A Walk With Stephan Dohrn In The Maze of Remote Leadership


Stephan Dohrn is a coach, entrepreneur and virtual collaboration expert. He is one of the co-founders of Radical Inclusion, an international consulting firm, which supports remote and distributed teams.

In addition, he is a partner at Impact Hub, the world’s largest community and accelerator for positive change. He is also an expert at Remote How Inc., a platform for community leaders of distributed teams.

Stephan’s company was the first to offer support in remote team development back in 2009. He likes to nurture business relationships with startup founders, corporate leaders, freelancers and entrepreneurs.

Now that we’re done with the introduction, let’s begin the conversation.

TaskQue: First of all, tell us about yourself and how you began your career? What drove you to become a remote working strategist?

I started my career working for international organizations in the area of agricultural development. My role was to facilitate and manage a couple of international networks and communities of practice.

We could not afford to bring many people together in person all too often so we started to experiment with online ways of staying connected and sharing information.

TaskQue: Please tell us more about Radical Inclusion. What sparked the idea to establish a remote consulting company?

When I left that job, I worked mainly as a facilitator and one of the first projects I participated was the organization of a fully online conference in virtual collaboration. This group who organized that conference – we called it the “Realtime Virtual Collaboration Workshop” at the time – really liked working together and we explored ways of delivering this kind of service to companies.

That was the start of Radical Inclusion. We soon understood that companies were struggling with how to run effective online meetings, so we offered trainings on online facilitation, and once they mastered meetings, the topics of leadership and project management became apparent areas for improvement.

TaskQue: Which tools would you suggest that foster effective communication while working remotely?

Every team does need a robust meeting tool that is most than just an audio channel with some screensharing – Video and interactive features like joint annotation or breakout groups for larger teams are really helpful.

A Second tool I think every team needs is a team space in which people can hangout, chat, and stay in touch between meetings – this can be a group chat tool like Slack or MS Teams or something more comprehensive like Basecamp. I find that when teams start out working remotely they tend to rely mostly on meetings but over time this shifts more and more into this asynchronous team space.

In addition to these 2, it depends what your team needs? Do you have a lot of files to share? Do you need to create presentations, reports or other things together and need the ability to co-write in the same document? It really depends on the task, what tools make sense. I have found that it really does not matter which specific ones you use. Rather, I like to think about tools in terms of the collaboration and communication needs they satisfy.

TaskQue: Your partners are in remote locations. How do you ensure smooth communication with them? Do you have any suggestions for entrepreneurs on running companies remotely?

Connect, connect, connect – have regular calls with individuals, small groups and even the whole team which are not about projects or work tasks. Build in socializing into the asynchronous tools as well so people share significant events in their lives with the rest of the team.

TaskQue: In an interview, you claimed that Radical Inclusion’s core purpose is to help remote teams bridge the gap often felt in virtual spaces. Through which mediums/channels/tools do you help them?

Genuine human to human contact created trust, and intimacy. You can do that in any channel, medium, or tool but it has to be done more explicitly in a distributed team as opposed to a co-located one.

In co-located settings, you share the local reality, the physical context – same weather, same problem with the commute, etc., and you end up bumping into each other (in the hallway, at lunch going for a coffee, before the meeting), which provides opportunities for social connection.

Both shared context and socializing opportunities lack in distributed settings, so we have to create then

TaskQue: What do you suggest to remove or reduce distractions while working in a virtual space?

I find there are two types of distractions – things that are happening around remote workers that have nothing to do with, and team members or colleagues distracting each other.

The first is something every individual has to deal with – for those people who find it hard to focus on their work. I find that the reasons are often not in the environment but rather lie in the stories the individuals run about the world and themselves – who am I, what do I believe about the work and myself. Having a mentor or coach (or even a good friend) who can help me sees those blind spots and help me change those stories is a great way of overcoming procrastination.

The second case – co-workers distracting each other, or leaders distracting their employees – has its roots in a lack of alignment. Here the questions the team can work on are: How do we communicate with each other? What tools do we use for which task? What are acceptable turnaround times? What can I expect or not expect from my teammates? The key here is to make good agreements, which include thinking how to deal with potential obstacles: For example, you can agree on a certain set of roles, but what happens if one on the team gets sick? What of that specific role is mission-critical? Who takes over?

