People First! David Burkus, "Essential Skills for Leading a Remote Team"

Sit back, and grab a coffee as Morag and David Burkus talk about leading remote teams!

Welcome to SkyeTeam's People First! In this series, we explore the people side of successful business and careers. We all have a story to share, a leadership journey that we are experiencing.

We'll be interviewing authors, business leaders, thought leaders, and people like you to uncover the latest ideas, resources, and tools to help you become more effective at work - and in life. As it turns out, the secret is cultivating winning relationships. Business is personal, and relationships matter!

So, sit back, and grab a coffee as Morag and David Burkus talk about leading remote teams!

Chapter Layout:
0:00 - Open
1:55 - Origin Story
5:42 - Smooth the Waves
7:30 - Pain Points
10:30 - Remote Community
14:03 - Scheduled Spontaneity
18:09 - Pretending Asynchronous Communication is Synchronous
19:13 - Virtual Job Market
22:13 - Effect of Lockdown on Networks
27:40 - Contact Info & Wrap 

TED Talk:

- [INTRO] Welcome to SkyetTeam's "People First" with Morag Barrett.

- I'm excited to welcome this week, a friend and colleague from the Marshall Goldsmith 100, David Burkus. He is one of the world's leading business thinkers, forward-thinking ideas and best-selling books are helping leaders and teams to do their best work ever. He's the author of four books about business and leadership that have won numerous awards and been translated into dozens of languages. His insights on leadership and teamwork have been published and shared through The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review amongst many others. He's an international speaker, both in this little three-by-five box but also in 3D too and his TED talk has been viewed more than 2 million times. This guy is worth listening to. David, welcome to "People First."

- Oh, thank you so much for having me, you know, you point out something interesting. I'm going to have to update that bio because in a zoom first world, international speakers not as impressive, I guess, is that you back when you had to get on an airplane to go speak somewhere it was a commitment now, I guess not so much. Right? So yeah. I'm going to have to update that.--

- Have camera will travel and I know we're going to get to talk about your latest book, which is so pertinent for all of us, your newest book, "Leading From Anywhere: The Essential Guide to " finish it for me.

- "Managing Remote Teams."

- There you go, and all of us are part of a matter of remote teams whether we're the team leader or the team participant. And what I love about your book is it's got practical tools and techniques for all of us, wherever we are in our career to make this work from home and work remotely work, but more on that in a moment. So, David, I do want to go back to your origin story. So, let's take you back. You're a wee lad, however tall you are at this point you're back at school and your teacher comes to you and says, "okay, David, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

- Yeah, so I'm pretty sure if we go back to like elementary school, that the answer would be that I wanted to be a professional wrestler. You know the big muscular dude who did the whole showmanship thing in the ring and went up, actually, it's funny, I have a replica of an old WWE belt right here on the screen. I don't know if you can see that, but that one--

- Okay, it's not crocodiles that you were going to wrestle then.

- No, no, no, but what's funny about that is as dumb as we all are in childhood with that sort of thing, there's a storytelling element that goes into that. By the time that I was in high school, the storytelling had pivoted from being a professional wrestler which is a little weird to wanting to be a writer. To wanting to be a novelist, et cetera. I went to university to study that, I studied English and Creative Writing as an undergrad and while I was studying that, I found Science Writing and Narrative Non-fiction and Long-form journalism and people who were using storytelling to tell true stories that helped people, right? And I thought, wow, that's fascinating. That's what I actually want to do, right? And so I went on to partly because I got married to a medical student, I went on and did a graduate program in Organizational Psychology, now with a dimension of ever being an academic, of ever doing research or anything like that, but just a pairing the two together, pairing the writing that I got as an undergrad and the Organizational Psychology as a grad to be able to tell those same stories but tell stories about the research that actually helps people live better lives, do better work, et cetera. And so in a way, I'm still doing the same thing. I kind of think it'd be cool maybe to have the long hair and the giant championship belt, like a pro, but at its core--

- And you get taught why not come across so well on camera.

- That's true, that's true.

