference calls, share files, you can create different channels for different subjects, set general reminders in your channel (for example remind me to drink water every day, remind my team to do a daily meeting at 10 AM etc ).

Miro: You can use Miro for retrospectives, building presentations in sketch flow, planning and estimating your projects, etc. For retrospectives, I use Funretro. (I haven’t tried using Miro yet.)

Trello: I use Trello for my personal use at work. It is the place where I organize my own work within the team. Sometimes, I also use Trello to estimate a project because it’s an easy tool to use and I don’t have to worry about formatting. Of course, this is not our final tool, it is only a draft that I use during meetings with my team. After the meeting, I put all the estimates in a formal page in confluence and delete the Trello board.

Confluence: For documentation, yes we do a lot of documentation, it’s a very important thing and I always try to make it a practice in the team. Of course, people don’t like to do it, but instead of saying that, ask yourself the following question: what happens if you want to do something and there is no documentation and no one helps you? Do you enjoy it? Imagine that you started to work in a new team without documentation, how would you feel?

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

And what about brainstorming?

Wow, great subject!! You are thinking, how can we moderate a brainstorming remotely? It is not an easy thing, I know!

I will share some ideas with you. You can think a little bit about them and why to try (or not to try) some techniques. Once again, if you want to share some ideas with me please do, I’m an open person, I love to receive feedback and fresh ideas.

In our team, we are using Atlassian’s Confluence. Someone on the team writes a document about something that they want to solve. In this document, they try to have a motivation, the problem that they want to solve, and different options for resolution. After that, this team member shares the document with the team and each person starts to comment on the page, ask questions, make suggestions, and express their opinions. The benefit of this instead of a conversation is that you have all the discussion documented and the next year you can remember why you choose a certain option. If you had a meeting, my advice is to create meeting notes after that. Unfortunately, most of the time we forget to create meeting notes or documentation.

For brainstorming, you can use other tools that already exist on the market, for example, Microsoft Whiteboard to draw something, or, Miro, etc. Of course, it is easier if you have a digital pen to draw your designs. I haven’t yet tried a meeting where we have needed to draw diagrams during an explanation about some ideas because I have a lot of senior developers in my team and they quickly understand each other’s ideas. A UML diagram can sometimes be enough, but let’s see.

There is also another technique that you can use called brainwriting. You can read more about it in this link. How can you use the brainwriting technique remotely? Well, you can use your communication tool for it.

I’ll give you an example of what you can do:

Imagine that you have three team members: Naomi, Bob, and Anna.

  • Naomi shares an idea with Bob.
  • Bob writes a new idea and adds it to Naomi’s idea and shares both ideas with Anna (now you have two ideas)
  • Anna writes her own idea and adds it to Bob’s ideas and shares them with Naomi (now we have three ideas)
  • Naomi writes her own new idea and adds it to Anna’s ideas and shares them with Bob (now we have 4 ideas)
  • Etc .. you can do two or three rounds, it is like a game ;)

After the rounds, all the ideas can be shared with the whole team. You can start combining all the ideas, understanding the ideas that can be merged, analyzing each idea to see if it makes sense or not, and eliminating those which are unrealistic. After that, you can vote on the ideas and start working on the ones that win.

Regarding the tools, I think that we can stop here. There is a lot of information online about them. My end goal is to share what I’m doing that works, and what doesn’t work. Yes, a lot of people always want to share the wins and forget to share the losses that are also important. You learn and grow by failing, don’t forget that, and if you share something that doesn’t work with other people, that person can learn with you and not make the same error.

Wrapping up

Well, this is the way I’m trying to lead my team remotely. There are a lot of leaders out there with a lot of other ideas. The most important thing is to try to share knowledge with others and try to learn with and from others.

I hope that this article can help you to realize that it’s possible to manage remote teams effectively, efficiently and creatively.

I want to finish by saying that it is not easy to lead a team remotely but if you like what you do, and if you have passion and ambition you will find a way to do it.

Never forget that you can do it and also you can learn from your mistakes!!!

Thank you for your interest in this article :) Feel free to leave your comments, questions and ideas.

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Mónica Rodrigues

A content creator about leadership, personal development and software. Follow @monicarodriguesjourney on Instagram for more content also.