Operation Keyhole — How to lead remote teams.

March 27, 2020
11 min read
“May you live in interesting times”
— Sir Austen Chamberlain¹

The coronavirus outbreak sweeping the world has led to massive disruption in business. Employees worry, travel is cut, planes empty and markets tank. Leadership, in volatile, uncertain times, is essential. Business continuity is vital.

Health experts recommend social distancing and discourage large gatherings. All sensible steps. Socially responsible businesses are allowing or encouraging employees to work from home.

As this shift happens, and employees work remotely, how do leaders cope?

Are we ready for remote work?

There are many benefits to remote work. It’s attractive to job seekers. If faced with two comparable offers, 80% would turn down the one that didn’t offer flexible working.²

Ditching the commute through remote work has a massive environmental impact. 26% of US greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. 76% of Americans commute to work in a private car. Those commutes are long, 26 minutes on average. If you live in PA, the NY Metro areas, or Washington D.C. that time almost doubles.³

Remote workers are happier, more engaged, feel more trusted, less stressed and are less likely to leave.⁴

Whether we love it or hate it, the technology is here to support remote and virtual work. Laptops have had webcams for over twenty years. Google released the first big collaborative office suite — Google Docs, Sheets and Slides — in 2006. Zoom came to market in 2011. Slack in 2013. Microsoft followed with their first collaborative features in Office 2016.

The numbers are gradually shifting toward remote work. Gallup found that remote working rose to 43% in 2016. With 13% of the working population remote working most of the time (80%-100%).⁵

Still, less than 9% of the working population works remotely all the time.Old habits die hard. There’s a stigma to remote work.⁶ “Working from home is shirking from home.” This is part of a backlash. Marissa Mayer infamously banned remote work in the final days of her failed Yahoo! turnaround. IBM, Bank of New York Mellon Corp, Aetna and others have followed suit.⁷

A blip or new normal?

Ready or not, as of March 15, 2016, remote work is here.⁸ Microsoft, Google and Slack have all reported spikes in the use of their collaborative software.⁹ In a forced social experiment, virtual teams are here.

Only time will tell whether this is a blip or a new normal. Regardless, we have to figure it out.

OK, so how do I do this?

I recently spoke with one executive who had a major pitch meeting. Ironically, he works in the health insurance industry. This was a global pitch, with up to 50 people in the meeting. More than half were to fly into the Dallas HQ. The rest were to join by video and teleconference. Due to the pandemic and shutdown of unnecessary travel, the meeting changed to a virtual one. Everyone dialed in or joined by video-conference. What surprised this executive was how effective the call was. “Usually, the meeting would break down with people in the room talking over each other. This time, people took their turn, we got to hear from everyone around the world. That hasn’t happened before.”

It’s surprising how surprised he was. But then again, for most of us, our pre COVID-19 version of a teleconference was different. A main, first class, group in a conference room, and a second class of citizens that dial in.

Work can be remote. Leadership cannot be.

This is the most challenging business environment since 9/11. Leadership must be physically distant, but can’t be remote. Chris Fussell, President of the McChrystal Group, and author of One Mission, said, “Leaders having to stare into screens for 6-7 hours a day is the new norm.” How do you lead a virtual team?

Working remotely or remotely working?

Let’s face it, there’s a stigma to remote work. We're used to face-to-face. It's the full fidelity, high definition experience. Remote is its poorer, put-upon cousin. Where leading teams can feel like we’re left staring and shouting through a narrow keyhole.

For now, we’ll focus on two important little words for leaders. Words which become vital when leading virtual teams. Touch, and Task.


Touch is the social glue that creates collaboration. It’s what gives us a sense of community at work. It creates shared purpose, and builds relationships.

In a face-to-face world, Touch is easy. It happens when people drop into your office, or chat in the break-room. It’s the small talk about the weather, or the kids, that happens when we’re waiting for the meeting to start. It’s the common interest around a Sports team or the rabid fandom of a Netflix show.