- Yes, we'll have to say, so I'm curious 'cause I know you for your Non-fiction writing. So do you still dabble in fiction?

- No, no and in fact, one of our mutual friends, Whitney Johnson, and I were hanging out just before the world ended in in London and think it was 15 November and she actually challenged me. She's like, "you need to write a novel, like before you die you need to write a novel 'cause that's what you said you wanted to do." I don't dabble in it mostly because reality is so entertaining, why construct an alternative one? Like I go looking at every book that I write, I go looking for two types of stories. I mean, obviously, there's stories of companies or people that are living the principles from psychology that I'm trying to offer in the book. But I go looking for stories either stories about famous people or companies but stories you've never heard about those people. Or I go looking for stories that are so incredible, these people should be famous, right? And that's entertaining enough. Like I've just never felt the need to construct a fictional story because reality is so amazing. I can have plenty of fun capturing those real-life stories.

- So it's funny 'cause Organizational Psychology when you're studying humans, it's all about the stories and some of them are going to make you laugh. Some of them are going to make you cry and some of them are just that shock, horror, thriller ride. And I just saw a meme that was put up for those of us in the Human Resources profession and I'm going to paraphrase it for this video but along the line of, I can't fix stories but I can document them. And of course, some of the things that people do at work where you go, what on earth were you thinking? How could you think that was going to have a positive outcome for you or others? But I suppose that's what keeps you and I in business, is it helping to smooth the waves and the volatility that happens individually but also on teams?

- Yeah, oh no, that's exactly right. And I think stories are also a powerful way to convey concepts. You know, so I've written four books now and every principle and every takeaway is steeped in research from organizational psychology, social psychology, and every one of them nobody's ever said, you know, I remember that principle of whatever. They never say, you know I remember the story you told about Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta, finding each other and founding the UFC and how important our old friends and our old colleagues are. They always remembered the stories, right? So what I try and do is just pair that with what we know is true about human behavior but with stories of people doing it right, right? And I think as soon as you see that again, you can't correct other people's stories but you can document the good ones and hope people remember the good ones and extract the lessons. And then they accidentally, it's a bit like one of my buddies calls it, chocolate-covered broccoli, right? The story is the chocolate, the broccoli is the org psych lesson I want you to take away.

- Okay, fair enough. So for everybody listening and watching this podcast episode, I want you just to briefly pause right now and think about the stories that you've shared with others. Then, you won't believe what happened at work today because David and I are going to share some tidbits and some advice that are going to help you to come back from that, for the sequel, the following on movie that makes it better. So, David, you mentioned there that March 1st, last year the world ended and it certainly turned on its side. And I know here at SkyeTeam we're coming up on our 14th birthday. We have always been a virtual team. But what I realized is that there is a difference between choosing to work from home and work remotely and having to, so as you watched the world pivot, there were no doubt, pain points and symptoms of ineffective teams that are happening in 3D anyway that have just been exacerbated as we've gone into 2D. So what are some of those just common carry-through challenges that you're hearing from the clients and the teams that you're working with?

- Yeah I mean, specifically I was talking to somebody I think just yesterday, it might've been two days ago about what team leaders have thrived in the last year and which ones haven't and what have you. And you know, the big difference there is sort of if you were demonstrating what you and I would call good leadership, leadership that leads from a place of trust that gives autonomy, that provides support, not just trying to document that you're getting the work done and reward or punish you if you're not right? If you're providing that, you actually manage the transition pretty good, right? And your team managed that transition pretty good. And interestingly enough, like you said, there are companies that choose to be fully distributed to be fully remote. Then there are companies that actually choose to increase the level of freedom and autonomy they give to their people and they become accidentally remote, right? Because just over time, people are spending less and less time at the office. They're the sort of work from anywhere companies that I think is where most of us are headed. And then of course there are all the people that have remote thrust upon them in the last year, right? And that's a totally different game but the people that are leading from that place of trust and autonomy, and my job as a leader is to get you the things you need to do to do your work. They're doing okay, right? It's the micromanagers, the people who thought presence equal productivity and so they were keeping track of when people were coming into the office and all of that sort of stuff. And now usually most of them traded presence for responsiveness and so what they're really doing is tracking how responsive you are in digital communication. And then using that as a proxy for productivity, those teams even a year later, I think are still suffering. So a lot of that, it's less about, you know, the team dynamic and really more about how the leader of that team is setting that culture. Is it one of trust and autonomy? And if so, you could be at your desk in an office or you could be at your desk at home and it could feel pretty similar except 3D to 2D. If you're running the micromanagement thing, I honestly don't know how a year later the bosses of, the micromanagers have anyone on their team to still lead. Right? I don't know why people haven't left at this point because it's been a painful year if you were trying to lead from that place.

