Lessons from Wall Street Journal bestseller on how to manage a remote workplace
In this in-depth summary of The Virtual Leader - How to Manage a Remote Workplace we set out Takako Hirata’s best tips for leading remote teams, and the leadership challenges of remote and hybrid work. Takako Hirata's Wall Street Journal bestselling book and our interview with Takako on The Virtual Leader will help leaders deal with the challenges of managing a remote workplace so they can reap the benefits of distributed teams.
Takako Hirata’s experience leading remote teams
The International Business Development head at ROHTO Pharmaceutical Company, Takako Hirata has extensive experience leading remote teams, overseeing 5 subsidiary CEOs, dozens of direct reports, and more than 100 employees across 5 continents. Based in Tokyo, Takako has been “living the Zoom/virtual/work from home/WFH lifestyle” for over half a decade and says remote and hybrid work appeals to workers. Some stats from her book:
- A survey by Microsoft of 30,000 workers found that over 70% wanted flexible, remote work options even after the pandemic ended.
- According to American asset firm Mercer, 94% of employers believed that their companies were as productive when compared working remotely to working in an office.
- A survey of 669 executives by PwC found that as many as 78% of CEOs agreed that remote working was here to stay for the long term.
New factors of remote work:
Takako says she can divide her workers into two piles - those happy to change to a remote workplace, and those who are not. New aspects of working remotely include:
- Physical separation - which can lead to feelings of isolation.
- Working from home - which can include constant interruptions from pets/children etc.
- Meetings which may be difficult to coordinate across different time zones.
- Workers who expect a different kind of leadership from you.
The Virtual Leader Part One: How to adapt to the new normal - importance to conserve the notion of office, even while moving online.
Rituals - give shape to our idea of work and the office.
Rituals (such as the morning commute and brewing a kettle in the staff kitchen) used to bring us order and calm. A calm and comfortable worker is a productive and effective worker. What rituals matter to you and your office? Remote working leaders should keep these and actively encourage the development of rituals.
Takako method to develop rituals:
- Look back on daily agendas and identify rituals.
- Try to remember what a standard work day included, mark the moments on an hourly planner.
- Note special events such as birthdays and holidays.
- Decide which rituals can be transferred to a remote work environment and which can’t.
Trust - that it be carefully cultivated in virtual environments.
Trust is important for leaders as a lack of trust diminishes the team’s ability to achieve goals. WFH can cause burnout which affects trust.
A few factors which help include:
- Communication - make it frequent and meaningful and attuned to the needs and goals of people themselves.
- Feedback - the more received the more engaged workers are. (Gallup)
- Inclusion and shared control - encourage teams to have informal sessions with each other without your interference.
- Transparency - give your people insights into your work process.
- Freedom through accountability - give them room to achieve your joint goals with creativity and freedom. (Takako checks in every two months with her international teams).
- Balanced interpersonal relationships - ability to share things with you unless you first open up with your team.
Takako method to build trust:
- Host a meeting, all write down a definition of trust, discuss. Write a common definition, pin it somewhere obvious.
- Remove mechanisms that monitor work screen time. Employers violate employees' trust by using tracking software.
- Recognition is one of the strongest motivators at work. Collect anonymous compliments or statements of gratitude - read them out at meetings.
- At a group chat - ask how others energy levels are as a percentage. Give permission to report zero percent.
How communication has changed and grown as we move online and make best use of tech.
Emails allow for thoughtful responses but other apps require faster responses and even show when people are typing. Little mechanisms like this allow us to mirror a real conversation more closely and make the dynamics of remote work possible.
For visual communication, especially around project management try these free options: Airtable, Asana and Trello.
For paid options: Basecamp, Microsoft Project, and Smartsheet. Jump right in and input projects and tasks.
4 of Takako's methods for virtual communications:
- Make notes before a meeting on the discussions to facilitate. Encourage teams to create collaborative documents before the meeting. During the meeting, throw the document onto the screen - it evolves as discussions arise and tasks are added.
- Create open video working spaces where employees can see and work together, sometimes on different tasks, and interact casually with one another when they take breaks.
- Conduct daily stand up meetings. Each team member talks about what they’re working on, current progress, and where they are stuck, and what work on in the coming days.
- Encourage the leadership team to have open meetings, signalling leaders’ availability.
Part Two - the virtual environment and how we can optimise it to the advantage of our team members and our own leadership.
