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How to setup your remote team for success

Luke Szyrmer April 20, 2021 287

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My name is Lukasz Szyrmer. If you are new here, I am the author of the book Align Remotely. I help teams thrive and achieve more together when working remotely. In this episode of the Managing Remote Teams podcast, we speak with Joe Houghton. Joe has seen the long and the short of it with respect to remote work, and now teaches and consults on the topic of how to setup your remote team.

Upon listening, You will learn:

  • Why it’s easy to assume everyone has the same setup, even that’s rarely true
  • Useful kit and tips on optimizing your WFH setup as a manager-somewhat back to basics but still practical as I picked up a thing or two
  • how to be more intentional about casual interactions
  • how to relax your brain in 2 minutes, if you are constantly in front of a screen
  • how to combat team member loneliness, a big challenge nowadays especially for extroverts who like being in the office
  • how to communicate standards of performance when everyone is remote

About Joe Houghton

Joe is a professor at University College Dublin Smurfit Graduate School of Business and a management consultant and coach with a 20-year career in international business with multi-national companies running IT and Business teams developing

  • remote salesforce automation software,
  • then telemetry systems and
  • later managing teams all across the globe.

By the early 2000’s he was a global manager with General Electric, before moving into his current academic career following an Executive MBA at Ireland’s top business school. In 2005 he co-created and now directs the Master’s in Project Management at University College Dublin Smurfit Graduate School of Business, Joe teaches and advises on remote team setup and learning to businesses, and charities via Houghton Consulting.


Joe Houhgton, welcome to the podcast.

Thanks very much. Thanks for me. Yeah.

So can you say a few words about how you got into the topic of remote and helping people adapt to remote work?

Yeah. I’ve been using remote for 15, 20 years now, I do management consulting. I’m a professor at the business school in Dublin where I teach business. And one of the courses that I teach is remote working and managing virtual and distributed teams. I’ve done many. Contracts and stuff where I’m running teams remotely and I had 20 years in big business up until about 2000 where I ran multinational teams for large corporations in to include GE.

So I’ve got a lot of experience of working out of a laptop and out of a suitcase and also managing and interacting with teams. Yeah, all over the world.

So how have things changed relative to the nineties? It would seem a lot of technology would have shifted since then and how have people’s attitudes towards it change?

The technology has become more accessible. If you cast your mind back to the nineties, that’s 30 years now, isn’t it? It’s scary. We didn’t have laptops like we do now. They were big luggable if you had one at all, we didn’t have tablets. We didn’t have mobile phones and stuff like that. Whereas these days we just don’t even think about this stuff. We have a screen in our hand or to our hands, almost all the time. We had very early. Connections very slow connections. All that stuff has improved for a lot of people, but not for everybody.

I’m in Dublin, in Ireland. In, in main Dublin, you’ve probably got pretty good internet. You go outside of Dublin and head West, even in Ireland. And you’ve got people living 30 miles away from me who have a calling. Connections. And I finding it very difficult to work from home. So even though perhaps the accessibility to the technology has improved over the last 20, 30 years, it’s by no means for everyone. And it’s by no means ubiquitous even today. Perhaps styling we’ll sort it out.

Setup for remote team performance

From what I remember when working in the nineties, I think most of it was email-based in terms of communication, out of necessity between offices. So it still was in the office, with much higher bandwidth, I think certain things become possible, which weren’t before.

Indeed. I remember being in charge of teams, writing kind of Salesforce, automation, software, early distributed databases working with things like Lotus notes. Early, early kind of systems to, to share sales information or marketing information across large sales forces, for instance.

But we were hugely constrained by bandwidth and very often, People would have to leave their computer plugged in overnight for that big presentation to download at 56 K or whatever it was that we were using at the time. So yeah, it’s gotten a lot easier with the speed increases.

Setup for remote team communication

So let’s go here. You help a lot of people. Adapts to remote working individually. What’s the most common thing that you see that they believe that’s true about remote working, but actually isn’t, especially when they’re first getting started.

Communication fundamentally is the thing that drives the way we do business together.

Whether you’re in person or whether you’re working on the end of a zoom call or a WebEx or teams call or whatever the fundamentals around communication don’t change, but they just get more difficult. And I think people who are forced into or find themselves having to work remotely, underestimate the challenges around communication that not being in-person.

Boring. And particularly for managers. If you’re responsible for managing teams or coordinating projects, that kind of stuff, it can be very easy to overlook the added managerial load and current in terms of time, in terms of being proactive, in terms of ensuring things that you’ve got.

