Leading a work from home team during the time of coronavirus (COVID-19)

Leading a work from home team during the time of coronavirus (COVID-19)

The world in which we work is rapidly changing. With the fast emergence of Coronavirus, our news feeds are littered with tech giant after tech giant suddenly going remote.  Until this point, if you were lucky, you got to work from home one day a week — or when you had an appointment or felt sick. And there was this other subset of people who got to work from home full-time, but this mysterious sub-culture was the subject of myth and lore.

For a lot of the world suddenly thrust into working from home all day, every day, questions arise like, “What do I do?” “How do I talk with my favorite cube-mate?” And, “How do I have my Tuesday brainstorm meeting?” Needless to say, it’s a confusing time. Like one short meltdown away from full-blown panic type of confusing time. For new employees suddenly working from home, we pulled together some tips that can make you more productive.

But what if you’re a manager, responsible for the bottom line, the strategic direction of your team. How do you lead your team from across a video chat window? And how do you do this while maintaining a high level of productivity, creativity, and even innovation? And then how do you make sure that your team is empowered, unified and happy at the same time?

At Swappa, we were built around the idea that there’s a better way. Good work can truly come from anywhere. And as such, our entire team is distributed remotely. Although we are based in Kansas City, MO and have a fulfillment center there, our staff is located throughout the United States, and we even have staff members working globally as well. And we’ve been fully remote since day 1, dating back to 2010. Our founder, Ben Edwards, has always believed that you don’t need to be sitting next to someone to collaborate or innovate. And while some people will surely be the “hunker down in sweatpants while I work in front of Netflix” type, most people are going to continue being high producers. Leaders don’t fear, this is what we’ve learned from over 10 years of managing high-functioning, high producing teams.

You need a communication strategy with your team

When you lead a team and you’re suddenly remote, it’s easy to wonder how do I know my team is doing what they say they are and how do we make sure everyone knows what they need to. First, remember, you hired this person, you trust them, otherwise what are they doing here? Second, there are no accidental meetings as you walk to the lunchroom anymore. Communication has to be strategic and planned, and as the boss, this just became part of your job description.

First, figure out how you’ll communicate

At Swappa, we always err on the side of video chats. You can read someone’s body language and facial expressions, and with enough practice, you’ll find you won’t have those awkward am I talking or are you moments as often as you think. And when you get into a routine of I’m going to be on camera, you behave differently. And even if you do wear sweatpants, it doesn’t matter. No one can see them.

Keep your video screen up unless you’re sharing a document or your screen (which is hugely helpful so everyone can see what you see in real-time), so you interact with someone just as you would in person. Just don’t have your camera on and eat lunch or work on other things. Your team will know, and you’ll lose the credibility of being a boss or co-worker who actively listens. Plus no one really wants to watch you chew.

Then figure out the agenda and how often to meet

We pair weekly high-level status meetings (what I’m working on and how it might pertain to you, roadblocks, etc) with frequent brainstorms and strategic meetings. We do this at a management level and at team levels. Your communication — written and verbal — become so important with your team. As a manager, clearly define priorities and weekly block and tackle lists, and ensure the whole team is taking responsibility for their share, but that you’re also being transparent about what the organization is working on too. It’s your job to be the facilitator of all these moving pieces.

Don’t forget to connect this to performance.

As a company, we proactively share how we’re performing as a team, but then individual team leads pull together reports to showcase progress. This is either automated in Data Studio or done with quick bullets in a Slack list, and often covers topics of revenue and traffic numbers (aligned with company goals of course), and levers of growth or decline. These performance check-ins are quick, easy to understand and allow for sub-conversations to happen based on what each of the teams saw. Of course, it helps that senior managers at Swappa are all familiar with Analytics and quote our stats on the regular. 

How this works with one of our teams at Swappa:

I do this weekly with the marketing team, having channel-specific meetings (e.g. SEO or Email Marketing) sprinkled throughout the week so each team member gets the level of engagement that helps them most. We leverage Google Docs (such as Content Briefs) to collaborate in real-time as well as Slack because who wants to video chat 24/7?

Most meetings are recurring and have a specific agenda, with an open time at the start for anyone to bring up whatever they might need at the start of the meeting. These team meetings start out with banter and chatter because it’s important to still have that time in a meeting to joke and build personal relationships. And who doesn’t want to know your team’s stance on Mukbang? The CEO sits in on these meetings and regularly contributes ideas, as well as showcases the product he’s working on. It’s a helpful connection point and can spur tangential conversations that often lead to follow-up ideas and projects. I also ensure the team knows I’m here to support them and can chat or call anytime.