How companies can make themselves leaner, and use the money saved to reinvest in their teams.
Remote work is a shrewd way for businesses to save money:
- You may no longer need the office space or admin staff.
- You save on commuting costs.
- You spend less money on entertainment.
- Asynchronous work days can save money on overtime.
- You may no longer need to spend as much on new office equipment.
- New hires - may not have to fly them to your office for training.
To signal to your team that they matter, reinvest these savings back into your team:
- Upgrade their home office equipment and tech equipment.
- Invest in new skills and training for your team. This has long-term benefits for your company. It makes them more adaptable and changes are going to continue happening more rapidly than ever. It makes them more loyal and more promotable. Author note: Growth Faculty Leadership Pass is a good way to grow your team's leadership skills.
Takako’s methods for reinvesting savings:
- Create a guide for using digital upskilling resources, with explanations of how to use the website involved, and whose skills it’s best for.
- Paid education - provide them with a monthly skilling budget.
- Corporate training - programmes can be organised over zoom sessions.
- Subsidised education - subsidy for further study in return for them staying for a period of time.
- Subscriptions - keep ahead of trends in business, trade publications, magazines.
- Physical and mental health - this correlates directly to productivity.
- WFH fund - subsidise the creation of home office spaces, wifi, comfortable chairs, headtime and mikes.
- Overtime meals - just as if they spend a late night in the office (create a corporate account or reimburse home-delivery meals).
- Additional assistance - provide support, tools, and means for those navigating a new path in life (pregnancy, caring responsibilities, illness etc).
Detailed look at mental and physical health and best way to maintain both when isolated from one another.
Companies have reported struggles with remote work that they hadn’t foreseen. According to Mind Share Partners almost 42% of employees have experienced ‘deteriorating mental health’ since remote work became the norm in 2020.
Half of the respondents experienced burnout in 2021; 59% of millennials said they were burned out, Gen Z 58% , baby boomers 31% , Gen X 54% (highest increase).
Some pitfalls of virtual offices that may lead to burnout:
- Communication - digital can’t replace face to face. It’s hard to get used to.
- Isolation - favourable for introverts but may not benefit the team as a whole. Can erode trust.
- Energy - team members with young children may have less time than ever before.
- Self-esteem - many leaders don’t communicate adequately and team members have to guess at their team leader’s expectations of them. May start second-guessing themselves and their managers when their only communication may be terse feedback.
Takako makes the point it can be challenging in a virtual workforce so leaders must work hard to Identify when team members are struggling. In digital interactions all we see is a person’s face - people are good at putting on a good face during a short interaction.
Takako's signs an employee might be struggling:
- Reduced productivity. Fails to meet deadlines, acts disengaged, late in responding to emails.
- Longer work hours - Gets buried in tasks; stays online longer which may signal they are trying to stay on top of their work. Encourage employees to wrap up their day at a reasonable time.
- Looking tired and disconnected. Take the time to schedule one on one meetings.
How to create a positive work environment:
Takako suggests putting policies in place that recognise the challenges of remote work.
“All it takes is being more sensitive towards the goals, desires and problems of your employees.”
Lead from the front and by example. Make a culture where employees feel they can be honest.
The Virtual Leader suggests:
- Bring rituals online - that create a sense of belonging. One overlooked ritual is signing off at the office. Team members should do the same signing off when their workday has come to an end.
- Provide mental health days. A simple practice, allow a day off with no questions asked.
- Offer mental health resources. Employee assistance programmes, or introduce education sessions, virtual counselling sessions, small acts of kindness, meal vouchers and other acts of appreciation.
- Give empathetic feedback. Schedule one-on-ones to check in to build relationships and trust.
- Promote self care. Lead by example. Show how you maintain your own work life balance, give them manageable workloads, encourage exercise and a healthy lifestyle.
- Take care of yourself. You have to make sure your team is surviving and thriving, so take care of yourself.
3 of Takako's methods for physical and mental health:
- Consider a mental health pulse-oximiter - anonymous survey sent out monthly - asking them to rate their mental health.
- Ask ‘How are you really’ - sounds simple, but really does work. It can start an honest conversation.
- Encourage flexibility. Let them sign off early if they have no work for the rest of the day. Put ‘not urgent’ in the subject line of emails with tasks.
The dreaded meeting - best practices around them.
Takako says meetings take up more time and importance in remote work than they did in the office. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the aggregate number of business meetings has gone up by about 13% since the pandemic.