One big problem that I see a lot of people do is that they assume that because they’ve got a good connection and they’ve got the right care to, and they’ve got a fast laptop and everything that everybody else in the team has to. And almost always, that’s not the case, particularly you’ve got a global team and you’ve got people in different parts of the world. So access to bandwidth will be different. People will have different types of kit. People will be running different versions of the software and they’re not all upon same space.

So what you have to do is you have to be much more intentional. You have to do things like an equipment audit. You have to do a skills audit. You have to find the lowest common denominator between all your people, wherever they are, and play to that because you can’t play to the highest common denominator.

You can’t assume everybody can download stuff on 5g within 10 seconds. If somebody is on a really slow dial-up connection and some people still are.

Can you unpack communication a little bit more? Because that’s a previous guest has pointed out that within communication skills, you’ve got everything to what, a nurse might mean when dealing with a patient to, making a presentation in front of 75 people online while sitting at McDonald’s like I did in the past. What do you mean by communication?

The most important part of communication is actually seeing each other as people and not as cogs in a machine. It’s very easy in business, particularly when you’re remote to go to task based interactions immediately. .

What that loses is the five minutes before the meeting that you would normally have had in the office where you meet around the coffee machine. Yeah, all the water cooler and you’re just having that catch-up chat and you’re asking about the kids and how your weekend went and all that kind of stuff. But when we get onto zoom, we don’t tend to do that. We don’t tend to do that chit chat. It’s two o’clock. Let’s start the meeting first agenda point bang.

We don’t know whether you’re having a bad day. We don’t know whether something’s happened at home or whatever, and because we’re all remote because we’re not physically connected. I’ve not had time to see your body language before the meeting. I’ve not had time to see that you’re down the line and you’ve put your game face on and you’ve jumped in and we missed that perhaps.

That’s the first bit of communication is just be aware of each other as people and know that everybody’s going through a hard time, because I don’t think anybody isn’t going through a hard time at the moment. And I don’t care whether that’s the president of the company. Or whether that’s, some mid-level manager or whether that’s somebody further down the food chain, everybody’s going through problems. So we’ve got to treat each other kind of like human beings.

Then there’s the stuff that you, you mentioned, that they’re doing the presentation from the middle of McDonald’s. You’ve got to adjust your delivery. To the small screen, talking to camera is really difficult if you’re not used to doing it, just getting used to talking, into a screen and into a camera is very difficult for people.

Physical setup for remote team work

For instance, just the physical setup of your office. The best thing I bought last year was a $15 laptop stand. This laptop stand allows you to put a laptop up instead of sitting flat on the desk. It allows you to put it up at an angle which eases the top, where the webcam is to Island.

Just that completely transform how you come across on screen. Yeah, so because my camera’s at eye level, if you look behind me, all the verticals are vertical. And the horizontals are horizontal and it doesn’t look like the camera’s looking at my nose or whatever, we’re at the right angle. And there’s no kind of cognitive dissonance in terms of what’s in the background.

So you got to think about how you’re coming across. I’ve got you on a second screen behind my laptop. Okay. And I’m talking to you to, to your image on the screen and I’ve got you right next to the webcam. So it looks like. I’m looking straight at you because you were right next to the webcam. So little things like this can actually cause quite a lot of difference on how you come across in how you’re perceived by the other people in the meeting, by the people that you’re trying to communicate with.

And that you’re also trying to listen to them and you’re trying to communicate to them. But if they, let me move my eyes down to the bottom of my screen. Now, if I carry on talking now, It’s a completely different beast. Isn’t it? In terms of the communication. Cause I’m not looking at you. I’m my eyes are down.

Whereas when I come back up and I’m looking at you again, we’ve got that connection. So there’s a bit of training for people I think required for a lot of people. Who’ve moved online to just be aware of this stuff, get some decent lights, have some lighting from the front because so many people will sit themselves with a window behind them.

No lighting, it looks like that old queen video, the fishermen video where, you know, all the lighting in the wrong place and everybody’s eyes look dark and horrible and all the rest of it. So coming across well on screen is something that doesn’t just happen. You need to actually work at that.

And I think you need to help your people. Do that. I spend a lot of time with my university students coaching them on this kind of stuff, because at the end of that course, they’re going through a job. And at the moment, all those interviews are going to be over zoom or they’re going to be able to teams.

So they better be able to come over well within that first five minutes, because you only get that one chance to make that impression.

Kit suggestions for remote team setups

Yeah, absolutely. I guess the good news is that these are mostly things that you do once and then take advantage of it.

