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3 lessons learned leading a team from home

Entering new territory as a team leader

Near the beginning of 2020, I entered a lead role for the first time in my career. I became an engineering lead on a project with one engineer, that is, me.

Very soon after, one other engineer joined me, and it became a project with two engineers. Then in mid-March, PaperCut moved to a distributed way of working .

Not long after, I was joined by three more engineers, a new product lead, and two user experience experts. Recently another engineer was added. We have become a project team of nine people.

As an engineer, I was allowed to focus on a specific task that needed to be done. Becoming a lead, I faced a whole new set of challenges. These are challenges that I am still very much overcoming today, and I imagine I will continue to overcome them in the future.

The rundown is essentially I am now accountable for every technical facet of the project, and coordinating how work is executed within the team.

Becoming a leader is challenging (albeit rewarding). But leading a team remotely during a global pandemic? This notches up the difficulty. I make no claim to have figured it all out. But below are 3 lessons I’ve learned during this time, as well as some tips if you find yourself in a similar situation.

3 lessons learned while leading my team from home

1. Imposter syndrome has increased

I imagine that I would feel imposter syndrome (work-related self-doubt and inadequacy) despite being at home, due to being in a new role. But I think it is certainly amplified by being remote.

Being less connected with people, I believe it is harder to gauge people’s perceptions of you, and for them to feel comfortable giving you honest feedback. This “blind spot” makes me less aware of how I’m performing from the perspective of others.

So I am being more proactive about asking for feedback. We have a 360 review system in PaperCut, which can be initiated at any time when one would like to gain an understanding of how their performance is perceived by others.

I have kicked this off, and will hopefully gain more visibility on how I am performing.

2. It takes more effort to stay motivated

Whether you believe in the whole introvert/extravert thing or not, I am someone that gains energy by interacting with others. So after this social interaction was severely reduced by lockdown, I sometimes find my energy/motivation levels being very low.

So what are my productivity hacks to kickstart these levels again?

Well for one, I might schedule a video call with one of my colleagues. I like to think of these conversations as “by the coffee machine” chats that would happen in the office. These conversations are usually a refresher for me.

Another thing I do, if I’m feeling low energy, is immediately leave my apartment and go for a run/walk (3km over 20 minutes on average). This may seem counterintuitive, but I usually come back feeling energized and ready to rock again.

One last method to stay motivated is to reach out to all my team members and see if they need help. This usually brings back the responsibility that I have to the forefront of my mind which kicks me into action.

3. Getting distracted by less important issues

In the PaperCut office , conversations are always happening that remind you of what is most important. A lot of times, these conversations are unscheduled and happen dynamically.

Since moving to distributed working, there are naturally less of these organic conversations, and so prioritization requires more proactivity, rather than knowing the priorities via “tribal knowledge - that is, the unwritten knowledge that accumulates within a team over time.

One of my approaches to managing this is a three-pronged method.

First of all, I use Trello (one of our online work management tools) to note down anything that comes up during the day that I may need to assess later.

Secondly, at the end of each day, I triage all of the things that have come up and determine what items I need to be working on the next day.

Thirdly, right after this, I schedule what I will do during every hour of the next working day. So if I see an hour free between meetings, I will create a calendar invite describing what I will be working on during that hour. And if I only have half an hour available between meetings, I will schedule a small task that doesn’t require too much concentration.

Of course, there is some flexibility to this overall approach. Obviously, urgent things may come up that take up priority. The point is that I have a base schedule to work within. If I have just come out of three completely different back to back meetings, I don’t need to spend much time thinking “What should I be working on now?” I can simply refer to my calendar.

The reason why I do this scheduling at the end of each day is that there are usually fewer distractions. I’m able to take a step back and better judge what the priorities are, without being in the thick of it.

P.S. A nice side effect of this is that it gives you more control over your own time which you can use to focus.

Struggling with working remotely? You’re not alone

We are going through tough times right now, and more people are working remotely than ever.

If you’re facing imposter syndrome due to working remotely. If you’re struggling to stay motivated in the wake of a physically distanced world. If you’re losing track of your priorities. Just know that you’re not alone. I’m right there with you. But, hey, we’ve got this.

Let me know in the comments if you have any tips for overcoming the obstacles of remote working.


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