Comment & Opinion

Why we need to drop the "remote": Five tips for digitally leading a team

InnoGames studio director Christian Reshöft offers up his suggestions

Why we need to drop the "remote": Five tips for digitally leading a team

Christian Reshöft is studio director at InnoGames.

Several months into a global pandemic, some companies are bringing employees back to the office, while others are allowing them to work from home permanently.

Then there are the companies that will find themselves somewhere in between – a hybrid setup where people work from the office and from home, with the decision left to the individual teams.

This will redefine the new normal, but ultimately the work itself remains the focus, regardless of location, which is why we should drop the word "remote" in front of work.

Just as companies have adapted their culture to these unprecedented times, those in positions of leadership should be open to adapt their managerial styles to better suit the hybrid environment.

InnoGames is Germany's biggest developer and publisher of online and mobile games, with over 400 employees from more than 30 nations. Studio Director Christian Reshöft oversees a group of more than 120 of those colleagues across four titles, including the global hits Forge of Empires and Elvenar.

With the large number of colleagues, the workforce was already distributed pre-pandemic. Now, the need for strong digital leadership to guide a distributed, yet cohesive team becomes greater.

Based on his experience, Christian has compiled a list of the top skills and characteristics that become more important when working in a digital environment.

Strive to create the type of environment that will support and empower individuals to work to the best of their ability in all situations
Christian Reshöft

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

Clear communication is critical in any work environment, even more so when distance is involved. Unclear expectations or feedback create chaos. Explicitly state what is to be done or what is expected so everyone is on the same page and there is no room for assumptions.

To make this easier, InnoGames' protocols, guidelines and expectations are detailed using platforms that are available to everyone. The company's tech stack is comprised of email (Outlook), messaging (Slack), Wiki and project planning (Confluence and JIRA), and video conferencing (Zoom).

This clarity allows for better collaboration and coordination, which ultimately leads to cross-functional alignment. Additionally, with junior teams or others who may have received more mentorship in the office, it is vital to provide clear goals, deadlines, and tactics for how to get them where you want them to be to in the remote world.

Without Trust, Innovation is Absent

It can be difficult to combine work and living spaces, complete with pets, children, or roommates. We are all experiencing this in some form, so it should not be viewed as a hinderance, nor should anyone feel guilty for balancing it all. By leading by example, your team members will pick up on how you are going to handle things.

I have had my twin boys walk into my room while I am on a conference call or sit on my lap while having an important discussion with one of the founders of the company. When I had to stop working earlier than usual, e.g., to step away to care for our children, then I openly shared this with the team.

Strong teams are built on trust, transparency and communication. It's difficult to pick up on others' stress from a distance, so listen to their needs and trust that the work will still get done. All 120+ colleagues reciprocate this type of support, which has enabled the game teams to remain on track with delivering biweekly content updates from home.

Watching over someone's shoulder, even virtually speaking, is counterproductive to these efforts. Instead, strive to create the type of environment that will support and empower individuals to work to the best of their ability in all situations. If you don't, you’ll end up in a culture where staff just tick boxes and move on to the next task.

Give and Take but Write it Down

When writing something, regardless of channel or format, take the time to carefully include all relevant information, giving the recipient what they need to take action. One well written Wiki entry can go a long way and save the back and forth on Slack.

It also highlights the importance of balancing push and pull information. At InnoGames we openly share information across all departments, making it available to everyone. Our culture expects people to pull the information they need for their job on their own as much as possible.

Having the right balance between push and pull is essential in communication, as too much of either can lead to an overload of information or a lack of accountability.

Leaders should keep this in mind by communicating with clarity and thoroughness, while encouraging teams to adopt more of a pull-style to support the balance. This reduces the volume of traffic in our inboxes, limiting distractions and increasing the value of communication.

I believe in the hybrid setup of office space and home office, supported by "work from anywhere" tools
Christian Reshöft

Time for Communication

The importance of communication is agreed upon. What tends to be less discussed are synchronous and asynchronous times and communication channel etiquette. Teams should set core work hours, where they can assure all information will be received simultaneously.

Outside of those hours, colleagues have the freedom to select hours that suit them and should catch up on developments from while they were away. With varying schedules, care should be taken to identify where information can be located, how it will be communicated, and the expectations for various channels.

Email lends itself to lengthier texts, but is not checked as often, making it less timely. Slack messages are quick, but not everyone shares the same sense of urgency. As previously mentioned, one well-written note in the Wiki that employees proactively pull from can make a massive difference to overall team efficiency.

Therefore, teams need to decide what the protocol is, what channels will be used, and what the expectation is when using them.

Better Together, Just Apart

Video conferencing can't replace human interaction and connection. Leaders should encourage their team to make time for (virtual) face-to-face interactions with each other outside of work.

InnoGames has made this easier by converting many of its events to digital formats, from a virtual wine tasting or an in-house app that randomly pairs colleagues for a virtual coffee break. Teams have also held team bonding events virtually, with game and trivia nights.

That said, once the situation allows for it again, it is crucial that we find moments where the entire team gets together in person. This will naturally happen for our teams, as they are located in and around Hamburg. More distributed teams would do well to think about how to get everyone together semi-frequently.

For those who decide to work mostly from home, leaders should pay extra attention that these colleagues are still forming those relationships in the team, in addition to ensuring that they are taking breaks and doing something to stay active. Don't take pride in your team now working an additional hour because they don't have to commute. Rather focus on the unity and overall wellbeing of the team.

It takes a talented team to create and maintain global hits, and having a strong leader is an important element.

Reflecting on how much has changed in just a matter of months and observing the extent to which companies and their employees have had to adapt, it becomes clear that those in leadership positions need to adjust their leadership styles as well.

I believe in the hybrid setup of office space and home office, supported by "work from anywhere" tools. While the skills themselves remain relevant regardless of location, many are still utilized within the context of a physical office location. Still, with some refining, these skills can benefit leadership in a digital landscape. regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.