- Well, I think there's a misguided belief that people are trapped, that there isn't a job market that is still thriving out there and there is and we can talk more in a moment about, well, how do you search for that next opportunity in a virtual world? 'Cause it's a different mindset and a different skillset. But I was working with an executive team last week that did make that transition quite well in terms of they were balancing not only do you have access to all the systems you need, do you have a laptop? Do you have a space to work, et cetera? The what if business but we're all also focused on ensuring that they retained a sense of community that they were checking in on how are you doing? And the conversation last week was about how do they now broaden it and recalibrate the rules of engagement. So what advice do you have for people listening, the first steps for building culture remotely? 'Cause now we brought, you know, 300 corporate head offices in bedrooms and kitchen tables and corners of living rooms versus one office that has a look and feel for this company. So what advice for building culture remotely?

- Yeah, I totally agree. Well, culture has never been a building, right? And culture has never been a foosball table and a keg in the refrigerator and that sort of thing, right? Those might've been indicators of culture or they might've been indicators that your leaders don't know what culture is depending on the organization, right? I think the biggest thing we're a year into this and I think after the first couple, I'll actually go ahead and give most leaders a pat on the back, right? And say that when we were told here in the United States, we were told 15 days to slow the spread, right? The day we're recording this, by the way, it's day 361. So we were told 15 days to slow spread and we did a pretty decent job, getting people to tech, coming up with systems to keep people productive. We probably called too many zoom meetings in the beginning but like we did okay. It wasn't until months into this great work from home experiment that we realized what we left at the office, which was the unstructured time that builds that sense of culture, right? The time before the meeting, when two or three people walk in together and have a chat about their day or their other sort of non-work things that actually build bonds right? The after work events that may have been totally spontaneous, right? All of those things are what build culture much more than running an effective meeting. I mean, I think there's a lot to be said about running an effective zoom meeting but one of the best things you could do is actually be a little unstructured to create that time for people to chat, et cetera. And we're only now, a lot of organizations are realizing, they need to take that back but that's one of, I think the biggest things we've forgotten over the last year, when we look at the research around teams that choose to be distributed or teams that choose to be virtual like SkyeTeam, we find that the ones that work are marked by a company culture of shared understanding and of team identity, shared understanding is just how well I understand who is good at what, whose roles and responsibilities are what and also the context that everyone's working in. I know who is working from an office in the basement of their house. Like I who's working from the kitchen table. And then shared identities, is how much do I feel like a team? Now the interesting thing is, both of those things are built from deliberately unstructured time where the whole purpose of getting the team together is to get them to not talk about work, but talk about other things so that they find uncommon commonalities with each other. That can take the form of a zoom happy hour. Although I think we're all a little hung over from the zoom happy hours. They can also take the form of playing a deliberate game but it can take the form of just, there's a company, there's a team sense of culture that if the meeting scheduled at 10:00 AM, half of the people are on at 9:45 just to chat and catch up, right? Or that we still because we're not geographically dispersed, we're all still kind of near each other, just working remotely that once a week, we do lunch together even though we're doing it via zoom, right? Those little things that unstructured time is where culture has always been built. The difference is now that's not accidental. It has to be deliberate and it falls upon the leader of an individual team to make sure they're deliberately building that time.