Touch is also the recognition of a job well-done. It’s the nod of appreciation for a productivity tip on how to sort through piles of email. It's the background 'why' conversation about a project shutting down.

For the acute introverts among us, Touch is too easy to dismiss.  Touch is a nice to have, non-essential. We’re not at work to talk about football or baking cakes. Not true.

Take lunch. Researchers at Cornell believe that, “eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together. That intimacy spills back into work.”¹⁰ Their research into firefighter platoons who ate together found better group job performance than firefighters who dined alone.

Touch also increases psychological safety in teams. Psychological safety can be measured by the climate of trust and mutual respect on the team.¹¹ Increased psychological safety allows teams to learn, be more innovative and creative.

Increasing touch.

When everyone on your team is working from home, how do you ramp up touch?

Physical distancing doesn’t mean social distancing. This is a direct quote from Fassforward’s CEO, Rose Fass. In the context of leadership and coronavirus, physical distance is the key. Being socially distant and disconnected is not.

Make new norms. Your team has unwritten rules about how they work together and collaborate. They may not be shared, they may not be discussed, they may not even be conscious, but they’re there. They may be “keep off the grass” rules, about what you do and don’t discuss. They may be “swimlane” rules about how you collaborate. One of the most important things you can do is make room for these conversations and establish new rules that foster communication and collaboration.

Make time for chit-chat. People that aren’t used to remote work will feel more isolated. Make time, either at the beginning of meetings, or on one-on-one calls, for, “how are you doing, what are you up to?” conversations. Don’t make them exclusively about the work. People need a sense of belonging. With remote work, the trap to avoid is “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”

Have patience with technology, but work it. Team members new to remote working may not be familiar with the technology you are using, whether it’s video-conferencing or others. Take the time to step people through the little tips that help them. Here’s how to share a document, here’s how to adjust your video.

Use Video if you have it. We use Google Hangouts, and have for several years. I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon.¹² Workers in the office, and workers new to video tend to block their cameras. Video widens the keyhole. It lets you see the eyerolls. Colleagues can see, just as if you’re in the room, if you are focused or multi-tasking.

Use chat to check-in. Upping the level of Touch can be as disruptive as desired. Group chats and IM’s are very useful here. Pinging, “have you got a min?” is less distracting than a phone call, or calendering a meeting. Use group chats to share interesting/ useful information that isn’t time-sensitive. We run one lamely called, “Stuff about Design” where graphic designers, curriculum developers and others share snippets from their wanderings of the world wide web.

Create working pairs and small groups. While the smart kids at school may hate group projects, they’re more essential than ever. As work is parcelled out, and as you check in, make sure that work isn’t silo’d. Have people collaborate on chunks of work, a specific problem, or task. This is a way of forcing the community that tends to evaporate with remote work.

Equal air-time. Something that happens in all meetings, whether face-to-face or virtual is a disproportionate amount of speaking time for a chosen few. Behavioral scientists have uncovered that higher performing teams have, “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.”¹³ In other words, everyone gets roughly equal air-time.


Task is the work. It’s why we’re there in the first place. These are the initiatives and projects that move the business forward. The product builds and sales calls. The sticky problems that take our know-how and expertise.

Task is the efficiency and effectiveness of getting things done. It’s the structure and process of the work, and the structure around work. It’s knowing what to work on, what you’re responsible for, and continually improving the work.

In a study¹⁴ at Stanford University, Economist Nicholas Bloom found remote work drove a 23% increase in productivity. In a controlled experiment at Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency, Bloom and his colleagues tracked the impact of remote work. The experiment lasted for 9 months. Employees were split into two random groups. The work-from-home group, and the in-office group. The results astounded the researchers. They found a 13% improvement in performance — almost one day a week in productivity. Quit rates dropped by 50%. Which meant time spent recruiting and training dropped by 50%, and Ctrip had a knock-on impact in profit.

The program was so successful that Ctrip rolled it out company wide. When they gave people the choice of working from home — acknowledging that not all want to do that, they found productivity increased even further.  Bloom believes that “Working from home has as much potential as the driverless car.”

