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Karine Sabatier
Karine Sabatier

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22 tips for coaching remote teams

Becky Hammon the first-ever female head coach in the NBA’s Summer League for the Spurs and the first female NBA head coach to win a Summer League title.

By coaching I mean guiding a group of individuals from “what are we here for again?” to “now that we stated the right problem and that we actually share the same purpose, let’s act on it” with simple tools and process.

For the past 4 weeks I have been remotely coaching 5 teams of 4 to 6 people and I must say it has been the most draining time of my pro life. I feel like one hour of remote meeting is probably equivalent to a 4-hour non-stop IRL workshop. After the first 2 sessions I realized I was totally worn out, really late on the schedule I had planned, quite unhappy about what came out of our group and simply clueless about how to deal with remote.

So, after each session I decided to make a quick retro with myself to come up with improved remote coaching guidelines. Here they are after a few retros, feel free to complete and challenge them. Let’s jump in!

Why remote work is hard

A word beforehand about remote. Going full remote is a harder way to work in groups (for now) and there are many reasons to it: we’re not all used to it yet, we have not found the optimal organization yet, some of our tools need improved UX, etc.

But the real reasons are mostly physiological ones that could be summed up by “we are simply not meant for that”. On video calls our eyes get sore quickly (a lot of people experience eye fatigue nowadays) and our brain doesn’t like at all the impression of being constantly watched by everyone. Also, while working remotely we are deprived of the perception of body language (especially if people don’t activate their camera during meetings). And body language is key to our comprehension of the other human being in front of us. Without body language, we become clueless and we spend more energy trying to communicate efficiently.

These articles about the Zoom fatigue are really interesting to read.

So more than ever, you need to prepare upfront.

When working with groups (2 people is a group) I usually set up a pretty detailed agenda and a bunch of facilitation tools. With time and experience you’ll get to know your basics and will be able to improvise and adapt, but still, I like to have my timetable and check list ready — but also, this (let’s jump in):

1. Don’t plan more than 90 minutes for a remote session.

Ninety minutes is already too much. If you need more time, reconsider your goals, split them and schedule more slots. I now plan 50 minutes of work. This gives people a 10-minute break in case they have to go on with another meeting.

2. Keep the team under 5–6 people.

This one is close to IRL limitations. If you want everyone to be active and committed, four is a good number.

3. Email upfront the agenda and purpose of the session.

Two or three days upfront, email the agenda of the session mentioning the working phases, deliverable, tools, and all things the group needs to prepare beforehand. Remind them what you expect to achieve together. Could be as simple as:

Our aim for this session is to share the same vision of what we’re here for and to agree on the approach and tools we’ll use to get to the action plan. Please gather in the shared drive (link to it) all the material you think is relevant. I’ll go through this material before we meet.

4. Don’t use Doodle (or equivalent) to schedule.

Having everyone playing around with time-slots, waiting for everyone to fill in and finding the right match is pure nightmare. Don’t spend your time on this, it is more valuable on other tasks (as you’ll see below).

Either impose a time slot (as long as it is planed way ahead, people can find room in their agenda) or make a list of available slots in your schedule and ask people to subscribe to them. Tools such as Calendly can help (which I use for one-to-one meetings).

5. Triple check that everyone knows when, where and how to meet.

Every organization has different remote tools (Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc.) Once the time-slot is set, make sure you send an invite to participants with the right connection link, check their replies.

Remind the when-where-how to meet from one session to the other. It is indeed frustrating to start a remote meeting late because of this, and even more frustrating to be late just because you don’t know where and when to meet.

In the chapter of “how” to work together, don’t stress people with fancy new tools unless you are absolutely sure they already use them. I made that mistake twice pushing Miro (a nonetheless super great tool) to the group, too soon and with no prep upfront. Don’t do that :) When one person has trouble using it, all the group feels rightly stressed out.

