And all of a sudden, you’re leading a digital team.

For most leaders, that’s a massive change…a change no one prepared them for.

In our new era of border closures, social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine, pandemics and lockdowns, how do you lead a team you can’t see or talk to in person?

That’s a question thousands of leaders are asking themselves.

I’ve been leading a remote team now for over five years (we’re distributed across North America and all work from home), and I’ve been doing remote work of various kinds for twenty years.

Welcome to the digital future. It just got here a lot sooner than any of us thought, and it’s probably here for longer than any of us thought.

And please know, at the bottom of this email, I have a free download that shows you the top five tools we use as a team to work remotely.  So If you’re asking what apps and online platforms do you use?.. we have that available for you at the end.

This post is part of a series designed to help you lead through the current global crisis:

5 Ways The Current Crisis is Accelerating The Arrival of the Future Church

Crisis Leadership, Christian Leadership and the Corona Virus

How to Lead Through Rapid, Unexpected Change

8 Ways to Lead in the New Digital Default Church

8 Early Tips for Producing Digital Content During the Current Crisis

3 Simple Ways To Make Sure You Don’t Break In the Crisis

Why Motivation Alone Won’t Get Your People (or You) Through This Crisis

In the meantime, here are my top 7 rules for leading a digital team.

Employers, welcome to the digital future. It just got here a lot sooner than any of us thought, and it's probably here for longer than any of us thought. Click To Tweet

Rule 1: Default to Video

What you probably like most (and in some cases, least) about the office is people.

Emails, texts, Slack and phone calls aren’t quite the same.

The solution? Default to video meetings. We use Zoom (see the download at the end for more), but you can use anything from FaceTime to Skype to Google Meetings.

In a culture that just got rapidly lonelier, eyeball-to-eyeball contact is increasingly valuable.

Bottom line: when you see someone, you interact differently. You connect. You catch all the nuances of human communication.

People want to know you care about them. Few things communicate that as well as giving them your full, face-to-face attention.

In a culture that just got rapidly lonelier, eyeball-to-eyeball contact is increasingly valuable. Click To Tweet

Rule 2. Never handle conflict over email/written communication

So what happens when there is conflict…as there will be when humans work together.

How about we start here? Don’t try to solve it by email.

Nothing good happens when you’re angry and you’ve got a keyboard in your hand. Stop typing, start talking. Face to face. Human to human.

Here’s why that’s a good rule.

First, human communication involves subtleties lost in emails, texts, and other written communication.

Second, it’s way too easy to roll your eyes, mock or emotionally shut down on someone when you’re not actually talking to them.

As soon as the hint of conflict arises, set up a video meeting.

If you can’t do a video call for whatever reason, pick up the phone.

Usually, the problem is solved beautifully in minutes.

Or if it escalates, at least you know exactly what you’re dealing with.

Nothing good happens when you're angry and you've got a keyboard in your hand. Stop typing and start talking. Face to face. Human to human. Click To Tweet

Rule 3. Create a Workflow Triage System

Think about the office you used to work in…even when everyone was together, you still lived by email, app or text in today’s office.

That’s got a list of challenges in and of itself. The worst was probably all the taps on your office door or walk-ups to your desk with colleagues asking if they could have five minutes of your time, which was never five minutes.

The virtual office has its own version of that: 1000 random texts, emails, Slacks, phone calls and DMs a day.

Here’s ours:

  1. Most things: weekly one on ones (video call)
  2. Big things: weekly team meeting (video call)
  3. Important, can’t-wait-for-the-next-meeting communication: Slack
  4. Urgent questions: Text
  5. Important and complicated urgent questions: Phone call or quick video call
  6. Email: ONLY for interaction with outside clients (people not on your direct team)

Please note most offices REVERSE this, which is why you get nothing done.

It’s also why you hate your inbox and the reply-alls.  Everyone defaults to leadership by email. It’s a disaster for all involved.

Breakdown the system a little further.

Most questions that interrupt your workday are not urgent. So don’t treat them like they are.

Save all your questions on a list and bring it to your weekly meetings.

90% of everything you deal with on your team can be dealt with using the first three methods (meetings and Slack).