TaskQue: How is leading a virtual team different from supervising a co-located team? What are the best practices of managing a virtual team?

This goes back to the point about social connectedness. I have to be much more explicit in building and maintaining relationships, so trust can increase over time.

Generally, what is important in co-located teams is also crucial in remote ones, but you have to be extra clear about it, making sure that everyone understands what was agreed earlier.

A great tool, teams can use, to get alignment on decision-making is the Delegation Poker from Management 3.0. It helps a group understand who has to be involved in a decision to what degree.

TaskQue: Being a remote working consultant, which industry proved to be the most reluctant in transitioning to a remote working environment and what do you suggest for them?

I do not think that there are entire industries that are more reluctant. Larger, highly-bureaucratic companies have a harder time making the shift because the shift towards remote comes hand-in-hand with a shift towards more self-governance, more autonomy for decentralized entities in a company. Often neither the company leadership nor the employees are ready for that shift.

What I would recommend here, is to not start by rolling out new tool suites but to think transitions through strategically first – what do I want to achieve with a transition to more flexible work arrangements and what might this mean for different areas of my business.

TaskQue: How hard is it to manage a virtual team when they are located in different timezones? What are the best practices to do so?

 Most remote teams go through a period of wanting to resolve most work in realtime meetings. That is a really tough phase for teams that span many time zones. Over time, however, most teams start to see the value of working asynchronously, which works rather well across time zones.

A way of making this shift easier for your team could be to have them work in smaller units to 2-4 people who are not that far apart and only bring the whole team together for general coordination or social gatherings.

TaskQue: How difficult is it for a manager to keep their team motivated and engaged while working virtually, especially amidst the COVID-19 Epidemic?

Very difficult, I guess. There are so many additional demands on our attention, from homeschooling to taking care of other people to emotional stress related to ear for our health of the health of others or of not being able to do things we need for our self-care like exercising, seeing friends or getting into nature.

The important thing is not to ignore those things but to acknowledge them as valid reasons to be distracted and offering space and help to improve. Your team members will pay your caring back with more productivity.

TaskQue: What do you suggest for self-management and emotional mastery in order to stay productive and focused during the coronavirus outbreak.

Structure and rhythm: Even a rough structure (getting up at the same time every day, regular meals and a fixed time to end your workday) can help you ground yourself.

The less we have to think about what to do next, the less we tend to get lost in thought spirals that drag us down.

Find a purpose: What can you do to help to make it easier for others. This takes out attention away from ourselves and how bad we have it and instead give us purpose.

Self-care: See that you can do some exercise every day and even if it is only five burpees in the morning or some breathing exercise you do daily.

Take enough short breaks to get out of the computer (see if you can schedule calls starting at ten past the hour or ending 10 to the hour for 10-minute breaks between calls).

TaskQue: In the same interview, you emphasized on constant communication between managers and their teams,  What’s the ideal frequency or best way to communicate with team members?

There is no one ideal frequency. It depends on the team, its size, who well people know each other, the established culture, etc. As a minimum, I would make sure to check in with all my team members at least with a personal message if not a call once a week.

TaskQue: How do you see the role of AI in establishing remote work culture?

Not sure you need AI for that, but automated check-ins and small surveys to share personal tidbits about team members can help to makes these things habits.

TaskQue: Everyone has some inspirational personalities in the industry whom they follow closely. Can you name some figures in your life?

I draw my inspiration from a whole bunch of different people and their content. This includes Adam Grant (WorkLife Podcast), Seth Godin (defining our stories and finding our tribes).

Jason Fried (his ideas about remote and what he publishes about his company culture). Amy Edmondson (the concept of psychological safety), Rich Litvin (the notion of building a business based on deep relationships).

Krista Tippett (On Being Podcast), Gay Hendricks (the notion of the upper limit and living into our genius). Steve Kessler (our survival patterns of behavior and how to become more present. Raj Sisodia (The Healing Organization). And Dane Tomas (The Conscious Hustle and integrating masculine and feminine in us).

TaskQue: TaskQue is a productivity management tool being used widely by remote teams as well as companies looking to streamline day-to-day team collaboration and task management. How do you see the future of such tools?

As I said earlier, I do see the significant potential of remote work in the ability to structure real collaboration asynchronously, and tools like TaskQue are essential resources to take advantage of that potential.