6. Share more ahead.

Don’t rely solely on the time you have together. Attention spans are way shorter when you work remotely so you will have to share more materials in between sessions and you’ll probably have to give ‘homework’ to the team to make real progress.

Yet, don’t overwhelm the team with too much resources to read upfront. Prefer short videos: people can “listen to” videos while cooking for instance, but cannot read while cooking. And yes, unfortunately, we all multi-task more.

When asking the group to prepare or deliver something for the upcoming session, ease the work by giving them simple guided templates. Pre-fill your template with sample answers, to set the tone and level of precision you expect. Make sure you are available for questions.

During the coaching session

7. Have a quick mood check.

Although there are plenty of them, you don’t have to use fancy tools / cards / games / icebreakers to do this. A 2-minute chat with everyone can tell you a lot about the team mood and the individual moods. At least ask for the level of energy, in the chat for instance... (0 being “I’m totally worn out” to 5 “I feel really great”). Animated gifs work great for that as well.

8. Create rituals / habits.

Mood check is one. Having your session on the same day (every Tuesday afternoon) is another. Playing a song while waiting for everyone to check in is another one of my favorite, it’s fun and fuels the first conversations. When working remotely, rituals are even more important to reduce mental load. The less you have to think about the how, the more you can focus on the what.

9. Make sure the workshop guidelines and the process are crystal clear.

The process is how you designed the workshop (the steps participants will go through). The guidelines are the instructions to follow the path and the rules we are going to live by.

Make sure the process is crystal clear: explain upfront how you designed the session and why. Give / display the timing (once), so that everyone moves along more or less the same pace. Make “pitstops” : short breaks to make sure people can ask questions if they need to. Or have a glass of water.

Announce loud and clear when you are moving to the next step of the process. “Ok we just finished step 1 (remind step 1), time to move on to step 2 (describe step 2)”. Yes it takes time to do that every time but in the end you’ll gain commitment, clarity and focus. It’s important that people know when to close a mental door.

Make sure the guidelines are crystal clear: when working remotely, people are less concentrated and more tired. They have kids running around, a lame Internet connection, a delivery guy at the door, etc. Repeat the guidelines in various ways, and if possible, ask someone in the group to restate them.

Generally speaking, have an unequivocal, harsh and straight-to-the point language : explain who will be doing what. “We are going to work in 3 phases of 20 minutes”“I’ll be taking notes and keeping time”“We’ll gather our ideas in ten minutes”“Andrea proposed herself to pitch the deck, let’s now listen to her”“Who can pass on the slides to Sophie who’s not here today?”. Simple, clear (and a bit directive) language.

10. Forget about true spontaneity.

If you planned on spontaneity to achieve a task (a creative brainstorming for instance), you’d better move on to something else.

With remote you’ll lack everything that usually drives real spontaneity : direct interactions, body language and timing. In a virtual meeting, people are behind a screen and that split-second when you mind goes through all sorts of questions such as Can I interrupt to jump in? Do people hear me? Is there anyone else who want to talk right now? Is my mike open? Did someone already ask the same question in the chat? is enough to put all spontaneity down.

Of course you can drive some sort of impulse with dedicated tools (mainly imagery) but know that it’s “not the same” :)

11. Use the 2 microphones rule.

Allow only 2 microphones on at the same time. If a third person wants to speaks one of the two firsts needs to switch off. It’s a little messy the first time you try it but in the end it is as efficient as a talking-stick. And it saves bandwidth.

12. Always show the way.

If you ask people to do something, do it first, show the way. Especially if you want to use icebreakers. Icebreakers are often intimidating and for the first person to go, it’s not easy to figure out where to put the cursor between fun and seriousness. So go first, set the tone and name the next person to go. People will jump right after you more easily.

That’s the same for other types of exercises: if you ask people to present something shortly, go present something shortly so that they see what level of details you expect. Same rule for chat use.

