5 tips for leading IT remotely

With WFH and hybrid workplace strategies stretching into 2021, IT leaders must settle in to new work habits to ensure success in leading IT from afar.

Many people have had to adapt to working from home and other remote locations — at least part of the time — in the hybrid workplace that’s emerging because of the pandemic. That includes CIOs and other IT executives.

Whether executives are working remotely for one or more days per week or full time, leading IT has change significantly — and perhaps permanently.

The new working model affects many facets of management, including developing IT strategies, maintaining culture, driving change, and collaborating with business colleagues. The situation presents challenges, but it also offers growth opportunities for technology leaders.

Here are some suggestions from home-working IT leaders on how to make the most of the new environment.

Put IT staff tech needs first

One key to leading a technology team from afar is to engage staffers as much as possible, says Lonnie Johnson, CIO at KVC Health Systems, a nonprofit child welfare and behavioral healthcare organization.

“Ensure that they have everything they need to be successful,” Johnson says. “I allowed people to go into the office and get monitors, staplers, and even their office chair if they wanted to. Our transition to working from home required us to issue a lot of equipment across the [organization] quickly, but I made sure that the tech staff had the all the devices, access, and additional tech services they needed first.”

That included hotspots, internet boosters, virtual private networks (VPNs), cameras, and other equipment. “I didn’t want any points of failure on our part to keep us from being able to deliver services in a world that was starting to depend mainly on technology to function,” Johnson says.

KVC in mid-March 2020 made the decision to have all employees across the five states it serves start working from home as a safety measure in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The initial timeframe was only two weeks, but like many organizations KVC has extended its work-from-home program. Currently, anyone who wants to work from home can do so at least until the end of this year, at which time the organization will reevaluate the situation.

“Our experience has been surprisingly positive,” says Johnson, who has worked from home since March and expects to continue doing so through the end of the year. “Our technology staff did a fantastic job at transitioning our workforce to a remote environment in a very short period of time.”

Keep connected

Touching base with IT staff is that much more important when leading tech teams from afar. An especially good reason to keep in regular touch with staffers is to help people cope with the stresses of these times.

“I would encourage leaders to be very sensitive to the mental wellbeing of your tech teams,” he says. “By nature most tech people are introverts, but we all require human intervention. Working from home in isolation can take its toll on any employee.”

Because of this, Johnson has made it a point to check in on staffers and insisted that other technology leaders at KVC did the same. The team conducts virtual social hours and had a barbeque on the company parking lot while adhering to safety guidelines.

Sustain and build culture by using online collaboration tools wisely

Videoconferencing has become the chief mode of collaboration for IT leaders during the pandemic, although companies use a variety of online collaboration tools to keep everyone connected. Online meeting fatigue may be setting in, but remote collaboration technologies can help executives and staffers be more productive.

“There are so many conferencing and collaboration tools and mobile apps now available, and we had made it a priority to fully integrate select ones into our workflows and engagement activities prior to the pandemic,” says

Michael Ringman, CIO of Telus International, a global customer experience and digital services provider.

“This greatly benefitted us at the onset of the pandemic and as we’ve continued to support a [work-from-home] model for our global team, enabling us to maintain high levels of engagement, collaboration, and productivity,” Ringman says.

The collaboration tools are also instrumental in ensuring that company culture remains and that morale is high, Ringman says. He cites a survey Telus conducted earlier this year showing that many respondents felt disconnected from their colleagues while working remotely. When asked what they missed most about working in the office, small talk and interacting with colleagues topped the list, followed by collaborating in person with a team.

“An easy answer to these problems? Embracing tools that enhanced how we communicate with each other day to day,” Ringman says.

The IT department at Onslow County, N.C., has also benefited from a cultural standpoint because of regular meetings.

“I believe the first concern must be maintaining and growing the culture of the team,” says Glenn Hasteadt, IT director. “I found this to be much more challenging without the body language and other queues you would pick up from impromptu interactions. I found that I had to be much more intentional about my culture-building efforts.”