90% of the interruptions happen because people use the bottom three methods.

So just tell people to save their questions. When people save their questions for later, everyone saves time.

Most questions that interrupt your workday are not urgent. So don't treat them like they are. Save all your question on a list and bring it to your weekly meetings Click To Tweet

Train the people around you to save as many questions as humanly possible until your weekly meeting or bi-weekly meeting with them.

Three things will happen by the time your Thursday meeting rolls around:

The question or issue will have disappeared. What felt urgent on Tuesday was actually completely unimportant or got resolved by other means. Everybody wins.

Often, in a three-minute conversation during your weekly on a Thursday, you can resolve what might have taken 10 back-and-forth emails between Monday and Wednesday. Time and agony spared.

A third option is that the issue truly couldn’t wait, and so you dealt with it when it had to be dealt with. To deal with urgent and important matters on an urgent basis is actually fine. Usually, though that’s a tiny number of issues, so time saved anyway on all the pesky things that didn’t matter.

If you’ve got a relationship on your team that can’t wait a week, or there are just too many issues, then do a daily 5-15 minute check-in, either in person, by phone or video call. You’ll solve so much and it will cut your email traffic by a massive amount.

So much of what is urgent on Tuesday doesn’t matter at all by Thursday. So wait till Thursday. Everybody wins.

So much of what feels urgent on Tuesday doesn't matter at all by Thursday. So wait till Thursday. Click To Tweet

Rule 4: Silence your constantly buzzing devices

Sure, you get interrupted by other people. But how often do you get distracted by what you allow to push through on your phone?

Years ago I shut off almost all notifications on my phone and my devices except for text messages and the handful of people I favourite.

Do you really need to know instantly when someone likes your Instagram pic or when there’s a breaking news update? Of course you don’t. Ditto with emails. Why leave email notifications on when you can jump into your inbox once or twice a day and deal with what needs to be dealt with then?

According to the New York Times, the average office workers get interrupted every 11 minutes. And it takes 25 minutes to return to focused work after each interruption.

No wonder you don’t get any work done. The math doesn’t even add up.

You can eliminate self-distraction by shutting down all but text messages on your phone.

And train your team to only text you when it’s super-urgent.

Focused leaders are always better leaders. It’s as simple as that.

Focused leaders are always better leaders. Click To Tweet

Rule 5: Make a plan for the kids and family

One of the biggest challenges for staff is creating quiet space in the house to do work. That’s hard enough in normal circumstances, but especially difficult, if not almost impossible, when the daycares and schools closed down.

Try nonetheless. You’ll be way more effective, productive and the whole family will be saner.

If getting in-home care isn’t possible, you may have to think about doing work in spurts of quiet focus.

Even if you have a closed-door home office, carving out a few hours where the kids aren’t climbing all over can be tricky. Here are some quick hacks:

Get in-home care if you can. If that’s not possible, spell off with a spouse for a few hours at a time, get a close (safe) family member to care for them. Or see point 6.

Close your door. Sometimes you may even need to put a note on the door that says “Please do not disturb until 11 a.m.” Hopefully your family can read.

Work outside or in the basement or on a porch (weather permitting) or anywhere where you won’t be disturbed.

If all else fails, put in headphones. Even if you can’t work to music, simply having earbuds in is a social cue for people to leave you alone and helps with focus.

Sell your kids and become a monk (kidding…)

For most leaders, the quieter the space, the higher the productivity. So as best you can, create quiet space.

Rule 6: Work before everyone else is up

If you have some flex on when you do your work, flex that muscle. If you can, try starting an hour or two early, especially if the kids aren’t up.

Time-shifting is a perfectly acceptable practice.

As I’ve outlined before, Work patterns are a lot like traffic patterns: at 5 a.m. you have the road to yourself. At 8 a.m., it could take you three times as long to travel the same distance.

Get an undistracted start on the day and you’ll be so much further ahead.

You’ve got the work lane all to yourself, which means you can work uninterrupted. You can think uninterrupted and actually accomplish all your most important tasks completely distraction-free.

You can likely even leave early.

If you work when everyone else is working, you will always struggle with productivity.