13. Have some stand-up sessions.

Depending on the time of the day, you can propose to have a stand-up meeting. When working remotely we tend to sit way more than usual and our brain gets lazy when seated. Having a stand-up session feels weird at first but you’ll notice the difference.

14. Note *everything* down.

(Or record if you can) Live coaching is hard, remote coaching is exhausting and there is a good chance you won’t remember everything that happened / was said. Taking thorough notes will tremendously improve your context switching and thus your coaching focus.

15. Make progress observable, not measurable.

I’m not a big fan of measurable goals, KPIs or even OKR. They are narrowing our perception of a complex reality to simplistic indicators and prevent us from paying attention to details or interesting side tracks.

Everything that can be measured is not necessarily important. And most important things cannot be measured easily. And let’s face it, we are very bad at dealing with data, correlation, causality, biases, etc.

Plus, living by one or two KPI makes you miss the whole context. Don’t fall under the Law of Instrument with data and KPIs, reality is more complex than a bunch of indicators. Plus, to figure out your way in complex environments, you’d need way too many data you don’t have anyway.

So lead the team towards observable actions. Not measurable actions. Ask them *what* they want to observe as a result of their actions.

Important things in life such as happiness, joy, commitment, expertise, even rebellion, are easily observable but not measurable. Observables are proof. KPIs usually stay as intentions.

16. Show twice as much appreciation.

Remember that as living creatures, we usually evaluate interactions mainly through our non verbal attitude. Working remotely, we are deprived of this superpower and we can’t show appreciation through this body language (eye contact, smile, etc.).

Remote group work is hard, so show a lot of unequivocal appreciation for the group’s work. For instance “I’m very happy we met our target today, it was not easy and we did great.” or “Thank you all, I learned a lot today and had much pleasure listening to your ideas and guiding you through the process.” Take time to thank everyone, even if it’s just one sentence. “I really appreciate the time we spent here, thank you for your energy / humor / focus / time.”

Of course, mean it.

17. Invite for real feedback and questions.

Preferably asynchronously. Don’t wait for the last 5 minutes to get feedback: as you will probably be late on your schedule (at least the first 3 sessions), people will be tired and not in the mood to give you proper feedback, even more so if they feel in a hurry.

Here are ideas on what you can do :

  • ask feedback by email
  • or with a simple form
  • or with a ROTI
  • or at the beginning of the following session “what’s your feedback / feeling about what we did last time?”
  • or open an 24/7 idea box (include the link in every agenda invitation)

18. Have conversations, not slides.

Draw. Talk. Sing. Use photos. Gifs. Nothing. Whatever. But not slides.

19. Make a wrap up.

It’s as simple as

This is what we were here to do. This is what we did / produce. This has been clarified. This still needs work. Here are the next steps.

20. Finish 5 minutes early.

During lock-down most of my days were packed with 5 or 6 virtual meetings. I double appreciated the ones that finished 5 mns early. Do as well for your sessions.

After the session

21. Surprise and gift

While sending the minutes of the session (usually by email) — or the next invite — include something surprising or fun or useful in your email as a PS. I do this almost all the time and it’s another way to bond with people (through humor often) and to show genuine care. Of course, pick something that is relevant to their situation.

People will remember more easily the session with what you sent (I get this kind of message afterwards: “I’ve worked on the topic auto-organization… you know, when you sent the Trello link / TED video / fun template you sent”)

22. Be available for one-to-ones.

Even if you were asked to coach a team, make sure everyone feels secure to reach out to you for one-to-one conversations. You want to enforce psychological safety in your team and that’s one way to do it. You’ll get a lot from these.

Now your turn :)

As you can see there is a lot to think about to help a team work remotely. And surprisingly, it doesn’t require much fancy tools to do great work. The best thing you can give is your plain attention and dedication, sharp focus, and authentic care. And, bonus! All this applies to IRL workshops as well :)

I hope these tips can help you get started. It’s a fabulous experience, so diverse and incredibly fulfilling. One that makes you feel useful and human.

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