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Tips For Leading A Distributed Workforce

Friends, colleagues and partners: Welcome to the first of many blogs the RaceRocks team will be posting as we navigate self isolation, distributed work forces, distributed leadership, and coronavirus in the coming months. Our aim is to remain connected with you through social media and online collaboration tools, so that we as a community might collaboratively imagineer what comes after COVID-19. As RaceRocks Chief Vision Officer I listen to our team, partners and community to try and set the course the company can steer into the future. March has provided some rough weather, but as the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano observed, a time of struggle is always also a time of opportunity.

No more business as usual: As a technology leader RaceRocks has been work-from-home enabled for several years. However, we still conducted much of our core business in the office and were actively looking for a bigger office space to grow our team. On March 12th, following the advice of experts and policy makers, our leadership sent our team home for self isolation, and just two weeks later, as the entire landscape has evolved, we find ourselves an entirely distributed workforce. We know that we are not alone. In the same way that an entire generation shifted after the great depression or post world world wars, I believe this crisis will have far-reaching effects on not only how the world works, but also on what ‘business as usual’ looks like.

Tough times foster Innovation: As Anita Pawluk, our president, and I walked through our empty office that was bursting at the seams just a week earlier, Anita stopped and looked around. ‘If our office was just two big board rooms, a few breakout rooms, and a bank of hot seats, we could scale the company with a distributed workforce!” Just like that, Real Estate, rent and location are no longer a variable in our growth. The transition had been so smooth, and the quality of work and indeed collaboration so steady that there is no question we’ll keep this up after the crisis. Companies born or strengthened in recession or depression, often go on to lead their industries once the crisis subsides: they create and innovate, learn and then thrive.

A strong post Covid economy: If there was ever a time to show us the need to collaborate across companies, sectors and societies it is now. How might we all rise and step into our best leadership in the wake of the coronavirus with healthy teams, and healthy companies, ready to rebuild a strong Canadian economy? RaceRocks is in a good position to innovate and adapt. As a privately held technology company we only answer to our vision, mission, and values – watch for Anita’s blog on this – and are driven by leadership to be flexible and agile. Below are our team’s latest lessons, experiences, pain points, anecdotes, and top tips to share with you in the spirit of the kinds of collaboration this moment calls for:

Tip 1: Implement structures and systems that make it easy for you to collaborate with your clients. It is all well and good to work effectively internally, but you need to have the ability to share the work, get timely feedback and have clear lines of communication with remote clients.  –Dan Bourdage, Chief Operating Officer

Tip 2: Promote open communication with team members by reaching out more than usual, so they will feel supported and as a result hopefully less stressed…and if not less stressed, at least not alone and stressed.  – Christina Jones, Lead Product Owner

Tip 3: Encourage asynchronous communication – discourage things like @team/@here in Slack or other forms of communication that demand or expect immediate/synchronous responses. Feeling an expectation to respond to any and all virtual communication is just as disruptive as in person context switching and disruptions. – Jerrett Taylor, Chief Technical Officer

Tip 4: Use code reviews not only to check for problems, but to share knowledge. Previously I could chat with other developers at the coffee machine about details of what they are working on. Now we rely more on code reviews and improved documentation, which also has the benefit of being more inclusive because it is open for everyone to review.  -Dave Rusk, Lead Software Developer

Tip 5: Encourage flexible working times and focus on results – encourage people to work when they are productive and focused and have a good work/life balance, rather than imposing arbitrary working hours. “Not everyone gets their best work done at the same times – Remote working provides a unique opportunity to allow people to optimize their days. Trusting people to manage their own time and focus on their results not only leads to happier and more healthy people, but also results in more productive people doing their best work.” – Jerrett Taylor, Chief Technical Officer

Tip 6: Working from home has now become the new norm for RaceRockers but that doesn’t mean that physical isolation should deter you from staying engaged and happy. Regularly checking-in with your teammates and exchanging small talks can go a long way in terms of feeling included and being a part of a team. Don’t forget to do the simple things that you used to do at the office, such as greeting others, expressing gratitude to your teammates, and sharing a good laugh! – Yuki Izawa, Head of Human Resources 

Tip 7: Ensure you have a clear understanding of expectations, or if managing a team ensure you clearly set expectations. Failure to do this typically results in people feeling a lot of pressure around performance and output since the false sense of security of simply “being at work” is gone. – Jerrett Taylor, Chief Technical Officer

Tip 8: As a member of our team who works remote full-time, communication is key and thankfully I have a team that understands each role and its importance to the success of our company. Yet one of the most important takeaways I have found working remotely is knowing when to sign off. In a world so focused on technology, we’re constantly being messaged, pinged and emailed – and while having any person available 24/7 seems like a gift from the gods, it’s not productive and YOU time is just as valuable to the business as being “online”.  – Craig White, Lead Project Manager

Tip 9: Working from home with family present, I am discovering that being open (and having a team that is open!) to an irregular schedule, while maintaining regular check-ins, has been key to balancing work and home responsibilities. A perk is that changing hats every hour or two through the day keeps things interesting while giving you enough time to sink your teeth into and appreciate whatever you’re doing.Sarah Drake, Product Owner

Distributed Leadership: Optimally a distributed workforce enables something truly innovative and powerful: distributed leadership, a practice RaceRocks has truly embodied under Anita’s leadership. A company or organization is strongest when diverse and empowered experts are given the freedom to act, lead and decide for the good of the company, its products and its partners, as well as have a voice at the table for larger decisions. This flattening of the traditional hierarchical structure fosters some truly amazing partnerships, innovation, and products. Can this work in a “defense and security” culture? Just ask Special Forces, where the team member closest to the action has ownership and leadership of the response. 

The world needs more distributed leadership, and we at RaceRocks have a truly unprecedented opportunity to boldly embrace this practice.   

RaceRocks is not the first company to be fully distributed. Many industries have been doing this for a long time, but we may be one example that shows a smooth transition within our industry: Canadian Aerospace and Defence. Having team members who are flexible and change ready as part of the culture goes a long way to making remote work a success. I’m proud to work alongside a team of visionaries in this inspiring company. 

Yuki Izawa

Executive Assistant Human Resources at RaceRocks.

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