With COVID-19 still impacting our day-to-day lives, many workplaces have rolled back their return to office mandates, required vaccination for those in offices (as is the case with Red Hat) and warned employees that conditions may change yet again.
That level of lack of clarity and change can fuel conflicts in terms of competing goals and mindsets. Dealing with conflict can be even harder since so few meetings can be face to face.
Remote work isn’t new to Red Hat. A quarter of our employees have long been remote, and the open source culture and mindset we hone is well suited to remote work. Yet having some teams remote, or having portions of teams remote, is far different than having almost all teams remote for more than a year. In that time, many new hires have come on board. Other workers have left.
As leaders, how do we provide clarity and address challenges that are inevitable in this landscape?
As I lead a globally distributed organization, I’ve centered my leadership style around four primary touchstones: communication, connection, collaboration and confidence, all of which continue to be primary pillars whether remote, in-office or hybrid.
Open communication is the foundation upon which everything is built at Red Hat. Employing open practices creates a transparent and inclusive environment in which every collaborator feels empowered to share their point of view. This focus doesn’t change whether work is in-person, virtual or a combination. It also requires intentionality. We intentionally agree to be open, and in our new world of work, where more people are working physically alone at home, we need to be even more intentional about how we communicate across teams.
Our use of social contracts assists that intentionality. We encourage the creation of such social contracts when we kick off projects. Social contracts promote autonomy and self-governance within a team. The social contracts are basically rules and behaviors put forward by a team for how they would like to interact with one another.
One of the rules is to set core working hours. These are not hours that colleagues promise to work, but hours that they’re available for sync ups, meetings, or to do pairings. Maintaining core hours is critical when everyone is working from different locations so that people know when they can interact with team members.
Holding successful virtual meetings also requires more thought. When doing remote meetings, communication flows better with the right number of participants to enable everyone to contribute. Online collaboration boards help participants visualize what they’re working toward. Ensure cameras are switched on when possible, as this encourages participants to stay engaged and makes conversation easier. Facilitators also need to make extra effort to engage all participants. Every point of view should be heard.
Cultivating human connection is still a key priority in business, even when teams can’t collaborate face-to-face. In almost any meeting, but especially when participants are virtual, spending more time on icebreakers and allowing extra time for human connection is a must. As a leader, I also assess and re-assess psychological safety levels among collaborators to ensure that staff are comfortable sharing, including via virtual settings. Psychological safety on a team provides the framework for positive, measured risk-taking, enabling innovation and competitive advantage.
We ensure that teams remain equipped with virtual collaboration tools, such as virtual whiteboarding, that allow for the same methods of brainstorming as in-person engagements. Pair, an agile practice where two team members work together on one workstation (one keyboard and mouse) to implement a feature, can also be done remotely, as can mob, a practice where the whole team comes together to implement a feature or piece of functionality. Again, make sure cameras are turned on. Video conferencing based pairing and mobbing is possible with BlueJeans.
For documentation at the beginning, allow the team to go through a diverging phase, adding ideas on an empty document, then move to a converging phase where the structure of the document is agreed upon and the work is divided among the team. Pair and mob ensures the entire team understands how a specific problem should be solved, sharing knowledge across a team.
Instilling confidence in team members empowers them to do their best work, resulting in ideal outcomes. Whether in person or virtual, we celebrate wins and share success across members of the team to validate the value of our colleagues’ efforts. We also engage in celebrating failures, which results in bringing the team together in an informal and safe environment to share stories of projects and products that went wrong, and the reasons why. Such meetings can occur either virtually or in person. In the end it is about learning from mistakes and what didn’t work. It isn’t about focusing on, or fearing failure.
As with great software development, great leadership is always iterating and adjusting to new conditions. COVID-19, remote work, hybrid teams and the need to keep innovating will guarantee changes in leadership styles, too. But paying attention to the core tenets of communication, connection, collaboration and confidence will always keep you on the right track.