Remote Control

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Thank you for being a Leading Smart listener. A quick word before we begin. I’m postponing episode 14, Hocus Focus, the wrap-up episode on the use of visions. It’s certainly important to close the loop on how to use vision effectively in your organization. But this podcast, like any endeavor, can be steered by current events which force our attention elsewhere. Stay tuned for that episode at a later date.

We’re all watching the Covid-19 pandemic happen in real time, at both slow motion and lightning speed. Being in a high-risk age group and living outside Seattle affords a close-up view that is, at times, frightening. But it’s also instructive.

For us, as students of leadership, this is a rare opportunity. A careful observer of the art of crisis management has a wide array of examples to study. As leaders worldwide grapple with this pernicious foe, it brings into focus the many elements that make for great leadership.

China leveraged their near complete state control to lock down the country by means unthinkable in more liberal democracies. One of those democracies, Italy, took a less aggressive path only to be overwhelmed and eventually forced into similar measures. Much of the rest of the world is following a similar trajectory.

South Korea took a decidedly technical approach. They learned the value of extensive testing when blindsided by SARS several years ago. So, President Moon Jae-In immediately gathered the country’s medical companies and within hours built a massive testing regime. By testing as many as they could, and isolating the positives, South Korea achieved the world’s lowest growth rate of infections. By far.

In the United States we see, in just one country, the entire range of ways to cope with the virus. National leadership initially downplayed the disease, only to respond when it began to overwhelm. And even then, the prime directive is largely to let each state handle the problem on their own. This has produced 50 different leaders and a virtual catalog of leadership styles to study. Some have been outstanding, some far less effective.

Again, as a student of leadership, this is a fascinating time. I encourage you to study what leaders are saying and doing. Try to learn from the messages and actions that are most effective. This crash course in crisis management is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At least we hope it is.

The more I see, the clearer it is that crisis doesn’t forge leaders into something new, rather it distills them down to what they always were.

For those who are leading teams, more important are the changes this pandemic thrusts on our own organizations. With “social distancing” forcing us to move instantly into the virtual realm, we wonder what that leadership looks like. Right now. In a world suddenly forced to work from home. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

This is a special episode on the challenges and techniques for leading in a virtual world. In this episode we’ll look at how to transform your face-to-face leadership style into one that works at a distance. This is episode fifteen: Remote Control.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing “stay at home” orders forced organizations that were cautious about moving toward remote work to jump in with both feet. This is confusing for everyone but represents many unique challenges for the leaders. How do they effectively communicate with their teams? How do they ensure that brainpower workers remain engaged and effective? How do they retain an organization’s culture working at a distance?

One way to answer these questions is look at the evolution of work and to learn what some organizations do to remain successful as their geography changes.

There are four common levels of physical arrangement for brainpower organizations. I’ll call them Headquarters, Satellites, Hotels, and Homes. Each level is more distant than the last. And as the distance increases, so do the challenges. Let’s look at them in turn.

Headquarters is a single location to which workers commute, working together to produce, manage, and support their end product. Physically being together affords rapid communication, a strong sense of teamwork, and huge economies of scale in infrastructure and support systems. We’ve seen this arrangement in organizations large and small for hundreds of years. It’s the way startups work in someone’s garage. And it’s also Apple with their massive multi-billion-dollar “spaceship” campus in Silicon Valley.

Microsoft too has long embraced this model. In Redmond, Washington is an enormous campus of large buildings, housing tens of thousands of software developers. When I was in charge of HR, Bill Gates repeatedly stressed to me his belief that this headquarters model is central to building software. He is convinced face-to-face communication is vital. He often lauded serendipitous “hallway moment” interactions in the creation of great ideas.

As such, we constantly built new, ever-larger buildings, and relocated teams to be appropriately adjacent as needs grew and changed. Today, Microsoft has torn down most of the buildings I once worked in and are in the midst of their own multi-billion-dollar campus redevelopment. All to support this headquarters model where physical proximity is paramount.

