Best Practices for Leading a Newly Distributed Organization

Best Practices for Leading a Newly Distributed Organization

The uncertainties presented by COVID-19 has prompted many companies to ask some or all of their employees to work remotely. While over half of U.S. companies have team members who work at least part of the time remotely, these new policies are leaving many employees – and their managers – working out of their office and separated from their team members for the first time.

For leaders whose teams normally share an office, this can present a number of new challenges: How can you lead effectively when meetings are held virtually via Zoom rather than face-to-face? How do you ensure the business continues to run smoothly and employees remain productive?

We know first hand what it means to successfully manage and lead remote teams. Approximately 1,200 of Upwork’s team members work remotely. Another 500 or so work from one of our three U.S. offices (San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Chicago), with the option to work from home at least one day a week. Every team within our organization leverages remote talent and distributed team structures, from communications and social to finance and engineering.

This expertise helps us empower companies of all sizes—including over 30% of the Fortune 500—to remove location barriers and leverage both remote workers and distributed teams to create a competitive advantage for their organization.

With that in mind, we want to share some tips to help us all be more effective while working remotely, as well as some steps that corporate leaders and CEOs should be taking during this unique crisis.

Leading a newly remote organization

Managing a virtual team requires leaders to double down on the fundamentals of good management, including establishing clear goals, running effective meetings, communicating clearly and leveraging team members’ individual and collective strengths.

However,  it can be difficult to quickly pivot when forced to adapt to a fully remote organization. Leaders can mobilize their team and ground their operations with a plan for today, while keeping an eye toward the future with these five steps:

1. Identify a core team of critical leaders and create a plan to address key business risks as they arise

Work with this team to create an ongoing cadence for identifying, evaluating, and addressing new risks to your business. Set up daily or twice daily “stand ups” with this group and other internal leaders to check-in around the following:

  • Impact to the team. How are teams coping? What decisions need to be made for them? This could mean a work from home policy with steps to support them and combat isolation.
  • Impact to the business. What are they seeing and what does it indicate about what’s coming next? For example, monitor key data streams and customer feedback channels for trends.
  • Position your business to ride out the crisis—and still thrive. What can you do to pivot quickly or minimize the business impact? As the dust settles and the path ahead becomes clearer, solutions like Upwork can help you source the skilled expertise you need to bridge talent gaps quickly. Being agile during a crisis is important to being able to adapt to changing business conditions. Also, keep an eye out for shifts in your industry and opportunities to reposition your company for accelerated recovery once business returns to normal.

2. Build a contingency plan

Tap the same team of leaders to build out some “what if” scenarios. Outline the subsequent decisions you’d have to make for each, and align guiding principles so you’re ready. Some example questions to ask yourselves:

  • What are our overarching principles and priorities in the face of a crisis?
  • Which stakeholders’ needs do we prioritize, and in what order? (i.e., Employees, customers, partners, shareholders, etc.)
  • What if we cannot return to our onsite locations for 6 weeks? 12 weeks? A year?
  • What if schools are closed for an extended period and our workers have to juggle child care?
  • Who are our most vulnerable populations? How can we support them?
  • What if our revenue drops by 25% overnight? 50%?

3. Develop your distributed working model muscles

Learning to lead a remote team won’t just help you navigate change now, it’s a valuable strength that you’ll increasingly need to lean on.

  • Communicate often. Legendary former CEO and current Intuit Board Chairman Brad Smith has taught me two critical lessons about communication. First, “In times of crisis or change, up your communication 3x.” Second, “Don’t wait until you have answers to start communicating. Start communicating the minute your employees have questions.” Take these two mantras to heart and both you and your team will get through this—potentially even better off than before.
  • Communicate across multiple channels. Only 7% of communication is based on the words you use—55% is body language and 38% is voice. So include phone or video to help avoid miscommunication.
  • Establish an email cadence—but communicate big changes in real-time. A cadence can help your employees know what to expect in terms of communication. But when breaking news happens or company policy changes, don’t sit on it.
  • Be available when you can, or establish virtual “office hours.” How does an open-door policy translate when you’re working remotely? Your team may still need to connect in order to discuss questions or concerns. Some ideas to make this work:
  • Leverage video recordings. Record valuable meetings to share later, especially if team members span multiple time zones or have uneven availability throughout the day—say,  when dealing with school closures.
  • Light up digital communication tools. You can build an arsenal of great tools to support distributed work. Some of our favorites include Google Hangouts or Zoom for video meetings, as well as Slack or MS Teams Live Chat for more casual conversations.
  • Remind teams to get exercise and fresh air. If they’re able to, encourage stepping away from the computer and getting outside. Feeling stuck in the house all day when you’re not used to it can sap motivation.

4. Listen to your customers

Talk to your customers. Find out what’s most on their minds and how you can help. It may be that your sales team dials back outreach for a period of time, or that you change up the messaging to address specific questions, needs, or concerns.

Crises are never welcome, but they can be opportunities to grow. We hope sharing what we’ve learned as a remote-first company over the years will help ease your transition during this difficult time. From all of us at Upwork: Stay safe, stay healthy and stay connected.

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Best Practices for Leading a Newly Distributed Organization
The Upwork Team

Upwork is the world’s work marketplace connecting millions of businesses with independent talent around the globe. We serve everyone from one-person startups to 30% of the Fortune 100 with a powerful trust-driven platform that enables companies and freelancers to work together in new ways that unlock their potential.

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