- I'm hearing the same. What you're saying, it's scheduled spontaneity is what we need to embrace in 2021.

- Yeah, yeah to be honest with you and I think especially in 2021 as we start to put the pieces back together and as offices start to reopen as different people are vaccinated or have comfortable levels of coming back to the office, scheduled spontaneity actually becomes even more important because there's a tendency towards an us versus them that'll creep up, the co-locateds the ones who came back first are going to get all of that unstructured time with each other and the remote are going to be well, they're going to be remote. They're going to be out there, right? And so deliberately structuring that time probably becomes even more important in 2021 than in 2020 because you're going to have this us versus them creep up if we don't.

- Yeah and it's having that conversation 'cause it's not just on the shoulders of the team leader to make this happen. It's also on us as team members to actually ask for what we need and the beer keg is easy to replace. I've got, I think a few cans down in the fridge downstairs but what I'm hearing from the leaders I'm working with, is that what the camera has tended to do much like you just described is turn every meeting into a straight down to business meeting. So I love what you said there about just allowing 10, 15 minutes whether it's at the beginning or the end for that informal chit-chat and being available. Now, the other end of the spectrum, I've been reading about companies who've been asking employees to have a permanently open Slack channel. Which to me just, ah, I mean, I love, I love interruptions and variety but the idea of being at the beck and call of that all day, what's your take on, you will be on that Slack channel all the time.

- Yeah, my take is it's a terrible idea. I mean, for a couple of different reasons, the first thing is that Slack in my opinion, driven by the data but I am editorializing a bit here. In my opinion, Slack is actually only good for one thing. It's a terrible project management tool. It's a terrible tool because people are typing in sentence fragments. It's the equivalent of a prodigy or an AOL chat room and trying to get a project managed on that. It doesn't work right? But it's very good as a virtual water cooler. It's great as a place to have those non-work conversations those little updates, it's great as a place to update people for when you're at work and when you're not at work but you need to respect that there are times where people, everybody's calendar is going to be different, right? There are now more than ever people who will at three o'clock go do not go away or do not disturb, go pick up their kids from school and they're not back until five or six o'clock because they're finding the schedule that works for them, right? So keeping the Slack channel open at all times. I mean, first of all, that's like trying to, I mean it's like trying to get a meeting done in a Chuck E Cheese. Like it's just full of distractions and it's just not really going to work, right?

- Yeah but when you get those tantrums and they pop out of the machine, there's an adrenaline rush there--

- Well, okay, that's fair, that's fair. But it's also just, it's not a great tool for asynchronous communication either. Right? And that's what we needed to be... So, I think and I feel weird about this 'cause five years ago I wrote a book called "Under New Management" that talked about sort of the need to eliminate internal email, right? And at that point I was actually very excited about tools like Slack because they had the opportunity to be a pull medium as opposed to a push medium. The problem with email was hitting your inbox every five minutes distracting you and Slack was something you had to physically log into in order to see any of the messages. Now, I think there are better tools for that because I think Slack has turned into a push medium, just like email. And if we're going to have an asynchronous conversation we might as well have a digital face to digital face or audio, you know, these things still do make phone calls. Isn't that weird?

- I know, isn't it wonderful when it rings though, and the idea, and I go, I'm doing this old fashioned 'cause my air Airpods or your Earpods aren't working. I'm putting you to my ear.

- Yeah, it's weird, it's not comfortable.

- And not being on camera and worrying about you know, how does the hair look today? By the way--your hair looks great.

- But again those are great tools for synchronous communication, for asynchronous communication, we need to recognize that we don't want to pretend that an asynchronous tool is really a synchronous one and that's the problem with leaving a Slack window open all the time or with subtly judging people by how quickly they're responding to emails, right? People who are responding fastest are probably your least productive members of the team.