From a leadership perspective, the management structure at a headquarters location is not hindered by physical distance. It’s usually a traditional pyramid arrangement organized by function or by product. This structure makes it easy to communicate strategy and vision, to sort through problems, and generally to work highly effectively.

One critical element is that it’s easy to build and maintain a company culture when it’s all in a single location. Face-to-face meetings, team lunches, and larger group events are commonplace. All manner of celebrations and group gatherings help to build and sustain their culture. Quite simply, it’s easiest to build a team when everyone is physically together.

The next level of physical arrangement is Satellites. An organization with a main headquarters and remote offices around the state, the nation, or the globe.

Satellites are common in larger organizations, especially multinational firms where different laws and languages reward locally based sales and marketing. It’s simply good business to have locals create products and marketing messages for their own culture. Many manufacturers, too, use satellite factories for easier access to raw materials. A glass plant located near large sand deposits, for example. Or they create their products closer to their customers to reduce distribution costs. A car manufacturer building in a local market to avoid shipping costs or tariffs.

Many brainpower focused organizations leverage satellites for recruiting high-quality talent. At Microsoft, I worked with senior leaders originally from India to open our first major development center there, primarily to access the incredibly deep talent pool. And companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook have satellite offices around the world for their brainpower workers. They like where they live, and everyone benefits from lower costs than at headquarters.

Traditionally the management structure in a satellite organization is a local pyramid structure. With a single leader acting as the focal point for communication of goals and strategy. And for the success of the satellite.

Physically, satellites being a “mini-headquarters” provides many of the same benefits. Group and team meetings are easy. As are many of the serendipitous interactions Bill Gates is so fond of.

But maintaining organizational culture in satellites is hard. The local leader must represent the entire organization’s culture and values. Even if headquarters does extra work to ensure culture is communicated broadly, messages can be lost in translation. Some cultural values that work at headquarters are poor fits or even complete mysteries to local teams.

This all requires extra diligence and sensitivity at both headquarters and the satellite to ensure that organizational goals and values are consistent throughout the organization. No matter where it happens to be physically located. Smart companies are consistent in their values worldwide and even mirror team-building events at their satellites. Above all, they celebrate the successes of their teams, whenever they happen.

Hoteling is the next rung on the ladder of remote work. Firms, desperate to find talent wherever it is, are hiring locally and having them work out of their satellite offices. Even if they work for a leader outside the local pyramid, but rather elsewhere in the organization.

This “hoteling” has many of the advantages of headquarters or satellites. Workers get a formal office with great infrastructure. They benefit from shared company culture, even if the person at the next desk is not on their team. Smart organizations do local monthly birthday celebrations or other events to ensure everyone feels included in the company culture.

Yet, in these kinds of arrangements, it’s not uncommon for an employee working in one satellite to report to a manager in another satellite hundreds of miles away, who in turn may report to someone at headquarters hundreds of miles from both of them. It’s difficult for even the best leaders to be effective at such distances.

Many leaders are most effective in person. They lead by earning trust, through persuasion, and by example. This is best practiced up close, in meetings large or small, or in one-on-one conversations, often by listening as much as talking.

Also, many managers practice MBWA – management by walking around. Popping in to simply chat up the team. “How are things going”, “what can I do to help”, and so on. Often this doesn’t garner any specific action items, but it shows care and concern, and it’s vital to spread organizational culture.

How does one do MBWA hundreds of miles apart? Video calls replace in-person meetings, of course. Face-to-face is still a vital way to communicate meaning and culture. But the best organizations use it as frequently as they might have a casual hallway or MBWA interaction. “Got time for a quick question?” “Sure”. The ease of video calls makes it readily available. Best practice is to make it commonplace.

Hoteled brainpower workers separated physically from their team risk being lost, even in a sea of their own company. Technology can help build team camaraderie and promote the serendipitous encounters Bill Gates finds so valuable. Video conferencing and messaging platforms like Slack and Teams, come to the rescue. They provide the virtual hallways where easy and quick ideas can pop up and be realized, even when distances preclude. Best practice here is for companies to promote not just their business use, but casual or social use as well. All of which advances organizational culture.