Having short meetings with groups or individuals has allowed Hasteadt to build stronger relationships with the team members. The pandemic helped drive a move into collaboration technology, such as Microsoft Teams, for daily communication and meetings.

“We had driven a lot of change to the organization in the past four years and I was struggling to get Microsoft Teams adopted,” Hasteadt says. “The [staff] knew how to use it, but culturally they were resistant because they had not fully acclimated to the other changes. Thankfully we had been moving in this direction for a while prior to the pandemic; as we had several groups that would never have worked remotely suddenly thrust into working from home.”

Create a dedicated workspace

Anyone working remotely is best served by setting aside a dedicated space to work. This is especially true for executives who need to focus on a number of high-impact issues at once and who are responsible for managing lots of staffers.

It might not always be easy or even possible, particularly if the remote location is limited in size. But it is a good practice.

“Whether you’re a loud talker — or your spouse, family member, or roommate is the boisterous one — or because you and your team members handle sensitive information, making a spare bedroom or the basement your office or installing a fold-down desk that can be closed when not in use will not only help nurture your personal relationships, it will also help you to fully disconnect at the end of the day,” says

Telus’ Ringman.

“My colleagues and I find it much easier to maintain a work/life balance if our laptops and work items are out of sight” when not in use, Ringman says. He’s had the advantage of having worked remotely for several years, so Ringman has devoted time to coaching and supporting many members of his immediate team as well as colleagues throughout the company who had to quickly transition to a work-from-home model for the first time.

Don’t lose the feel for in-office work

Working from home is quite different from working in a corporate office. But IT leaders should consider approaching their workdays as they always did in office in order to stay focused.

“I wake up at the same time, get ready, and dress just as I would if I was commuting to the office,” says David Lloyd, director of IT at Park Industries, a manufacturer of stoneworking equipment that began remote work for employees in March. “This keeps me focused and shows my team and those that I work with that I have kept work the priority and I am not letting working remotely impact my approach to the day.”

In addition, Lloyd understands that part of working at the headquarters office is social as well as professional, and aims to replicate that by holding informal gatherings with his department twice a month. “That allows everyone to relax, learn about what everyone is doing outside of work, how children and pets are doing, etc.,” he says. “This is not the same as a hallway conversation or a face-to-face lunch. But it sure helps keep people connected and lets everyone know that I also care how they are doing outside of work.”

Lloyd has always worked closely with cross-functional peers and this has continued even though they are mostly remote now. “I make sure that I am providing transparency into our projects and have regular discussions with them to ensure that we are focused on the right things in order to support them in the best way possible,” he says. “I make sure that we are also as flexible as possible, as these conditions do require changing priorities midstream. This has helped our business remain focused and strong.”

Working remotely “has gone surprisingly well, considering we did not work remotely at all prior to the pandemic,” Lloyd says. “We will eventually implement a flex work policy that allows people to work from the office or remotely.”

Don’t forget to grow your own career

Working at home can save IT leaders time. The extra time of not having to commute can present opportunities for further education and networking, which can broaden knowledge and open up new career opportunities.

That’s how Mark Ohlund, CIO and senior vice president of IT at supply chain and logistics technology provider Armada, looks at it.

Armada launched a work-from-home “test” for office personnel in early March, and the test ended up being a "go live, and we never returned to the office,” Ohlund says. “Things have been successful enough that our CEO has declared we will move to a hoteling model in the future. There are no plans for wholesale return to the office.”

During this remote work period, Ohlund has leveraged the opportunity to

attend virtual conferences. “These seem to be pretty efficient information exchanges,” he says. “Additionally, I'm attending webinars and analyst calls to gain knowledge [and] insights on solutions and potential solutions.”

Working from home “has definitely provided additional opportunities for learning and personal ‘innovation think tanks,’” Johnson says. “Many companies are offering new forms of online learning, training, and virtual conferences. There is no shortage of educational opportunities. There are also many new forums and summits geared towards getting tech leaders together to share ideas and thoughts on how to be successful in this new environment.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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