- Yes and indeed, and again, resetting expectations around, what are the SLAs? How soon should we be responding? And as you said earlier on understanding the context in which we're all living and working right now do I have school-aged kids that at 9:00 AM my time. I am trying to get logged into their school portals and therefore don't expect me to be responsive and having those conversations so that we can show compassion and support to each other, 'cause we all have, and will need each other's support at some point, you may not think it today but I promise your limit is coming it's just a matter of when. We talked earlier on about the misguided belief that as employees, that we're trapped, that there isn't a job market out there and there is. So what advice do you have for successfully onboarding and being onboarded into a new company? Because without the walk in the halls, building relationships horizontally can be very tough. What advice have you seen from the best leaders and organizations in your work and research?

- Yeah, yeah. So we know even BC, before Corona, right? We know from the research that onboarding processes that prioritize connection over documentation work better they lead to longer tenure more productive employees, more engaged employees. Every measurement says that if we focus on getting you connected to the other humans, you're working with that matters more than making sure Legal will get its paper gets his paperwork done on that. But unfortunately, most onboarding processes are driven by Legal and HR. No offense to everyone from Legal and HR who's watching, we love you and I think, you know, this too, it's just this juggle between, we do need to get these things done. What I've seen from some of the best fully distributed companies is that they have blended the two. In other words, like one company I'm thinking of in particular and I'm going to leave them nameless because I'm probably going to miss a detail or two and then he's going to be mad at me. But the way that they did it, is they had Legal or HR, whoever was in charge of the documentation. You mean you remember what this is like in-person you sit in a room and somebody talks to the slide show at you and then they go, great! We got you the safety, the OSHA training like boom checkbox done right? Sexual harassment training checkbox done, right? What they did is they basically had all of that prerecorded for the expert in the company. But then they paired every new employee up with a member of his or her team to watch that together. So the idea is that it's actually, it's not someone from Legal going through it. It's your coworker, Sarah, or your coworker Bob, taking you through it, answering any questions or promising to find the answers to any questions. So, that you're not just getting 45 minutes of OSHA training. You're getting 45 minutes with Bob and the OSHA training and now you're getting to know a few people, right? If you're on the flip side of that, if you're joining a new company and you're in that situation, well then you need to force that connection, right? So that does mean you need to be the squeaky wheel that gets the oil. That gets a little more time with everybody. That means you need to be the bold one unfortunately, that sends emails to the new team and says, hey, I'd love to grab, you know a coffee zoom chat for 30 minutes sometime this week just so I can get to know more about you, et cetera, right? That one-on-one individual connections with each person on your team. That's going to help you feel connected to that team much longer.

- So that brings me back to one of your earlier books "Friend of a Friend" and how to hack networking. So I love that advice of don't wait to be invited to the table. Once you're there, start reaching out to folks and just finding out what they do within the organization that you've joined. But what advice then do you have for people right now to nurture their network but also to extend it if they are looking for that next big adventure?

- Yeah, so this is, I've been thinking about this one a lot actually 'cause about three weeks ago, there was a paper published from a couple of network scientists that I really admire, showing essentially the effect of lockdown on people's network and I thought this was really interesting. They showed a 25% decrease in the average person's network because we weren't meeting in person. We weren't meeting around events, et cetera, but here's what's really weird, that decrease was almost entirely driven by males. What they found is there was a gender divide, that females tend to bond over discussion, over interactions, over phone calls, like you said, over zoom calls and so they've done a better job in the last year of keeping their network active. Then have men who mostly bonded around activities. Now I'm going to give a bit of counter-intuitive advice here, which is that we need to take back the activities piece. You can't do it in person but you can be the person in your network planning these sort of shared activities. We saw this a little bit early in the pandemic, the most extroverted of our friends were inviting us to the zoom happy hours, the little connections, et cetera but they didn't have structure, right? And so that's kind of the missing piece, right? Try and see if you can start in your organization or in your network, you can say, you know, I'm going to start a book club. I'm going to start a virtual book club where we read a different leadership development book every month that we come together, right? That's a shared activity that'll help you, not only reconnect with people but also foster new connections 'cause other people can invite their friends and et cetera. Take back those activities. If you're on the guy side and you're like me and you've really neglected the one-on-one conversations then yeah, you need to do that too. But I think everybody can benefit from this idea that if humans have bonded around shared activities for a long time, that's what we've been missing for the last year and virtual is not an excuse for that. It's just different but it can be done.

