What do you need to do to be an effective leader for your remote team?
Since the Covid-19 Pandemic made remote workers out of so many of us, I have been reading and listening to great information and advice from thought leaders around the globe and across industries. In some ways, it seems like there is so much great information available that knowing where to start or how to sort through it can be perplexing.
I realized that what I wanted, what I was missing, was a succinct and clear overview of the essentials of leading a remote team. What are the actions that set a great remote leader apart?
As I reflected on this, I came to understand that remote leadership, like all leadership, involves being authentic, active, and visible. We all want leaders who can establish a personal connection - and that desire is not eliminated just because we happen to be in different locations. The uniqueness of remote teams amplifies and challenges our need for connection even more.
The fundamental behaviors of great leadership haven’t changed - it’s our approach to them that must be adapted. With that in mind, here are the seven essential actions great remote team leaders do.
1.Be visible: check-in everyday & use video
People are not forgotten on purpose. They are forgotten by accident.
It’s true what they say: out of sight is out of mind. Acknowledging that this happens, even when we have the best of intentions, incentives us to prioritize visibility. Focus on making yourself visible to your team by building in routines that remind you to connect and be close. This could be a 15-minute call, a slack, or text message - anything that is more immediate.
Ultimately, video is king. It’s fantastic and so needed that we can easily connect with our team through Zoom or similar platforms. Video gives us the opportunity to respond to non-verbal cues, demonstrate that we are listening, and reinforces a sense of connection. It ensures that you are not forgetting your team.
2.Be accessible: respond quickly & follow up
Responsiveness in a leader helps build trust, and this holds in both a physical and a remote environment. It demonstrates that you care and that you can be counted upon.
Because of our lack of proximity in remote teams, we need to compensate with the ability to respond quickly and follow up. Aim to respond within a few hours. Being perfect with this isn’t the goal, rather consistency is key. Track and follow up on requests, and be clear with your team that if you haven’t responded to a request, they have permission to follow up.
One challenge with remote work is overcoming the perception that people are not doing what they are supposed to be doing because we cannot see them. Know that this applies to you as well - if your team doesn’t know that you are working to remove obstacles to their work, they will think you are not keeping your commitment to them.
3.Be clear: set clear goals, priorities & agendas
Working from home introduces even more ways to get distracted--both from homelife and also with incoming messages from work. Yet, even with each of our full workloads, research shows that remote workers tend to work even more hours than at the office. The key is to provide frequent priority setting conversations. Facilitate these daily, weekly, and monthly expectation setting and resetting conversations to remove obstacles and set realistic priorities that consider both the professional and homelife variables. Expect that each team member uses the agreed upon prioritization filter to manage their work.
With this comes the added need to trust your team and let go of a sense of control, and this can be hard - especially when your team is remote. It’s good to remember that people can be even more productive working as remote employees than they did in the office. By providing clear priorities for your team, they can manage distractions, stay focused on the most important tasks, and empower them to put those hours to good use.
Approach meetings with the same mindset. Set clear agendas and refuse to schedule a meeting without one. Analyze the meeting, keep it short, and consider how to encourage participation. Let people know what they need to come prepared and focus on involving everyone.
4.Be personable: care about each person
We have a tendency to think of remote work as less personable, but there are ways in which remote work has allowed us to become closer to each other. In our virtual meetings, we have a window into the lives of our team members that did not exist before. We have seen into people’s homes, we have seen the pictures behind them, we have seen kids and pets. In other words, we have seen so many more ways we can establish a connection with each individual.
Continue authentically establishing and building on those connections. Effective leaders demonstrate that they care and they understand the realities each person is facing. Be considerate and recognize that we are talking about humans, not automatons. Meet your team members where they are at and show vulnerability yourself in order to reinforce a sense of psychological safety.
5.Be outcome-focused: More focus on the why and what than the how
When leading a remote team it’s critical to focus more on the “what” and less on the “how.” In fact, you will need to provide even greater latitude on the “how” so that your team members can feel a sense of ownership over their work. When you set goals or parcel out assignments, ensure that there is a clear understanding of what needs to be accomplished and why it is important.
When leading people it’s easy to fall into a pattern of telling our team members how to do something instead of allowing them the freedom to do their job. The reality is that most professionals competently perform, and when leaders give their team members the privilege to do their job and provide results without focusing on how the work gets done, team members are more engaged in their work, they have a greater sense of pride in their accomplishments, and they appreciate the trust you have in their ability to solve problems.
6.Be flexible: set adaptable boundaries
The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.
Rigid and uncompromising leaders have a tendency to crack (or at least crack their team!), and this is only exacerbated by remote work. Flexibility defines the necessary mindset for remote leadership. Humans have a tendency to try to control their environment, but this whole remote experience gives us less control.
Understand that some things won’t run as smoothly as you may like. Maybe bandwidth issues cause stuttering in your meetings, or there is a delay that causes team members to start talking over one another. Perhaps you have employees with children who seem to know exactly when their parents are in a meeting and suddenly have 1,000 requests at that exact moment - perhaps your kids do the same.
Being flexible does not mean allowing anything and everything to happen. You must set boundaries for yourself and your team. But choosing to be patient and flexible within those boundaries will reduce stress for yourself and your team members.
7.Be positive: acknowledge good work
Even when one avoids checking the news too often these days, the stress and uncertainty of these times can permeate our lives, and I don’t know about you, but I am experiencing and noticing in others anxiety over things we cannot control.
As a leader, make work a refuge for your team. It’s possible to recognize the realities and difficulties in the world while still framing our work in a positive and optimistic way. Provide a place for your team where they are trusted and valued. Thank them for their work and capture the things that are going well. Remember, in the end, we are all wanting to make a difference, and acknowledging the contributions from each team member, is one of the most important behaviors a remote leader can show!
Teams are amazing amplifiers of our individual strengths and weaknesses. With the shift to remote teams, we are now getting to know how our skills, talents, and dysfunctions are being amplified in new and different ways. This requires a new leadership perspective as we embrace and lead through the uniqueness of working from home. Gratefully, many of the same critical leadership behaviors that have made us successful in an office environment are also needed for a remote team. However, it is how these behaviors are performed and customized to the uniqueness of working from home that makes all the difference. Be approachable and available, engage in prioritizing conversations, and be personable during these uncertain times and watch the engagement of your team rise!