The Virtual Leader's general rules for remote meetings:
You should always know what a meeting is for, if you don’t - cancel it. Write 3 bullet points so people can prepare for discussions. Takako likes SHORT meetings (between 20-40 mins). Send out a meeting invite 24 hours in advance, choose an appropriate time (keep a list of time zones handy!)
Remote one-on-one meetings
For one on ones, Takako strongly recommends voice calls.
“We focus on the content and less on our physical appearance. Audio calls are more appropriate for difficult conversations on sensitive topics. Calls help getting to the heart of the problem.”
Preparing for a remote meeting - create a checklist.
- Software: have back up conferencing tools in case it fails. Takako’s organisation uses Google Meet and Zoom. She recommends checking with other parties on which software you’re going to use. Many countries certain kinds of softwares are restricted.
- Have notes, presentations and documents prepared before the meeting. Takako likes to have them printed as well, if possible.
- Time check. Time the meeting right. Double check the time zone.
- Personal appearance. Look good, feel good. Takako dresses for meetings as if she is in person, and does a check on her webcam to make sure everything is in place.
- Webcam - buy a laptop stand, or stack books underneath the laptop to raise the camera to your eye level.
- Virtual backgrounds. Clean up the background behind you. Be prepared to talk about it. Takako does not recommend green screens or blurred backgrounds as they make things less personal and can be distracting or distasteful.
During the meeting:
- Lay out the meeting rules. If you’re recording let people know, and if you expect people to use cameras, to mute themselves when not speaking, or to use the raise the hand function if they have anything urgent to say.
- Provide microbreaks to help your team maintain focus. 1-2 minute breaks. Get a coffee.
- Wrapping up the meeting - address problems as they arise. Disseminate materials, like audio recording. Ask yourself if the meeting achieved what you set out to achieve. If not, analyse what went wrong by going through the agenda. Ask for feedback.
Takako methods as an alternative to meetings:
- Quick standups - important in a virtual context. All stand up. Each team member gives a status update. 5-30 mins.
- Online workshops. Everyone learn together. Have someone lead a collaborative learning together. I organise a weekly learning session where people share something they’ve learned.
- Informal meetings. No agenda, everyone can come and speak of topics inside and outside work.
- Online brainstorming sessions. Team chooses a topic and everyone lists out ideas without judgement, contribute quickly, virtual whiteboard.
- Co-working sessions. Remote members log on and work alongside team members. Can turn on audio or video.
Distractions that workers face when going remote and how to minimise them.
Focus is harder today because we live in the attention economy. Every company is competing not just for time and money, but for your attention.
Setting up an environment.
If you don’t have your own room, claim a designated work space. Good posture creates harmony between mind and body. Find a chair that fits you and your body.
Get a dedicated laptop stand, a mouse and a keyboard.
3 of The Virtual Leader tips to focus:
- Change into office attire even if you're staying at home. Seeing your crisp self makes you feel good and signifies to other family members that you are in work mode.
- Leave the house once in the morning and once in the afternoon. You need to take breaks and change your setting at some point.
- Use time blocking to focus on chores that need to be done (so they’re not in the back of your mind all day).
Focusing better during meetings:
Correct your attitude right before your meeting. Takako says she always enters a meeting with an attitude that she will learn something new.
“I start with meditating in the morning.”
“My mornings are usually divided into TWO blocks, the first is high priority work, while more flexible tasks are left for the second. Each block lasts 30 mins to 3 hours. One of the most important blocks in my day is my lunch break which I use to divide my mornings from my afternoons.”
“Afternoons are reserved for creative work and client meetings, which are divided into their own blocks, followed by a short break, the final being focused on planning tomorrow’s tasks and my workflow for the next few days.”
Knowing when to stop
Ask yourself, ``Am I reaching the point of diminishing returns?” Sometimes it’s okay to leave for tomorrow what you can do poorly today.
Part three - The new demands on leadership demanded by a remote working world
How our ideas of leadership change when moving to remote only environments.
Remote work has placed new demands on leaders. Takako notes a lot of her role used to be ‘putting on the appearance of a leader’ in the office, or ‘acting out a part.’
However with remote work…. ‘you no longer expend as much effort while playing this role.’
“Think of it as a little less bluster and charm and a little more focus and care for your team.”
Leadership Emergence Theory
Takako explores the Leadership Emergence Theory which examines how leaders naturally emerge in groups.