Some work can’t be remote. It has to be face-to-face, or shoulder to shoulder. Jobs that keep vital infrastructure going, like healthcare work or running a Network Operations Center. But the productivity advantages if you can crack the code are tremendous. People work a full shift. You can’t be late because the traffic was bad. There is no long lunch break. It’s far easier (for most) to concentrate at home.

Increasing Task.

How do leaders of virtual teams create the right conditions for productivity? How do we get clearer on Task?

Clear direction is everything. Because everyone is working remotely, everyone on your team is more autonomous. There are fewer rules and norms, there are more distractions and diversions. It’s more important than ever to clarify direction for the team. Where are you going and why? What’s more important than what? What’s the focus for today, this week, this month? It’s your job as a leader to line everyone up and make sure they’re pointing in the right direction.

Work towards outcomes, not just tasks. Part of setting that direction is making sure everyone is clear on the outcome you’re shooting for. What good looks like, and when it needs to happen. The focus now is less on how things get done, but that it gets done. This gets much harder when you don’t have line of sight. If you have any micro-management tendencies, here’s where they will be revealed. Make sure that outcome is clear, visible and attainable for your team. Then repeat.

Focus the meeting around the work, not the work around the meeting. You want team cohesion, but the answer is not more meetings — even if they are video-conferences. Ideally, your meetings have a definitive and clear purpose. Declare what type of meeting that is — a check-in or an update about the project? A joint review of a work product? A client prep call? You don’t want another meeting that could have been an email.

Structure the day. Remote work is less interruptive than office work, which means individuals can get on a roll and get stuff done.  Multi-tasking is the killer here. So is putting off the difficult stuff. Make sure people on your team can structure their day, and focus their day. Work on one thing at a time.  If you set times for meetings, stick to them. If you want to interrupt people, chat with them to see if they can be interrupted first. For you and the team, take on the difficult stuff first. We all have a limited amount of willpower. It’s easier to take on the stuff we would like to avoid in the morning, than procrastinate it to the end of the week.

Batch work, use todo lists, and sprints. Some of this is individual, but some of this can be shared through the team. Batching work for example. If you are answering emails, do it at set times during the day. If you are setting meetings, arrange them back-to-back. That gives you uninterrupted time to get work done. Similarly with to do lists. Collaborative software makes it easy to set up and share todo lists. And just as easy to keep track of them and knock them off the list. Sprints work when everyone from the team is working on something together at the same time. You have a Sprint to complete a particular project this week. All of you working together on discrete tasks in that project make the work go quicker, and moves the end in sight for the entire team.

Make time for how to’s and teaching moments. Good leaders are great teachers. This doesn’t go away once the work goes remote. It just gets harder. In the office, you could lead by example. That’s a little harder when people can’t see you. Make time for how to sessions. You don’t need to lead them. Ask someone on the team who is an Excel whiz to to show how they do it. If someone had a great client win, don’t just praise them, have them walk others through how the day was won. The same applies to failures. Use group retrospectives to make sure you fix a process or solve a problem.

Communicate more clearly. When we’re writing emails, slacking or pinging each other with texts, we’re missing all the micro-expressions and cues that show we have the best of intentions, or we’re only kidding. This makes communication more difficult, and more important than ever. Go out of your way to communicate more clearly. If it’s a difficult or nuanced conversation, do it face-to-face. If you can’t do that, do it over video. If you can’t do that, pick up the phone.

Amp up the feedback. Don’t fall into the “out of sight, out of mind”trap. Let people know you got their email. Let them know you appreciate their work on this project. Communicate why you’re doing something, or want something, not just what. Tell the person you’re speaking to that you appreciate their response. A little pleasantry upfront¹⁵ or emoji of emotion goes a long way. 😉

Eliminate distractions. This one’s a double-edged sword. Everything you do — checking in on somebody, adding an extra meeting, sending another email or text — can be a distraction. You know what interruptions do to your work. Now think about how you are disrupting others. The other edge of that sword is that each of those interruptions might be part of Touch or Task. The best advice here is to have people manage their own time as much as possible. If you’ve structured the day, you’re balancing coordination, communication, and collaboration. This is one of those new norms around work that you have to figure out with your team.