Yeah. Yeah. You only have to buy what and you only have, but you probably do need to buy a little bit of kit.

If you’re going to be working remotely, don’t just assume that the laptop webcams going to be good enough because they’re, most of them are not. Most of them pretty awful. You need to maybe invest 5,000 books in a decent webcam. You need to buy a couple of lights. Yeah. And these ring lights that you see advertised now, they’re great.

One or two of those, either side of you just giving you a bit of lighting, stuff like that can make a huge difference. And as I say, a laptop stand. As well, because that makes a huge difference. So an external keyboard so that you can be a little bit further back and a decent microphone. Yeah.

The most important thing about video is the audio. You know that you run a podcast, but most people don’t get that. they don’t even think about it. So buy yourself a little USB mic. It will. So below triple the quality of your audio. And again, that means that you come over more clearly, that what you’ve got to say is heard better and people will, take you on more credibly if they can hear you well.

And if you come over well,

Yeah. And one of the, one of the things that came across sorry the that I found super helpful as a one of these docking station things too. Cause then you could hook up multiple screens and see more at once, that’s another piece of gear.

And some research done on the fact that, you tend to be more productive as a remote work. If you have a second screen that you can use, you’ve got more real estate, you can have more windows open at the same time. You’ve not got that switching cost of switching between applications on one small screen. So that’s pretty, pretty good. Yeah. Yeah, cheap these days. So you don’t have to to splurge out a lot. A little trick there , black Friday last year I went online and enriched Mr. Bezos a little bit more. But I spent, I think 250 $300 on a 42 inch 4k TV. Which is now mounted on the kitchen wall I’m very often down on the kitchen table, but I have that second screen.

Now I have a two inch 4k TV on the world. Now the children still don’t know that’s a TV. We will monitor HDMI cable into the laptop. Good to go. Yeah. And that was $250-$300. So yeah, I’m not paying through the nose for a super-duper computer monitor. The high-def TVs are great now.

So going back to communication, so one is Treat people like people when you’re connecting remotely. Two is get decent gears so that you aren’t facing kind of difficulties getting the message across. Is there anything else in particular in terms of communication that on a kind of day to day operational basis, particularly when you’re with a team of people that comes to mind?

You’ve got to be more intentional if you’re running a team or even if you’re part of a team because you don’t have the casual interactions.

Now there’s this technology that can help these days, with Slack, we’ve got things like, all this presence technology that lets you know, that the other guys in the team are wrong. If you like, they’ve got the little green dot next to that thing, and you can ping it quick texts, or you can mention them and exchange information.

So set up something that works. And it might be WhatsApp. It might be Slack. It can be, any of these different tools, but set something up that allows multiple channels of communication. Because for most people sending a zoom link and everybody connecting at a particular time. And so it’s easy now.

It’s very easy to do, but it’s a hoop to jump through. And what you need to do is you need to break down as many barriers to. They the general chit chat, interactive type communication as you can. So the more ways you can set people up to, to be able to interact easily the better.

I’ve heard of some teams now. Where, they all agree. They’re all working from home between certain hours or whatever. And they’d just say we’ll just open up a Google meet or we’ll open up a zoom call or whatever, and we’ll all just be on. And if you no in the room, you’re not in the room, doesn’t work.

Don’t worry about it. But it just means we can all have seen each other in the screen and we can chat to each other if we need to unmute ourselves. If we can’t. And that kind of stuff works quite well. Now, not everybody likes that. And you’ve got to respect people’s home spaces and , it doesn’t always work, but that kind of stuff can be quite useful.

Meeting setup and how to plan them beforehand

Do you have any tips on organizing meetings?

Another little tip that I’ve used is. Are you finding at the moment that some days your kind of schedule is blocked out hour by hour and you get to the end of one meeting and it’s 10 o’clock and you’re straight onto another meeting at 11 o’clock and then another one at 12.

O’clock another estimate. A little trick that I’ve started to use with some of my teams is we always stop meetings at tend to. Yeah, we start meetings on the hour and we stop meetings at tend to the hour. So we never run up to the hour that just gives everybody 10 minutes of downtime because most people don’t do that.

Maybe the next meeting that they’re going to be, it probably starts on the hour because most meetings tend to stuff on the hour or the half hour don’t they know. And when I have a staff meeting at 17 minutes past Just think about building in those little chunks of downtime in the day.

When I schedule a meeting, we never run a meeting more than 50 minutes without a break. So if we’re running, say a two hour meeting, the tend to is a break time now, so tend to up to the hour, right? Go outside, walk around.

