Managing remote employees in the COVID-19 era

A conversation with Lori McLeese, global head of HR at Automattic

The COVID-19 virus has blown up the workplace as we know it. Millions of employees have been sent home along with their managers. Most managers have little or no experience leading teams—or even themselves—remotely.

How can workers make this head-spinning transition while dealing with parenting challenges, healthcare issues, and other stresses at home?

For some immediate answers, we turned to someone with deep experience managing remote employees. Lori McLeese is global head of human resources at Automattic, the parent company of, Tumblr, and WooCommerce. Automattic maintains a fully distributed workforce of 1,100 employees working remotely in 76 countries.

What’s a key piece of advice for managers without experience running remote teams?

Focus on patience and kindness. This isn’t merely about shifting from one work style to another—it’s about juggling work in the middle of a global pandemic. So we’re not just “WFH” in the way that even we at Automattic are accustomed to.

remote teams

You might be caring for kids or loved ones and navigating entirely new life routines that restrict your movement and require spending time with others in close quarters. That means an increase in stress and perhaps some changing schedules that leave your work hours in flux.

Because of that chaos, you’re likely to have people who will have to miss some meetings or face interruptions during a video chat. We need to give each other the understanding that this isn’t business as usual. Instead of focusing on what a team member can’t do, focus on what they can—and make that a dialogue. Understand this was a change that no one had time to prepare for.

At Automattic, one thing that’s been a huge help is that we try to ensure that our meetings and communication are accessible across time zones. We try to minimize real-time video chats, and when we host them we’ll often record and transcribe them so if folks can’t join live they can still watch them later.

How about employees? What can help them the most right now?

The kindness rule applies to everyone. When you have both employees and managers trying remote work for the first time, I’d suggest this: over-communicate. That doesn’t mean more meetings and phone calls. It means your company and teams should double down on text documentation to clarify the work you’re doing, and to help everyone get on the same page.

Why text? It’s the most accessible across any time zone and it’s the easiest to scan and review quickly. As schedules may be changing, accessibility to information at any time will become more important.

As schedules may be changing, accessibility to information at any time will become more important.

Our creed at Automattic is, “Communication is oxygen.” Our most important tool for that is a collection of company and team WordPress blogs called P2s. We use these instead of email because whatever we’re working on can be accessed and searched by everyone.

This kind of internal communication is important even when you work in an office. Our physical presence often gives a false sense of security that we know what people are working on. Remote work removes that assumption entirely, which means you need to actively share what you are doing, otherwise no one will know. We have an internal phrase for that: “P2 or it didn’t happen.”

What are the immediate challenges you’re focused on at Automattic?

The most important thing now is ensuring the safety and stability of our colleagues, and making sure we are adjusting our own practices to keep the business running, while acknowledging this new reality we’re all experiencing.

In many ways, we’re lucky. We were already a remote-friendly company, and our product is entirely digital. But we’ve had to cancel or postpone many work meetups and conferences. When you are a distributed company, you still need in-person meetings to build relationships. But for now, like the rest of the world, we want everyone to take the steps they need to focus on their health, their families, and their loved ones.