Leading Remote Teams
Published: Dec 17, 2020
BY RANDY MOON
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust many leaders into the unexpected and unprecedented role of managing their teams remotely for the first time.
Employees accustomed to seeing each other and their managers every day at work have been relegated to conducting business and interacting with each other via the computer and telephone.
This distributed workforce raises new leadership issues for organizations. Some leaders are more prepared than others for this new environment. And even while most organizations were caught off guard and possibly unprepared, leaders have been expected to project confidence, set the proper tone, and clearly communicate expectations to the members of their teams.
There is a lot of discussion right now about the use of today’s amazing technology tools in managing remote teams. These tools help connect employees, teams, and their leaders in ways that were unthinkable just a few years ago. But the tools are just a means to help get the work done. Employees working remotely still need guidance, development, and encouragement from their leaders for the organization to progress toward achieving its goals.
As businesses and offices reopen, the work environment may be unrecognizable. Many employees will have remote working skills they did not have before the shutdown. That creates an opportunity for leaders to restructure the way their organizations operate. They can take advantage of these new or enhanced skills and incorporate more staffing flexibility through the use of remote teams. To adapt, leaders can learn not only from their recent experience with individuals working from home but also from global companies and other organizations that have operated with distributed workers for many years.
Regardless of whether a workforce is distributed, each employee in an organization has unique capabilities and personal career goals. It is up to the organizations’ leaders to cultivate those capabilities and encourage those goals. Through engagement and dialogue, effective leaders foster a connection with the people in their organizations and fulfill their employees’ desire to grow.
LEADERS HIRE THE RIGHT PEOPLE
When putting together a team to work remotely, a leader should seek to hire those with the potential to work independently yet participate as members of coordinated teams. Successful employees in these roles tend to be hardworking, self-motivated, and disciplined. They must be willing to take initiative yet operate consistently in concert with their colleagues toward achieving the company’s goals.
The talent pool for hiring remote workers is much deeper than for a localized team. Since remote team members can work essentially from anywhere, employers can hire anyone living anywhere.
Leaders of a distributed workforce need to ask questions, seek input, and listen intently. Genuine listening is especially important in an environment where the relationship with remote team members is maintained primarily through a technology medium—be it a telephone or a video feed. Sometimes those interactions will be one-on-one by telephone, and at other times there may be a team meeting held on a videoconferencing platform like Zoom.
Like all ambitious employees, remote workers want to be recognized and have opportunities to develop their skills and grow in their organizations. By engaging individual team members in dialogue about the training, knowledge, and skills they need to develop to fulfill their career goals, a leader can create an environment that allows each individual to thrive.
Remote teams will likely have a very different working dynamic than localized teams. Individuals participating on remote teams may not be in the same time zones, may not live in the same countries, and may speak different primary languages. Leaders must be mindful of those differences and respect diverse cultures attendant with the team members’ locations and backgrounds. Leaders need not micromanage or be directive, but instead should listen and probe for the meaning of what is being said— and not said.
The leader of a remote team should establish a clear and defined communication infrastructure with the team. Protocols should be established as to the appropriate modes of communication for different situations. Examples of such protocols are “Regularly scheduled team meetings will be held by video,” “Matters that can be addressed within a day or so can be emailed,” and “Informal matters can be discussed on chat and urgent matters should be handled by telephone.”
Frequent communication is essential for remote teams. Leaders of these teams need to be thoughtfully prepared for these meetings because there is no chance for hallway follow-up. The communication can take place between the leader and the team, the leader and an individual team member, and among team members. Keep in mind that, just like employees who show up for work at the office every day, remote employees want to know what’s going on in the organization. Keeping them informed is a key function of the leader. It is very easy for a remote team member to feel out of touch, isolated, and even forgotten without regular interaction with the leader. It should be remembered that almost by definition, remote employees can be very transient if they don’t feel a connection with the organization. This connection will only occur with the active participation of the leader and members of the team.
Feedback from leaders is an important type of communication for remote team members. Through periodic feedback, a leader can support individuals to actively manage their careers and generate results for the organization.
Leaders in many traditional companies provide formal annual reviews in which the individual is given feedback with respect to attainment of the goals set the year before. That is certainly insufficient when leading remote teams.
Leaders should provide continuous feedback to members of these teams. Effective leaders regularly monitor individuals’ progress, listen to their input and ideas, and then provide timely, constructive, and actionable feedback.
Remote team members can feel like they are on their own in figuring out where they fit in an organization. By providing feedback and coaching individuals, effective leaders give them a framework for development and understanding their role in generating results. For instance, an individual may discuss with his or her leader a need for guidance in how to establish broader networks inside the organization and learn more about the enterprise. Leaders can facilitate and encourage this by providing opportunities for the remote team member to participate with colleagues on some key initiatives outside his or her normal areas of engagement.
Coaching can be the key to developing healthy working relationships, because the idea of surfacing and addressing issues and solving problems is central to coaching. This in turn will remove obstacles to getting business results. Coaching can also help individuals align their behaviors with the values and vision of the organization. By helping people understand how they are perceived in the organization and among their team and listening to their concerns, coaching can foster trust between leaders and employees.
Leaders of remote teams must set realistic expectations of desired results, with clear guidance and appropriate resources, and then, to the extent possible, get out of the way and let the team handle the process of how to achieve those results. For this to occur, there must be an open, trusting environment to communicate and share information. First, the leader must provide team members with the information and instruction they need to understand their tasks, roles, and functions within the organization. Empowering these individuals then requires the leader to give them the opportunity to apply their training and capabilities to business problems and opportunities. The leader must let go of control that is not necessary and empower remote team members to make decisions.
That can be easier said than done. For employees to feel empowered, they must have confidence that they can make decisions with their leaders’ support. They must have the tools and knowledge they need to act upon those decisions. They must feel safe in their jobs. The leader does not just abdicate responsibility to the team. Instead, it’s necessary to have a constant dialogue among the leader, team members, and others in the organization. But this scenario illustrates the difference between being a leader and being a manager. A manager would focus on the business and the necessary results. A leader focuses on growing people not just for the short-term results but also the longer-term benefits for the company and the employees.
When employees are allowed to return to their offices or places of work as restrictions associated with the pandemic are lifted or relaxed, it is likely they may return to work environments that do not resemble the ones they left. Social distancing guidelines may dictate that only a portion of a company’s workforce return to an office setting while the rest continue to work remotely. But many businesses are probably better equipped now to have employees and teams work remotely than they were before. Some that have not encouraged remote teams in the past may do so. Leaders of these teams need to keep in mind that remote teams are comprised of individuals who, like their colleagues who show up for work in the office every day, will be most successful if they are treated with respect and provided opportunities to grow and develop.
About the Author: Randy Moon is the managing director of BRG’s Washington, DC, office and a respected professional with 30 years of experience as a human resources executive, advisor, and attorney.