1. Ascription - you look and act like a leader with dynamism, intelligence, charisma.
2. Achievement - you contribute to team goals, are communicative, and are a team player.
She says one study found in low virtuality contexts (ie. face-to-face) ascription was a far greater factor in a leader emerging than achievement.
Whereas in high virtuality contexts (ie. video conferencing, remote working) achievement was more significant as a factor for leaders to emerge.
You need to find a balance between both types, she says. Leadership is changing as office culture also changes.
The Virtual Leader on soft skills - "essential for all remote working leaders":
- Communication - Maintain a stream of communication to ensure your team members do not feel isolated. Give meaningful and regular feedback, and check in with team members who are new or having difficulty transitioning from an office to a virtual environment.
- Organisational knowledge - in an office setting you can stand up and shout ‘hey who knows about X?” Not so in a remote setting. You need to work on your organisational awareness - where the different parts of your project currently are, and what state of completion they are in. You have to remember that all the pieces of your puzzle are no longer in one location. Practice this skill.
- Transfer knowledge to co-workers. Workers appreciate team leaders who reduce confusion. You must work on your own communication with team members, but also be a facilitator between team members.
- Empathy. Remote work can often be very isolating - even if it doesn’t feel that way for you. You must work to reduce the feeling of emotional or physical distance between employees even if they are continents apart. Make them feel noticed and appreciated.
Hard skills essential for all remote working leaders:
- Proficiency in new software and technology.
- Language, cultural and geographic awareness.
- New management methodologies - keep abreast of the changes.
Takako makes the point ‘You will be the first leaders learning the best and worst practices of remote work. You must pass on that knowledge to the next generation.’
The new expectations of employees - now the world has widely adopted remote work, and whether hybrid work can be the answer to our conundrums.
In this section, Takako explains that a ‘new kind of employee is entering the fray’ and….’we need to prepare ourselves to treat them in a manner slightly different than what we’re used to.’
She says these new employees have more say in where they’d like to work, the kind of work they would like to do, the kind of perks a workplace should offer, and the kind of managers they would like to be overseen by.
For managers this generation of workers can be a boon; they are more skilled than ever and interested in working for companies they care about and identify with - rather than just where they can earn their next paycheck.
The Virtual Leader's description of new characteristics in the next generation:
- More skilled than ever. Workers have access to free education and upskilling platforms.
- They’re trained to be adaptable - They desire multidisciplinary learning and variety.
- They have non-traditional educations. 4 year degrees are no longer the norm.
- They want to work from anywhere. Not return to the 'old normal.'
- They have a new ownership of time. They pursue other activities.
- They desire flexibility. Where, and the time they have, to work.
- They seek community. They desire workplace relationships that are substantial and give them a reason to go to work.
- They know what they want. Workers are more powerful and better organised than prior generations and they demand more from the companies they work for. They hold their leaders and managers accountable and they are not willing to remain silent in the face of what they perceive as injustices in the workplace.
- They can be picky. The best workers are pickier than ever before. They demand more from their workplaces - and can afford to do so because they have the skills and can back themselves up.
Remote working and the changing meaning of leadership
Being open to change and knowing how to adapt to it are perhaps the most vital skills any future leader can have. According to Takako, this is what’s changed:
- Regaining time. Takako says a third of her life used to be flying around the world. Without this travel she became more available to her work teams for meaningful conversations. However, a more dense workday meant more meetings than ever before to stay aligned. Takako made her role leaner - she cut out superfluous roles and tasks and she delegated. She used some of the time to set up an online media company Intech media - www.intech.media.
“Time has been both saved and lost - but this is characteristic of remote work in general,” she says.
- Empathising as a remote leader. Not everyone is suited to the kind of virtual communication and collaboration that remote work demands, some struggle with video calls, and motivating themselves while working alone. Do your best to help workers adapt to the new situation, perhaps other roles would suit them? Have honest conversations.
- Leading with diversity and inclusion. Leaders must create systemic change where everyone feels like they belong. She always looks for someone who can add something to my team, rather than just ‘fit in’.
- Take advantage of the power of the internet. Incredibly powerful digital services online helps expand a leader’s reach. Takako has developed a remote-first mindset.
“I had years of experience…what I tried to convey is my ability to adapt. Gen z approaches tech with a comfort and understanding I can’t even imagine. I constantly learn from these young people, as long as you’re open to it it is available to you.”
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