What going fully remote taught me about leading remote organisations

A year ago Aula ditched the office and went fully remote. CEO Anders Krohn distills the learning for leaders in designing an engaging digital workplace.

A year ago at Aula we took the decision to go fully remote. We no longer have an office. 

This step felt radical at the time – and was a steep learning curve for our team. But we felt it was the right thing to do for a lot of reasons: access to global talent, more flexibility for our teams in when and how they work, and the ability to have our team spend most of their time at our partners’ campus.

Different kinds of organisations make decisions in different ways, and have different strategic challenges. One facet of leadership is making good decisions, at the right speed and in a way that’s appropriate to your organisational culture. And across the sector university leaders are stepping up to the plate. 

Every organisation is different – different challenges, different ways of working. But going remote as rapidly as universities are forced to down is hard for everyone. From an organisational perspective, the silver lining is that going remote can force you to deliberately address a management challenge that every organisation faces, not least during times of crisis: meaningfully engaging the staff that have to understand and respond to the strategy.

And across the university sector, we are seeing leaders stepping up to the plate.

At Aula our experience of going remote has taught us some lessons about leading engagement in remote organisations and we’ve learnt lessons from some of the mistakes over the past year, so you can avoid them.

Shock to the system 

In the last few weeks universities have had to make this shift to remote without the benefit of forward planning. But if you think about it, the sheer size of many universities means that managers and leaders already have to mobilise most of their staff without much face-to-face presence. Just count the number of emails that are sent within any given university. 

At a high level, the aim is to create a sense of presence, so that people know that you are mindful of their need for clarity and open to their concerns. That’s no different from leading an organisation in normal times. But at times of crisis, flaws in communication approaches are more visible, and have bigger consequences. If people are disengaged, confused, or angry, they are more vulnerable to spinning out emotionally.

Broadcast is dead 

The traditional way of communicating important decisions widely is a mass email, giving all the key points and a rationale for the decision. That doesn’t work when you’re remote. Imagine a staff member receiving an email from their boss’ boss about a strategic decision that has enormous implications for their job – without being around a manager who can answer your questions and concerns. No matter how carefully you craft that email, you can’t possibly anticipate every question staff or students may have. That can be a great source of stress.

Alternatives include:

  • Use anonymous Ask Me Anything sessions using live video broadcast where a senior person answers questions from staff – named or anonymously – in real time on video call. There’s a dedicated tool for this in both Google Slides and Microsoft Teams
  • Virtual whiteboards like Miro or Padlet create the opportunity for a virtual brainstorm – allowing decisions to be tested and developed collaboratively with the people who will be responsible for implementing them. 
  • If you absolutely must broadcast, use video rather than email, and ensure that managers throughout your organisation are briefed to follow up the message with their own teams. Tools like Loom are great for asynchronous video recording, for example to share a five-minute message to your whole organisation. Just click record, and share via a link – no uploading or downloading required.
  • To get feedback more quickly, use frequent, short staff surveys and provide managers with tools to act on the response. At Aula, we send out three or four questions every fortnight using a tool called Peakon. Survey questions include: “If you had a magic wand, what would you change at Aula?” and “From 1-10, to what extent do you feel a sense of belonging at Aula?” You could easily do this using a Google or Microsoft Form instead.

Avoid second-class citizens

Nothing is more alienating than being part of a video call from home where you can feel that the people who are working in the same physical space are chuckling at something the video camera didn’t catch. You’re not participating on the same terms. It feels like being a second-class citizen.

We went fully remote to avoid second-class citizens. For universities that have to keep some staff on campus, one simple trick to avoid this is to require all participants in all video calls to join from a separate device, even if everyone except one person is in the office. Buy everyone a set of (cheap) headphones: £15 per person gets you quite far and removes a practical barrier to remote participation. 

That’s of course only one part of building a fully remote work culture. At a high level, think about how you want the values and culture of the organisation to play out in the online environment. At a practical level, support your team to understand good video call etiquette. Read how we do both of these things at Aula in our public employee handbook

Maintain a single source of truth 

In face to face organisations, people gather around the watercooler and socialise over lunch. As a result, strategic decisions are disseminated via osmosis, and people have the chance to chat through ideas and concerns in a low-stakes environment.

In a remote organisation without a watercooler, the default is that different teams and departments arrive at different conclusions and interpretations of the organisation’s strategy and work in wildly different directions.

In a fast-moving environment, staff and students working remotely need to know where to go to see the current version of the truth for where the organisation is going. 

Create a single point of truth on the strategy and direction of travel, and let it be known that “if it’s not written there, it’s not true”. At Aula, our employee handbook serves as our source of truth. Make people aware when your point of truth has been updated, make those updates visible, and allow people to comment and ask questions. 

Aula is running a series of virtual sessions for university leaders and managers on leading remote organisations. Register your interest here

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