For brainstorming or strategic meetings, there’s an agenda sent out prior and a recap after. This is done so the team can refer back to and schedule out how the work will get done, and what pieces are needed to accomplish this. With so many personality types, scheduling creativity can be hard. Giving the team the knowledge upfront about what you’re looking for or content themes allows those who brainstorm better on their own that necessary time to feel engaged and prepared. And the extroverts to also, leverage team time to bounce ideas off one another. As the leader, it’s up to you to frame these meetings up and keep people on task and on target. This may feel weird at first, so you’ll have to get your team talking by feeding questions, asking the quieter people their thoughts, or pre-emptively giving them some thought starters. In no time at all, you’ll find people are engaging from everywhere in one way or another.

You have to put in the extra time to make relationships work

While having quarterly meetings is a great time to get that in-person feel, for the short-term it looks like you can’t hop on a plane anymore because your city is sold out of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. So it’s really important to account for and be ok with inefficient time. Time where you just ask someone how they’re doing. Do they need anything from you? Chat about their weekend or whatever fuels them. If they like to catapult down a mountain-side on the weekend, find out how it was. It’s easy to let these casual conversations fall by the wayside because we’re on video now with our purposeful agenda. But leave time to just talk, joke, or send a few too many Giphys in your Slack channel. It’s time that allows you to be a human, not just a boss. And encourage your team to do the same, you’re setting the example for how they work. 

Pro tip: Do this same thing outside your team. Connecting with other department heads will make everything better. Trust us.

Feedback is even more important when you’re remote

Find time to give people feedback, whether it’s a quick Slack message, video chat, or email. Let them know you think their last deployment was really top-notch. Or that the deal they just signed was huge. Conversely, it’s harder to give constructive feedback via video, but it’s equally important. Just because you aren’t sitting next to your team, it doesn’t mean you are only a leader when the camera is on.

Pro tip: Be sure to recognize and reward people outside your team too. Whether it’s a public shout out or a simple thank you, this really matters when building a company culture when you’re remote. It sets the tone for new hires, and you can even point to it in the recruiting process.

Record meetings, really 

Our customer support team relies on this during their weekly all-hands meeting so people across different time zones can re-watch what they missed. It’s helpful to have these recordings to refer back to and keep distributed teams connected. We use dedicated Slack channels to chat about any follow-up questions, and different teams are often included in these meetings so they can know what’s happening with our customers from a broader perspective. Keep Slack channel purposes clear. And when a long 1:1 takes place that doesn’t benefit the whole channel or give context to the whole team, know when to move over to a direct message.

Be flexible

While there’s a certain level of trust, curiosity, and work ethic necessary to be an efficient work from home employee, there’s also a degree of flexibility you need to take with your team. Some people will work better in the morning, some will do their best work in the afternoon. Walking your dog mid-day or taking a Friday morning gym class is part of the wonderful experience of working from home. And in order to be successful at home, it’s been proven taking these brain breaks allow your team to be more creative, more productive, and collaborate more. Use status meetings, Slack, Gmail, or your project management tool of choice to ensure the work is being done — but give the team some latitude to figure out what works for them. 

Pro tip: For you as a manager, make sure you’re following your own example. Grab that afternoon coffee guilt-free because when you’re refreshed, so is your team.

You can’t over-communicate

Tools like Slack can make it cumbersome to search for items, so be sure if you want it to live permanently in the team’s mind, you’ll need to either follow up via email, concisely outlining what you want the team to do, or make sure that the take-home points are pinned in Slack. Just remember to have a nomenclature and hierarchy for where the team posts, downloads, and consumes information — and that it’s broken down and talked about as needed. Remember that meeting you had with one team member may not make its way into a channel, so it’s up to you to ensure everyone is on the same page. Hopefully, your team is helping the sharing cycle and keeps this moving along, but ultimately, it’s your responsibility to be the connector.


These are just a few of the things that make us a collaborative team, operating from our offices across the world. We all work differently, but finding this common ground has been core to who we are and keeping our brand ideals and culture alive and kicking. Find out what works for you. And if in doubt, ask the team. Ask your boss. Ask us, we’d be happy to share more. Find those people on Twitter that are working from home or research the companies that have been doing it for a long time (Basecamp, Gitlab, Zapier). Take what works and try it out.

You may not have willingly volunteered to go remote, but you can definitely make the most of it, while discovering some new workflows and SOPs that work for you and your team when you return to the office. Until then, enjoy the little things.