- It's interesting, I have to go and find that paper because I hadn't made that connection. I'm thinking about one of my male colleagues who has started a regular game session that brings people together but also coupled it with raising to now tens of thousands of dollars for not-for-profits and to impact in the communities around him. And I'm talking about me, what I decided to do was to set myself a weekly target of phone calls and handwritten cards and just sending messages out to people and coincidence maybe because those two examples of the gender different approaches came to mind. But it is again about being deliberate and thoughtful because whether and when we come out of this pandemic, we need our relationships intact and if we're staying here for a longer term, we need our relationships intact. So it's not soft and fluffy, pick up the phone guys but start reconnecting even if it's been a year because that's how we move through this together and would you in that sense of isolation.

- Yeah, I totally agree. The only thing I'd add is sort of a trick from a buddy of mine who did it in the context of sort of professional services. He always had this phrase, always have something to invite people to. And that was like, you know he worked with financial advisors and agents meaning like always have a workshop on finance that you can... But I think the same is true for personal networks, right? Always have some activity that your running, book club, charity event, whatever it is that you could invite people to. My good friend actually our friend, 'cause he's MG 100 guy Michael Bungay Stainer has his Cocktails and Questions. I don't know if you're ever a part of that but it was a very structured thing. It wasn't just, hey, we're all randomly on zoom. It was a curated list of 10 people, a curated set of questions designed to you know bring out discussion. It was an event. Always have to the extent that this is going to go on. I have no idea how long that'll be. The best thing you can do is always have someone to invite people to. And by the way, when this is over, it's still good advice, right?

- It is, 'cause work from home, you used the word experiment and I'm not sure that it's ever been really an experiment because companies have been doing this for years and decades. What it is now is a massive adoption and an element of it the hybrid approach is here to stay. There is no going back to what was or what we might remember. So start learning these habits and flexing and redefining how we connect and how we do work together because we can only all benefit.

- Yeah, yeah I totally agree, the future of work it's not a binary, it's not office versus home. The future of work is working from anywhere and we better get ready for that, right? We better, whether you consider yourself a leader of remote teams or you consider yourself someone who is just trying to pass the time until you can get back to the office, you lead a remote team from now on because not everyone's going to be there all of the time like we were before.

- So David, as we come to the end of our time together what final thoughts do you have for the people listening and watching this episode?

- Oh man, I thought that one was good.

- What, I know but I want to make sure that you have the opportunity.

- You know, I love it. Again I think the biggest thing we left at the office was that unstructured time that builds bonds. And if you haven't already come up with a plan or a way that's unique to you. I don't want you to be inauthentic with your team or anything like that but a way that you would feel comfortable an activity you would feel comfortable putting on with your team that will bring out those non-work discussions. You can really up-level your team just by making a commitment to doing them on a regular basis for however long we're still not together. I think it will be longer than you think though. So this is a habit we should be cultivating now.

- All right, well David, I want to thank you for your time here today and I hope you'll come back for a second part too because I think I could continue to talk with you for hours and for everybody listening today, make sure that you check out David's website, definitely watch his TED talk. Let's see if we can get it to 3 million. We'll make sure all of that information is in the show notes below and grab a copy of "Leading From Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Managing Remote Teams." I promise you will not be disappointed and it will help you to find that authentic way to be part of and lead the teams that you are engaged with. So thank you all and thank you David.

- Thank you so much for having me.

- [Man] Thank you so much for joining Morag today. If you enjoyed the show, please like, and subscribe so you don't miss a thing. If you learned something worth sharing, share it. Cultivate your relationships today when you don't need anything, before you need something. Be sure to follow SkyeTeam and Morag on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and if you have any ideas about topics we should tackle, interviews we should do or if you yourself would like to be on the show, drop us a line at, that's Thanks again for joining us today and remember business is personal and relationships matter. We are your allies.

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