There’s a little exercise that, that I saw out of Stanford university a few months ago. And it’s really simple. You just hold your finger up in front of your face. Like this. Look at something 30 yards away and look at your finger and do that five or 10 times quickly. It forces your eye muscles to move in and out. And it gets you away from that. What, one meter away from the webcam that you’ve, your eyes have been fixed to for the last 20 minutes, half an hour, 45 minutes or whatever.

And it’s incredible how that actually just relaxes your head. During a break. So I put that in, when the coffee cup comes up from break or whatever, I just go and do the, I exercise as well, walk outside for a minute little things, but these things make a difference.

And then if you can schedule a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting before you start the meeting, just to do catch up. Just to say to her, Hey, how is everything, how are you doing? Yeah. And tell everybody we’re going to spend the first 10 minutes of each meeting, just doing catch up, just bring you a cup of tea or your cup of coffee or whatever it is. And we’ll just tell each other how things are going. No, no work discussion. That’s for a little while longer you got to build this stuff in now. Cause it does happen and you have to be much more intentional. With your remote teams and your remote people for this stuff.

So speaking of promote teams, you were saying that you teach about management and virtual team management. From a teamwork perspective, what are the differences between in-person versus remote? Let’s say in the literature and the academic literature.

It’s funny. The academic literature doesn’t specifically differentiate a lot of the team bonding stuff and a lot of the tin communication stuff is the same.

It’s just more difficult. Okay. The only kind of classic definitions of a virtual team are that you are separated by distance and you’re communicating electronically. And that’s it, so that’s most of us, most of the time, these days, isn’t it. But. It’s the fact that there’s more hoops to jump through and the communication isn’t quite as effective.

On a zoom call, as it is in-person because you do lose the body language. You do lose the verbal cues that you just pick up better. Somehow when that person’s in the room and you’re listening to them, even though our cameras are pretty good these days, the microphones and the speakers are pretty good.

You don’t actually get quite the same amount of information back. So you’ve got to be more intentional. You’ve got to listen harder. Don’t always feel you’ve got to come back with an answer when people are talking sometimes just. You don’t have to come back with an answer. You don’t have to give them anything, but you just have to let them share. And really think about what they’re saying and then reflect back. What you’ve just heard. This is a really effective technique in remote working.

Okay. So you said something and I say okay. Can I just tell you what I think you just said and then you tell them back in your own words. And that’s called reflection, but what it does is it .Confirms understanding. Cause they’re hearing back. What you thought you’d heard. There’s now a confirmation that what they just told you was heard and understood.

Now that’s really important because remote workers very often feel isolated. They very often feel unheard. They very often feel unseen. Feeling positively heard is a really important skill for everybody who is working remotely to develop.

It keeps people motivated and it keeps people feeling that they’re part of the team rather than just this person, out wherever they are in the world that we’re just using to get a job done.

Is there anything that you see that related to working from home that people should start doing that they aren’t, or that they aren’t doing enough.

Okay. As I say, I’m in Dublin, in Ireland, yesterday the Irish government released the new legislation about disconnecting. So now in Ireland it’s enshrined in law now that you’re allowed to disconnect that you were allowed not to be on all the time.

And I think this is important. And I think increasingly we’re seeing it in, in, in different countries around the world. Because it’s a problem. I’m just as bad as everybody else. Yeah. I live in my laptop but it’s what I’ve started to do now. Sundays, for instance, Okay. Unless there’s just some crazy fire going on that, has to be dealt with.

I don’t open the laptop on a Sunday because the drawer is too much. Isn’t it? It’s almost like a drug, isn’t it? We’re almost addicted to our devices now. I don’t open my laptop. I don’t do emails. I don’t. Anything, I don’t process any videos. I try not to do zoom calls. Nothing, a laptop free day.

Now, not everybody can do that, but getting to a point in the evening, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, whatever it is, close the laptop. Have dinner without a screen setup for remote work. Yeah. Talk to the wife, children, and or the husband or whoever you’ve got it around or whatever. So the disconnection thing is important.

I think that’s really important.

Another thing that a lot of people perhaps haven’t done on, and again, it depends on your home situation, but if you can find a space at home to make the work space. And it could just be a desk under the stairs. Okay. But if you can find a place that you can make the work space, try and just work in that one place.

And then when you step away from that, your home is your down space, because what we’re doing is we’re losing that disconnect. When you go to the office is work and home is home. But we’ve lost that to a large extent, recently. And it’s very easy to lose that when you become a remote worker, if you sit on your bed or you sit on the sofa with your laptop.

