My Top 7 Rules For Leading A Digital Team

So, 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 office 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.

So, here are my top 7 rules for leading a digital team.

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 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.

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.

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.

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 them 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.

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 were 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, that’s a tiny number of issues, so you still saved time 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.

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 favorite.

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.

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 are closed and kids are home from school.

Try nonetheless. You’ll be way more effective and 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.

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 fighting 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.

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

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


  1. john wimberly on November 20, 2021 at 9:02 am

    Fortress just published my book on Managing Congregations in a Virtual Age by John Wimberly. One of the biggest problems clergy are having with remote workers is managing them. Frankly, you manage remote workers the same way you manage in-house workers. There are a few changes but for the most part management is management. Thanks for an excellent post of some of the challenges and opportunities remote work pose. I think there are more opportunities than challenges! john

  2. Dwight Theaker on December 8, 2020 at 10:43 am

    This is so great! Carey, do y’all have any resources available on how y’all have Slack setup? I know there are few different ways to use it and I’m trying to find the most efficient. Thanks for all you do!

  3. Ron Beed on December 6, 2020 at 12:58 pm


    • Michael Lawson on November 21, 2021 at 7:27 am

      Great I sight! Just curious, in an article about communication, I was curious about using ALL CAPS?

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

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


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

      Thanks Ed!

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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!

      • Kait on December 28, 2021 at 8:58 pm

        Video is totally coming on as being our go-to, albeit a year or so too late! It really does make all the difference.

        Another thing I’ve been doing is acknowledging all life events and milestones I hear about. It keeps me connected and I hope it helps my people feel seen when we are all remote. With 200 people, it keeps me hopping!

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