If you work when everyone else is working, you will always struggle with productivity Click To Tweet

 Rule 7: Don’t fight your lagging energy

All of us have times in the day where our energy lags. So what do you usually do when you could almost fall asleep at your desk or just stare blankly at the wall for an hour?

Most of us try to push through it, right? And sometimes you have to.

But what about those other times?

Well, what if you didn’t? What if you cooperated with your energy levels instead of fought them?

Instead of blinking mindlessly at your screen for another 30 minutes, get up. Stretch. Take a nap. Go for a walk. Grab a coffee.

Or maybe…call it a day.

I dive much deeper into how to leverage your energy levels (especially your high energy windows) for maximum impact in The High Impact Leader Course. It’s been a huge factor in me being able to juggling writing blogs, books, hosting podcasts, teaching at our church and being a husband and dad.

Bottom line? High impact leaders don’t fight their low energy levels, they cooperate with them.

Stop fighting your energy. Start cooperating with it. I show exactly you how in the course.

High impact leaders don't fight their low energy levels, they cooperate with them. Click To Tweet

How To Lead Through Crisis: A FREE Course

The world is experiencing a series of unprecedented challenges, and you’re leading in the midst of it all.

I’ve got a brand new online, on-demand course, called How To Lead Through Crisisthat can help you lead your team, your church and yourself through the massive disruption.

The course is the gift from me and my team to you and leaders everywhere. In light of everything that’s going on, we decided to make it available 100% free.

Inside How To Lead Through Crisis, you’ll learn how to: 

  • Cultivate a non-anxious presence that inspires confidence and trust.
  • Care for yourself so the crisis doesn’t break you.
  • Master the art of fast-paced, clear decision making. 
  • Gather and interpret the most reliable data that will advance your mission
  • Advance digitally to scale past physical barriers and grow your outreach.
  • Lead your team and congregation remotely

While no one has all the answers in a crisis this big, in the course, I share the mindsets, habits, tools and strategies that I believe will help you lead through crisis to get you and the people you lead to a new (and better) future. 

You can enroll and get instant access for you and your team here.

What Are Your Best Practices?

What are your best practices when it comes to leading virtual teams?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

My Top 7 Rules For Leading A Digital Team

12 Comments

  1. Sharon Benton on October 3, 2020 at 8:09 pm

    I’m looking for “what apps and online platforms do you use?.. we have that available for you at the end”, but I can’t seem to find that. Can you please point me to it? Thank you!

  2. Andrea Riggs on April 6, 2020 at 1:49 pm

    Thank you for all you have done during this pandemic to equip leaders – I have found your posts helpful, encouraging, and reminds me that I’m not alone! With a few of our staff working from home, the gaps in inter-office communication and the need for a clear communication system are becoming more evident . I love the work flow triage system; do you have some suggestions for starting an inter-office communication plan?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 7, 2020 at 1:43 pm

      We use Slack and have found it to be immensely helpful.

      It has massively cut down email traffic and has helped speed up communication.

  3. Nick Furloni on April 5, 2020 at 4:44 am

    These are great and simple. We need simple ways to handle the complex ness of new situations. Also, bringing suggested solutions to the table of problems is what leaders do. Keep feeding the world with great content!

  4. Ed Van Allen on March 20, 2020 at 10:33 am

    Awesome!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 20, 2020 at 12:58 pm

      Thanks Ed!

  5. Donnie on March 19, 2020 at 4:03 pm

    Great stuff! My next struggle isn’t so much working from home but rather having a personal life at home? What are some tips to disengaging at home now that it is my workspace? I live in a smaller home and my bedroom is now my office and there isn’t an opportunity to find a separate area away from every day life.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 20, 2020 at 12:58 pm

      One of the best strategies might be time blocking. Your bedroom is your office from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then it’s not. Pick the hours. They don’t matter. The principle does.

  6. Karen Baker on March 19, 2020 at 2:09 pm

    …love the sense of humour! Much appreciated! 😉

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 20, 2020 at 12:00 pm

      So glad to help!

  7. Ruth Ann Fraser on March 19, 2020 at 8:51 am

    Thanks for your inspiration and generous heart Carey.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 20, 2020 at 12:59 pm

      Thanks Ruth!

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