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Conference Calls and Cartoons: Leading a New Team Remotely

Featured image by by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Have you ever led a team remotely that you’ve never met in person?

That has been the reality for many people starting a new job during the pandemic, and I was one of them. I joined SERVPRO as the chief marketing officer in March, just as the pandemic was shutting the country down. The role has been completely remote until just recently. I was working from home in Dallas while the team was based in Nashville. My family and I made the move to Tennessee just a couple of months ago.

Starting a new job is hardly ever easy. But starting one remotely without ever meeting colleagues or employees in person has certainly been a new challenge. Further complicating things, I started this new opportunity while our four young children had to suddenly adjust to e-learning. This was a big change in all of our daily activity schedules as well as life as we knew it. As much as I love being with my kids more regularly, there wasn’t anything remotely “normal” about our new circumstances.


However, we weren’t the only ones. Moreover, as it turns out, I am a huge supporter of remote work. I believe people can be productive even when they’re not in the office—if you know how to make things work.

Clearly Define Expectations When Working Remotely

Setting communication expectations is crucial to integrating work life and home life. The various online meeting apps and programs are all great ways to talk to your team. However, they can also mean that your team has access to you around the clock. This isn’t necessarily good for you or your family.

This is a lesson I learned the hard way. When school was in session, I had four young children who were trying to learn remotely. Some had actual mathematics and science lessons and one was doing preschool online. I’ve taken more than one conference call in my garage, from my kids’ bedrooms, or from my car. And let me tell you, leading a meeting remotely when you’re squashed in your car staring at an old tricycle is not necessarily ideal.

Jill Felksa, Director of People and Culture of Limelight Health, discusses drawing boundaries beautifully. In a recent article for The Balance, Felska said, “Talk about what type of communications you’re using, and what the expectations are. Outside of meetings, managers should define how long it is before they expect a response. They should set parameters and over-communicate.”

Try to remember that your team members may have children, pets, or other loved ones they have to tend to. Felska recommends: “Speak to the concerns that your team members are having that they may not be bringing to you. ‘What happens if I’m away from my desk for an hour?’ ‘What if my kids are in a fight and I have to figure out the LEGO situation?’”

Prepare for a Different Onboarding Process

The first few weeks of a new job constitute a fact-finding mission, especially if you’re joining as part of the leadership team. It’s your job to figure out how managers, teammates, and stakeholders communicate with one another.

Normally, this would involve a lot of face-to-face time, but I had to improvise. When I started my new role in March, I began working with a whole team of people I’d never met. I’m only now having the opportunity to meet them in person since we’ve physically relocated.

You’ve got to work harder to forge relationships in this new digital world. It’s all about strategy, and if you’re looking for suggestions, workplace expert Lisa Roepe is the best place to start. In an article she recently penned for The Muse, Roepe recommends trying the following:

Remind People Who You Are

Introductions don’t happen just once, and when you’re working remotely, don’t be afraid to remind people who you are. You might need to reintroduce yourself when you have conference calls and video meetings. I think most of the team had my name and job title down by June, but not a second before!

Stay Neutral to Start

You’re starting with a brand new team. You have no idea how they communicate, whether they use jargon, and most importantly, how sensitive or insensitive they are when providing and receiving feedback. When you’re working remotely, it’s crucial to double and triple-check your emails for tone and content to make sure they’re completely neutral.

Reach Out to Your Team Members

As a manager, it’s on you to reach out to your employees when you’re working remotely. Ask each of your employees to join you in a phone call or video meeting so you can get to know each other better.

A word of caution, though: Let them know the meeting is informal. Don’t let your employees think this is an impromptu performance review!

Create a Modified Schedule for Working Remotely

The reality of being at home more often is that my responsibilities at home have changed. I have more household responsibilities than ever before because we are all home, all day long, every day.

The only exceptions to that have been the miscellaneous activities our children have been fortunate to enjoy throughout the pandemic. These include the occasional sports practice, music lessons, and the like. But when you multiply those activities by four and account for rides to and from, it requires some creative planning for both my wife and me.


We have made a concerted effort to try to outline and abide by our daily schedule each morning, with the acknowledgement and reality that things can and will change on a whim. And we make do. And we don’t raise our expectations too high that everything will run smoothly every day.

Some days seem like a breeze when we are able to accommodate the schedules of each kid, ensure everyone has mostly healthy meals, and keep the bickering to a minimum. Other days involve all four of my children walking in on a video conference call, occasional meltdowns, and peanut butter sandwiches for dinner.


There Was Something Special About Leading This Remote Team

I will say that I have been incredibly fortunate with regard to my onboarding. Despite the unique and difficult circumstances, I was joining a company and team dedicated to serving others during times of crisis, and this pandemic was one of those times.

I won’t pretend that the past seven months of working remotely have been easy. There have been plenty of challenges and adjustments. However, I’ve been so pleased by how my family and my team (and I) have adapted to this situation.

While it isn’t necessarily a situation or process I would wish on others, I felt I truly bonded with my new colleagues—even though we were working remotely—because we came together within weeks after I joined the company. During that time, we developed a new line of service for our customers to help combat COVID-19.

Being a part of something so important for both our customers and our country at large was incredibly rewarding and motivating. Furthermore, we made it happen from whatever remote workspaces we all were in.

This is just one example of the good things that can happen no matter where you are working when you put your minds and hearts behind it. The future of remote work is bright.

About the Author

Michael Z. Stahl is the chief marketing officer of SERVPRO, a leader in providing of fire and water cleanup and restoration services as well as mold mitigation and remediation. A Kansas City native, he lives in the Nashville area with his wife and four children.