How to thrive at remote working
How to series

How to thrive at remote working

Leading highly-motivated remote teams is tough. Here’s how to get it right.

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By week 10 of lockdown you’ve probably come to know the pains and highs of remote working. Days of productive flow broken up by days of loneliness and grumpiness and never ending zoom calls. Our heart goes out to all parents. Homeschooling or looking after toddlers and babies whilst trying to hold down a job that provides for the family is incredibly difficult. You are heroes from another planet and no-one is judging you for essentially being teaching assistants of Disney+ and Netflix.

If you’re anything like us you’ve probably had days wishing back the good old days of being able to see other human beings in an office environment. But for better or worse, lockdown has taught us that remote working is possible for many of us and it can be really productive and liberating if done well. We love that many of us got a taste for it and want it in their life permanently once COVID-19 is over.

98% of people surveyed said they would like the option to work remotely for the rest of their careers.
Buffer – state of remote working

But how do you create, motivate and maintain a fully remote workforce? How do you find the right people and how do you enable them and ensure that they perform?

Remote working at a Pharma Meetup

Richard Coope, Brightful’s Founder, spoke at the Pharma Multi-channel Meetup webinar on Wednesday 17th June on ‘How to lead an effective remote workforce’. The virtual event was hosted by James Harper and Christine MacKay.

You can watch Richard’s 30-minute webinar here. But our guess is you’re probably officially zoomed out by now so here’s a summary of the key points Richard shared along with his slides (available to download at the end of this article).

It’s all about trust

So if employees want it and companies can save money, what could stop remote working from becoming a reality post-COVID-19? The key issue is trust.

82% of managers are concerned about reduced employee focus or productivity
Buffer – state of remote working

We’ve spoken to a lot of companies over the past 12 weeks of lock-down about remote working as well as reflecting on our own experiences as individuals and as a team. We think we’ve found the winning formula to leading effective remote teams and essentially it’s about getting these three key elements right:

1. Setting expectations
2. Self-motivation
3. Trust!

Setting expectations

Setting expectations is all about providing clarity and guidance in the working day (whether that ‘working day’ is a weekday morning, late in the evening or in fact a Sunday afternoon). Leaders need to take responsibility. For instance, provide context to why something needs to be done, give clear briefs, definite deadlines, provide feedback and be available through open and honest communication. Managers also need to be more available for questions. And importantly, once clear objectives and deadlines are set, continue to support their teams to deliver on their objectives.

Clear briefs, deadlines and expectation setting makes sure your team knows what it needs to do


Self-motivation doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Some have developed it over the years themselves, others need some guidance and support when left to their own devices for the first time. And now, more than ever, employees need a clear purpose to drive their motivation. Whilst a stable salary and financial perks continue to add much-needed reassurance and fair renumeration is the first step to a happy workforce, these benefits function on a mechanical level in the mind of an employee. However, if you encourage your teams to take more control of how their job is managed and why their work matters this quickly becomes the key to unlocking discretionary effort.

As leaders, you can use this current climate as an opportunity to motivate your workforce to learn, grow and be their best – both inside and outside work. That could be through providing tangible tools like the right kit for home working, or proactively supporting additional online learning and time for networking events. Ensure they receive both physical and mental breaks throughout the day.

As Daniel Pink mentioned in his book on motivation in a workplace, called ‘Drive’:

“It’s not about pay cheques, or a monthly salary. It’s about autonomy, mastery and purpose.”
Daniel Pink, Drive: The truth about what motivates us


Autonomy, mastery and purpose is what truly motivates us


Trust is crucial. As the data highlighted earlier, trust is the ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to diagnosing what’s not working in an underperforming remote workforce. Some companies have viewed, and still view, remote working as a courtesy to workers and a risk to productivity. The worry has been that without seeing them in the office dedication will be absent.

