Managing Remote School Teams: Establishing a Foundation to Build Trust

"The responsibility of the leaders is to take care of the people who take care of the children ... Get that order right, you get trusting [school] teams,” author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek told 2019 NAIS Annual Conference attendees.

Building trust may come naturally to school leaders while walking school hallways and engaging with teachers. Now that many school communities are scaling quickly into the online space as a response to COVID-19, building trust virtually with teams is more critical than ever. So how do you virtually build trust with your team?

Over the past few years, I’ve coordinated several full-time remote teams at NAIS. I previously served as a district leader overseeing a remote team of 75 teachers at 110 schools. I’ve learned that there are specific remote management strategies that heads of school—and other school leaders—should consider implementing with their newly remote faculty and staff. Most of these strategies capitalize on a leader’s established toolbox, and when these strategies are scaled effectively, the remote school team will have a solid foundation on which to virtually build trust together.

Identify and communicate which online tools your team should use. In addition to school email accounts, the head of school will need to collaboratively determine which online tools will work best for everyone then communicate those decisions to the team. With the current need to scale quickly, it could be most beneficial to choose tools that the team is already familiar with and/or the school already uses. This is not the ideal context to pilot several new online tools. The head of school should select:
  • a consistent video meeting platform such as Zoom or Google Hangouts (as part of the COVID-19 response, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan recently announced free accounts with unlimited meeting minutes for K–12 teachers and students);
  • an online calendar tool such as Outlook or Google Calendar to schedule virtual team and faculty/staff meetings;
  • a platform to collaboratively share and edit documents such as Google Drive or Microsoft; and
  • a chat feature, such as Zoom, Basecamp, or Slack. Chat is best used for establishing a sense of remote belonging and connection. Be careful to prevent it from becoming an “all-day meeting, with random participants, and no agenda.”
Ensure your team feels supported in their understanding and use of online tools. Encouraging a remote buddy system within your school team can support growth in understanding during this transition to remote work. For example, if a director of advancement is used to popping her head into a friend’s office to answer a basic tech question, when her team is all online, it can feel awkward to email or message a colleague with a basic question. A buddy can help.
Gather important reference documents in one place, and share it with your remote team. Is there a specific plan of action, schedule, or document with emergency information that everyone needs to access remotely? Create a shared folder on one of your online tools to collaboratively share documents, and ensure everyone knows where to find and access this critical reference information.
Create a quick survey to capture team virtual working preferences. Perhaps your admission director is taking lunch at a specific time each day or your lower school director prefers to answer questions on email instead of text. Google Forms and Survey Monkey are easy to use, and you can share survey results through one of your tools with your full team. Sample questions include:
  • How do you feel about working remotely from home?
  • How are you organizing your remote workday?
  • What are your preferred times for meetings during the remote workday?
  • If someone has a quick question, what’s the best way to reach you virtually?
Set virtual expectations for your team. Are there specific hours that team members should always be on email? Do emails need to be answered within a specific time frame? Which types of conversations should be captured in email versus text versus chat? These questions can seem unnecessary to clarify midschool year, especially if your team is high-functioning. However, providing written clarity during this time of transition will build trust by setting expectations for virtual engagement.
Establish virtual meeting norms. Video meetings and calls might take place with a different level of frequency than traditional in-person meetings at school. When possible, create a sense of consistency. If you usually meet with a specific team on Tuesdays at 2 p.m. for an hour, then try to create a repeating video meeting for that same time. Even when online meetings are occurring irregularly, establishing common norms can set expectations and give your school team a sense of comfort. Samples of effective common norms include:
  • When creating a calendar invite for a virtual meeting, specify what the meeting is about in the title or the body of a message. This can substantially alleviate anxiety among team members and ensure everyone arrives prepared for discussion.
  • Create a rolling agenda document—an editable, online document that includes the meeting agenda and notes for a specific team. It is updated at the top of the online document with each subsequent meeting agenda and notes for that team. Update the agenda prior to each virtual meeting as much as possible, and share it with your team in advance. Here’s a sample.
  • Assign someone to take notes (in the rolling agenda document) during the meeting, and rotate who takes notes to ensure team members share the responsibility equally. Include attendance as part of the notes.
  • Spend two to five minutes wrapping up the virtual meeting. Teachers are encouraged to use exit tickets in their classrooms as a strategy to check student learning, and similarly it’s important to pause and check in with your team. You can use this time to review action items or thank the team for their hard work.
  • Start and end on time. This can be challenging to do virtually, but it’s important because it demonstrates respect for colleagues’ schedules and commitments as they are balancing the transition to remote work.
Also, here are some best practices for video calls to share with your team:
  • Turn on your camera, and make sure it’s facing your well-lit face. It can feel weird to chat with a photo or black box on the screen.
  • Turning off the video briefly is fine if you need to grab water or use the restroom.
  • Intentionally create wait time (just like teachers do) during video call discussions, because it allows all team members to share their thoughts.
  • Nod your head the same way you would in a meeting to acknowledge an idea or observe how a colleague is reacting to new information. (If you’re using Zoom, the Gallery View option lets you observe everyone’s video feed all at once.)
Create opportunity for remote reflection. Every month, I used to send my remote team of teachers a quick survey reflection through Google Forms or Survey Monkey. This survey was an opportunity for asynchronous reflection on both their own emotions toward their workload and how I could better support them as a way to build trust. I would review their responses to guide next steps. The teachers felt validated and heard. Consider creating a similar weekly or monthly survey for your team. One reflection is called N.U.T./S., and it’s based on an exercise developed by Vanessa Van Edwards. It asks three open-ended questions:
  • Name the emotion(s) that you are currently feeling toward our new remote learning environment.
  • Understand … Why do you think you’re feeling that way?
  • Transform or Sustain … What do you need to do in order to either transform or sustain this emotion?
Assume positive intent. Emails and messages are often sent quickly. Every now and then, a team member might type something that hits you the wrong way emotionally. Always assume positive intent. Just keep an eye out for any overarching communication patterns that might need to be collectively addressed.
The most important decision to complement these remote management strategies is to encourage connectivity, community, and a healthy online school culture. Always remember to use these online tools in order to support and enhance your existing positive relationships with faculty and staff. At the end of the day, relationships—even remote—are truly what will establish a foundation to build trust.
Don’t miss “Building Trust While Leading Remote School Teams,” a webinar led by the author of this blog post, Claire Wescott, April 6 at 1 p.m. ET.
If you have any questions or need support in managing remote school teams, please reach out to [email protected].
Claire Wescott
Claire Wescott

Claire Wescott is director of project management at NAIS.


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