Fortunately, these technologies are easy and familiar for younger workers, many of whom grew up with them. It’s often the leaders who need to come up to speed to make hoteling a viable model. Many smart companies excel at it and use these tools to maintain their company values and culture. Even at a distance.

Finally, we arrive at the Home model of remote work. The model we’re all suddenly forced into, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some organizations have been here for years. Many open source projects use a physically distant organization from inception. And more and more organizations are allowing workers to work from home some or all of the time.

How do they do it? As we’ve discussed, they extensively use video calls and messaging tools. And they follow some pretty simple guidelines to maintain their company’s effectiveness and culture.

Microsoft, headquartered so close to the first US outbreak of the virus, was one the first companies to respond to the pandemic. They sent their workers home within days, where they remain today. Yet they are still being effective through some fairly simple rules.

They focus on establishing a sense of normalcy. They insist on regular hours. Not necessarily nine to five, but a regular workday. If you used to work ten to six, they urge you to maintain that schedule.

They insist people don’t overwork. Brainpower workers, if left to their own devices, often would work around the clock. At the office, managers could at least shoo them home. Now, at home, they risk burnout. So, Microsoft is telling their managers to ensure their workers pace themselves.

Microsoft also implements a lunch hour. They mandate that no meetings are held between noon and one local time. To get people up from their desks, away from their keyboards, and taking a break. Just as they would in an office, where someone would always pop in and say “hey, what are you doing for lunch”. This kind of normalcy is vital, even if it has to be enforced by rule.

Lastly, as a substitute for the kind of cultural celebration that might happen at headquarters or a satellite, they are encouraging teams to do virtual birthday celebrations, and other kinds of group activities. Anything to build and maintain a team, even when they can’t be physically together.

In summary, let’s review some tips you can use to be an effective leader in a virtual world.

First and foremost, think of all the things you used to do as a face-to-face manager and still do them. Continue to do your 1-1 meetings as you would if you were in the office. If you used to have weekly staff meetings, do them. If you had monthly group birthday celebrations, no matter how corny they were, do those too.

Simply put, don’t make virtual meetings a big deal. They aren’t special, they’re just how you work. Do them instead of phone calls. They are so much more expressive. Face-to-face is important, as it helps to see people — especially when everyone is isolated in their homes.

To that end, become expert at whatever video conferencing tool you use. Use a better microphone. Make sure you’re lit from the front or better yet, the side. Make your background interesting, even fun. Get adept at quick spontaneous meetings. Use the mute button often. Listen more, talk less. Video calls are your new go-to tool. Be at least as good at them as you are at email or PowerPoint.

And if you’re one of those leaders who hates emails, and has someone else do their PowerPoints, I’m afraid you can’t avoid this one. Leadership without video calls in the age of Work from Home isn’t happening. Make Zoom or whatever video conferencing you use, the one tool you really learn.

For MBWA, you should initiate it. Crank up an unexpected call with “Hey, got a minute? I just wanted to check in and see how it’s going.” Make them casual and commonplace. It will encourage them to do it with you. Never be annoyed with an impromptu, “Hey, have a quick question” even if your response is, “give me five minutes, I’ll be right with you.” The best leaders are accessible, even when separated by distance.

Be sure to enforce clear guidelines. Keep regular hours and make your team do the same. Don’t bother them at night, for example. Make sure you model having a real life. Oh, and make lunch time a thing.

Lastly, treat this way of working not as something special, but as the new normal. Even if it’s not. The more you treat it as unusual and different, the more people will make excuses. Just treat it as the way things work. And get back to work.

Finally, I wish you, your family, and your team health and happiness. We will all find a way to get through this difficult time. I hope you as a leader can find your way to be effective, by remote control.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site, That’s

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That’s it for this special episode on working remotely. In the next episode, I plan on returning to complete the series on Vision. We’ll discuss how to make the most of your vision through decision making and communication. It’s called “Hocus Focus”. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.