But is this the real problem here? Or is it more of an issue of trust? There is a widely held view that teams that are not trusted to deliver work professionally may point to a systemic problem within leadership or culture. So ask yourself as a leader, do you trust people to do their job even when you cannot see them? Or if you have given that trust is there perhaps a culture mismatch for an employee or have you made a bad hiring decision?

If people really want to play video games or surf the web all day, they’re perfectly capable of doing so from their desks at the office. […] If you run your ship with the conviction that everyone’s a slacker, your employees will put all their ingenuity into proving you right.
REMOTE: OFFICE NOT REQUIRED by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried – NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER

It’s important to note that there’s a difference to what motivates people when they are required to do deliver highly creative work vs. functional tasks. Understanding what motivates who when is the first step to making sure that you can set the right environment for more autonomy, enabling mastery and giving real genuine meaningful purpose to what your team is accomplishing.

Handle with care

Most importantly, as leaders we must handle the leadership of remote teams carefully and handle this transition with care and compassion. As the Canadian government recently set out in their COVID-19 remote working charter:

“You are not working from home, you are at your home, during a crisis, trying to work”

Working from home during COVID-19 is not normal remote working

So, what level of remote working are you at?

To help gauge where you think you may sit on the spectrum of successful remote working, we suggest seeing how you measure up against Matt Mullenweg’s ‘5 Levels’ of remote working:

  1. Level 1 – No deliberate action
    As a company you haven’t taken any decisive action to foster remote working. As an employee, you may have had to work from home occasionally, perhaps to let the plumber in.
  2. Level 2 – Recreating the office, online
    The experience of work is very similar to what it’s like in the office but you’re at home instead – the same meetings run in a similar fashion and there are still interruptions. This time the interruptions are via an instant messaging app rather than from curious colleagues who appear at your desk. Some companies may even be tempted to monitor workers’ activity and use spying tools in lieu of the trust mentioned above. Barclays were recently found out to have tried this and, as a consequence, lost a huge amount of trust and good-will from their staff and remote teams.
  3. Level 3 – Adapting to the medium
    Here, organisations start to adapt and try to take advantage of the alternative work medium through things like real-time shared documents, collaboration platforms and investment into other tools and physical equipment that make distance working more effective.
  4. Level 4 – Asynchronous communication
    As a company, the idea of remote working is embraced, and you accept that people will work in different patterns. You are also used to the idea of not receiving a response to communication straight away – which is a good thing. You care less about how and when the work is being done and more about the accountability that employees show to deliver the work itself.
  5. Level 5 – The Nirvana
    Simply put, your organisation has created a highly accountable, culturally-led team, completely location-agnostic, never dropping the ball, with high productivity levels consistently higher than traditional office-based companies trying to do the same thing.

Take it to the next level

Do these levels ring true to you when it comes to your current working situation? We’ve all probably led teams or been part of companies that hover around level 2 or 3. It’s less important where you believe you are now. What matters as a leader is how much more effective do you want your remote workforce to become?

As Thomas Cromwell once said in 1645 about the creation of a New Model Army,

‘If an army knows what it is fighting for and loves what it knows, it will win any battle’
Thomas Cromwell, 1645

In short, it doesn’t matter if you are working from home or in an office. It’s not about location, it’s about really good leadership values. It’s about leading your team purpose.

Ready for the next level?

At the same webinar event, we heard from other highly respected speakers involved in pharma marketing, including James Harper, Founder / Managing Director, twentyeightb, Angie Wiles, Founder, The Difference Collective, Rebecca Lewis Smith, Co-founder & Director, Fountain Partnership and Christine MacKay, Managing Director at Salamanda UK.

Special thanks to both James Harper and Christine Mackay who run the regular Pharma Multichannel Meetup webinars (Christine’s Salamandra UK team produced the webinar video below).

You can find a full recording of Pharma Multichannel Meetup webinar, including all speakers, here.

Download our remote working presentation

For more tips on motivation, trust and decision making remotely

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