It’s about balance.

The world has changed. You have to change with it. General Stanley McChrystal said, “A lot of the direction we give, a lot of the guidance that people take, a lot of the wisdom that you learn of how to do your job, comes from interacting with other people, very informally. And a lot of the confidence you get to do your job, often comes from that interaction and the feedback from your bosses or your peers or your subordinates.

All of that human factor has got to be replicated virtually, and it just doesn’t come naturally.”¹⁶

There is no silver bullet for balancing Touch and Task. Every individual is different, and every situation is different. How you deliver Touch and Task to each member of your team is different. Your responsibility as a leader is to find that balance, for you and your team. McChrystal calls it ‘Digital Leadership’.

The time for Digital, or to use today’s phrase, Virtual Leadership is here and it’s now. Our teams need for it.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Peter Watts is a Senior Instructional Designer and Facilitator. He works on both fassforward's Live, Live/online and tailored programs. Peter is fassforward's lead instructional designer for Live/online experiences which deliver mission-critical leadership and communications training, globally, at scale.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

Frank Mazza is a Principal Consultant, Executive Coach, and Lead Facilitator at fassforward. He works as a coach one on one, and a facilitator with intact teams, and large organizations across a wide range of fassforward's live and online programs. Known for his ability to present familiar concepts in such a manner as to give "life" to the content and spark renewed and sustained interest.

¹ Many cite this as an ancient Chinese curse. Interestingly, they are wrong. The first known use of the phrase has been attributed to British Diplomat Sir Austen Chamberlain. He used it in reference to Germany’s violation of the treaty of Locarno in 1936. O'Toole, Garson. “May You Live In Interesting Times.” Quote Investigator, 4 July 2019.
² “Global Research Reveals Flexible Working Matters to Employees.” IWG Global Workspace Survey - Flexible Working - IWG Plc.
³ US Census Bureau. “American Community Survey (ACS)” The United States Census Bureau, 27 Feb. 2020.
⁴ “2019 State of Remote Work Report.” Owl Labs, 2019.
⁵ Gallup, Inc. "America's Coming Workplace: Home Alone". Gallup.Com, 2020
⁶ Bernard, Tara Siegel. “The Unspoken Stigma of Workplace Flexibility.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 June 2013.
⁷ Wilkie, Dana. “Why Are Companies Ending Remote Work?” SHRM, SHRM, 16 Aug. 2019.
⁸ 15, March 2016 is the date the CDC recommended against gatherings of 50 or more.
⁹ Molla, Rani. “Microsoft, Google, and Zoom Are Trying to Keep up with Demand for Their Now Free Work-from-Home Software.” Vox, Vox, 11 Mar. 2020.
¹⁰ Kniffin, Kevin M., et al. "Eating together at the firehouse: how workplace commensality relates to the performance of firefighters." Human Performance 28.4 (2015): 281-306.
¹¹ Edmondson, Amy. “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.” Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, June 1999, pp. 350–383, doi:10.2307/2666999.
¹² This isn’t scientifically verified, it’s a hunch.
¹³ Woolley, Anita Williams, et al. "Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups." science 330.6004 (2010): 686-688.
¹⁴ Bloom, Nicholas, et al. "Does working from home work? Evidence from a Chinese experiment." The Quarterly Journal of Economics 130.1 (2015): 165-218.
¹⁵ The punch-line in our office is, “insert pleasantries here.” The joke that goes with that is my inability to write an email and think of something nice or pleasant to say at the beginning of the email. This used to be my (Gavin’s) achilles heel.
¹⁶ Maddow, Rachel, and Stanley McChrystal. “Business Response to Coronavirus Transforms American Work Habits.” MSNBC, NBCUniversal News Group, 17 Mar. 2020.

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