Then your bedroom shouldn’t be. A space where you’ve got work in your head, your bedroom should be a safe space to relax and to sleep. And the same with you, sofa.

I never take the laptop in the lounge. So when I walk into the lounge, I’m not working, I’m going to be playing with the kids over, maybe watch a bit of TV or whatever. So try and create some kind of separation within your home environment between a workspace and a non-work space.

Is there anything that you see that you think people should stop doing that it’s really unproductive or not good for them or something else?

Give yourself breaks. I find at home, I can sit down at eight o’clock in the morning and the next time I get up, it’s one o’clock and I’ve done four or five straight hours staring at a screen, working solid all the rest of it. You’re less productive than you think when you do think. I’m working really hard.

I’m working. I’m really busy. Yeah. This is fantastic. I’ve just done five solid hours. Yeah. Who are you fooling? You’ve done five solid hours and you wrecked and your hands are act. And probably those last two hours were pretty unproductive.

So set an alarm every hour. Yeah. And just give yourself five minutes. Walk away, walk outside. Breathe. Yeah. Do your eye exercises , twice a day, take half an hour and walk around the park or walk around the block. Okay. Get a little bit of exercise. People are not doing this. Not everybody is doing this. And this is so simple. And there’s loads of research to back all this stuff up about, the need for regular short EXOS and you only need 10 or 15 minutes.

If you’ve got one of these watches on it, it beeps at you doesn’t it. And it says, get up and walk around, get your next standout or in, and stuff like that. You need eight more minutes to get your move goal and all the rest of it. Listen to these things. Cause they’re actually those algorithms are quite clever.

And it’s nice, they’ve gamified it. So do get exercise and do, give yourself breaks. That’s why, the 10 to the hour thing works really well. Encourage your people to just give themselves as little bits of downtime and set the working expectations for your teams. We have to allow people to set these schedules because they’re now sitting at home. And the schedules don’t set themselves automatically by having to commute to work and then come home. So that there’s still has to be more proactively managed. I think. Bye. Bye everybody.

I was talking with a friend about the standards that you set as a team lead of when you send emails to the team for example or how you communicate. There is a certain element of showing an example that. At least implicitly people are going to expect to follow. What are other specific things, that leaders can do themselves to help model the right approach to their team?

I think that’s a great question. And the question is almost the answer, isn’t it?

So you have to model the behaviors that you’re looking for your people to, to take. So if you don’t want people bugging you as a manager at 12 at night or whatever, don’t be sending emails to them at 12 at night saying, is that presentation ready? I’ll need to do it in the morning.

Okay. Once you people know what’s expected of them, and they know that you’ve got these kinds of breaks, Allowed, if you like then you stick to those as well, because if you’re sending emails outside those times, that’s no good.

A very simple little thing is adding something to the bottom of your email. So it says, you may have received this email outside of normal working hours, however, Yeah. I don’t expect you to answer it outside of normal working hours. Feel free to leave it until the morning or after the weekend or whatever. Because again, when we’re working in different times zones, I might be sending it in my working hours and it comes into your email in the middle of the night.

Yeah. Yeah. So that’s very common when we’re working across multiple times and instances. Having something like that in your email and getting all the team to, to use that type of thing again, it’s just a little visual signal, isn’t it? That that things are okay.

How do you think things will look a few years out in terms of the worlds of work and teamwork and we’re, where are we going in your opinion?

Anybody who doesn’t have to have hands-on in a physical location. I think we’ll be in a hybrid mode going forward, but that’s going to need all kinds of changes. That’s gonna need legislative changes. That’s going to impinge on things like insurance. We’ve got a tsunami of insurance claims coming

because to be honest, the last year has been this honeymoon period. I think where everybody has said, you’ve got to work from home and don’t come into the office. So many companies haven’t done anything about. Sending proper chairs home to people or getting them the right equipment.

And I think there’s going to be, there’s going to be some interesting times ahead around all that stuff. Interesting. Yeah, I never thought about that.

So where’s the best place for people to reach out and find out a bit more about the consulting they do?

Consulting: https://www.houghton.consulting is the website.

I do a blog as well at substack.com. And I quite regularly put articles on there about, working from home and optimizing , remote working and stuff like that.

And yeah I enjoy doing, mentoring and training both in-person where that’s appropriate, but increasingly remotely via zoom now. So yeah, anybody’s interested and I can help feel free to reach out and give me a shout.

Great. Thanks a lot.

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