Leadership for Remote Teams

While remote team management is not a new concept, current world events are dramatically increasing the likelihood that managers and their direct reports are no longer working face to face. With this changing landscape, it is imperative that managers evolve their processes of communication, evaluation, and motivation to adapt to this new and increasing environment.

So, what specific behaviors should leaders be evolving and what are the pitfalls they should be careful to avoid? How do these behaviors differ from leadership best practices that have historically been implemented face to face? How do leaders establish clear and consistent communications guidelines? Are there any ground rules for giving and receiving feedback? How do leaders define and model online etiquette to avoid behavioral misinterpretations?

Moving forward in this emerging environment, you’ll not only be expected to maintain a high level of managerial competency, but your employer, colleagues, and team will also be looking to you to set examples and ground rules for them. However, after reading through the most recent list of ‘Top 10 Collaboration tools’ you may be looking for something a little more on these subjects. That’s because great collaborative tools are really only the tip of the spear. Leading remote teams is about understanding the nuances of personal engagement, driving communication, inspiring confidence, and enabling growth in an exclusively digital ecosystem.

Specifically, you may find yourself focusing on these competencies:

  • Organizing Group Activities Online
  • Providing Digital Feedback
  • Developing Online Workflows & Workflow Management
  • Mastering Micro Communications (Over Communication)
  • Diffusing Digital Tension

For the past 22 years, I’ve had the responsibility and privilege of managing remote employees, and I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way. Here are some of the top recommendations for making sure your leadership doesn’t hit any roadblocks in the world of remote employees.


Never Underestimate the Power of a Voice Conversation

The relatively easy process of sending a quick Email can create a comfort zone that lulls managers into a habit of leaning too heavily, and at times exclusively, on this mode of communication. It is important to remember how much content is lost when voice and in-person conversation is replaced with written conversation. The recipient of your Email does not hear your tone, tempo or voice inflections. Without these audible cues, it can become easy to misinterpret some of the more subtle, yet important elements of what you are trying to communicate. Ask yourself, if your employee was sitting in the same office as you, would you deliver that message face to face, or through email. If the answer is face to face, perhaps it would be a better choice to pick up the phone and call your direct report.


It’s Difficult to Overcommunicate to a Remote Team

Keep in mind that remote employees don’t enjoy the impromptu gatherings, hallway, or water cooler dialogs and spontaneous conversations that occur in a face to face environment. The typical “hum” of the office environment, the shared lunch meeting, or the multiple daily elevator encounters simply don’t happen for remote employees. In the absence of these typical avenues of communication, it’s easy for remote employees to feel isolated, ignored and, well, remote. The successful manager of these employees will recognize this impromptu conversation vacuum and make sure to compensate with consistent and increased conversation opportunities.

In general, overcommunication has been one of the secrets in building a successful remote team. We don’t realize how many visual cues our brains process on a daily basis and how much of that is missing in the digital environment.


Managing both Remote and Face to Face Employees

In a face to face environment, it’s typical and easy to share information informally. When you see Steve or Janet in the hallway your memory is jogged about a comment or work-related bit of information you’ve been meaning to share, and so you share it spontaneously. By the time you get back to your desk, however, you’ve already shifted your focus to the next task at hand, and that bit of information doesn’t get shared with the remote employee. Inevitably, your remote employee then innocently discovers that you shared information with their peers, but not them.

Even though your intentions were innocent, this simple circumstance can wreak havoc on the health of your team. If you have important information that is pertinent to the entire team, make sure you share it with the entire team in a timely fashion.



Be Thoughtful and Strategic in your Team Meetings

When attending a meeting remotely, your direct reports will multi-task to an extent that would be largely unacceptable in a face to face meeting. You can take measures to counteract this behavior such as requiring employees to turn on their video cameras, but a thoughtful leader will take extra steps to counteract this distraction.

One of the most powerful actions a team leader can take to address this circumstance is to invest the extra time and energy to ensure team meetings are impactful, strategic, and even rehearsed. Don’t fall into the trap of conducting team meetings with a “wing-it” approach. Be deliberate. Be engaging. Be motivational. Take advantage of the valuable time you have to spend collaborating and planning as a team.

The path we are on as a society would indicate that the requirements of remote team management will only increase over time. Leaders that accept and embrace this new model will set themselves up for success by being diligent and deliberate in addressing the unique challenges presented by managing remote employees.

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