Managing change remotely


Managing change is a key skill for any leader. Whether it’s a small change in the scope of a project or your entire company being folded into a new organization, keeping our teams focused and productive is one of the most important things leaders do. It’s not easy. It’s even harder when we’re scattered across time zones, oceans and departments. How do we effectively lead change in remote teams?

One of the leading voices in this field is Dr. Cynthia Scott. She’s an author, consultant and Core Faculty of Sustainable Leadership at the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, California. She helps leaders design and implement organizational change by looking at their strategic development.

In a recent interview, I asked her what leaders need to do successfully to manage change from afar.

What are the challenges to implementing change in a virtual / remote team and how’s it different from working with co-located teams?

The biggest challenge is starting well. People are often so focused on starting to plan/execute that they forget to lay the basic foundations for success and satisfaction. It begins with taking time to talk about the following:

  • What is the overarching goal of this team?
  • What would success look like for each individual?
  • What are the key roles that are needed to accomplish this?
  • What roles will give each person success and satisfaction?
  • What platform/format will you use to coordinate?
  • How will you communicate about work?
  • How will you make decisions?
  • What will you do when you disagree?
  • How will you reward/celebrate yourselves for great work?
  • What personal values do you all share?
  • What ground rules will you use manage your meetings?

When I find teams struggling I take them back to re-affirm their agreements or modify the ones that aren’t working.

What are the specific leadership behaviors that help people buy in to change?

People buy into change they’ve been involved in creating. No one likes to be “voluntold” about change. Giving people an opportunity to express their ideas and concerns, even if they don’t get what they want leads to greater engagement. No one likes to be surprised by a change. All change disrupts patterns of behavior, thought, or feeling that results in the need to create new patterns.

In many cases change disrupts a person’s sense of security, certainty, relationships and fairness, just by its very nature. A leader can buffer a change by doing something that reinforces one of these elements that is not disrupted. For example, changing a technology platform that requires shifts in procedure and interface can be buffered by getting everyone together who is impacted and giving them time to reinforce their relationships with each other so the transition can go smoothly.

Affirming how the organization/team has responded to change in the past reminds people of their past resilience and ideas that can help with the current change. People often forget their past achievements and need to have an opportunity to talk about what they did to navigate the earlier transition.

Give people time to adjust to the change, instead of expecting them to immediately move to the new way. Leaders have often had more time to get used to the change because they have been initiating and planning the change, whereas the people in the team are often hearing it for the first time. If you expect instant change you will more than likely get compliance and not the deeper commitment and engagement you’re seeking.

What are some tools and techniques leaders should learn in order to help achieve the change?

Connect before content:Begin and end meetings strongly. Ask each person to say hello and indicate where they are calling in from, what the weather is or how has their day been going. You can also ask what their intention is for the session/meeting. Do the same thing at the end, saving time for each person to say what they are taking from the session/meeting. This provides attention to the work being discussed and connection between the people on the team.

Engage people throughout the session: People will remain more attentive when you engage them in a way that allows them to make a contribution. Randomly calling on people surprises people and does not yield throughtful responses. You can let people know that you will be asking people to respond and tell the persons you will call on ahead of time so they can be ready. Dividing people into break out rooms with white boards allows them to talk more thoroughly about their ideas and actions.

Another factor Dr Scott points out, is to get to know your team’s strengths and weaknesses. There are many tools out there (she has one, called the “5 Dynamics”) and there are well-known tools like DISC and Facet5 as well.

As we all know, change is both inevitable and necessary. But it doesn’t have to be messy.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.