Essential skills for remote leadership05/09/23
With the pandemic behind us, remote work remains popular as organizations recognize the benefits, such as a measurable increase in productivity.
Shifting to a more remote workforce allows organizations to reduce overhead costs and is helpful in recruiting and retaining talent. There are, however, some challenges that come with the territory, especially when it comes to remote leadership.
Limited experience in remote management
Many leaders have limited experience managing remote teams and have struggled to adjust. Traditional management and leadership tactics can create additional problems when applied to the remote work environment, creating frustration on all sides. Since remote work isn’t going away, remote leadership is an important area of growth.
In this article, we will discuss the common problems leaders experience when managing remote teams and actionable strategies to overcome them.
Remote leadership challenges
Remote leadership comes with a unique set of challenges that can make it difficult to manage a team effectively. One of the most significant challenges is communication.
Communication is a struggle for many leaders in general, but it can be exaggerated in remote environments. The lack of in-person interaction can make it harder to build trust and rapport. Written communications can also make it difficult to ascertain tone and lead to misunderstandings and conflicts.
Lack of team cohesiveness
Effective teams work toward the same goal, utilizing each team member’s strengths to achieve results. This can be difficult to create in a remote environment, especially in teams with a mix of in-office and remote members. In this situation, one group may even feel that the other is considered more valuable or receives preference.
Managing time zone differences
Managing remote employees that work from different time zones can be challenging. Something as simple as setting meetings suddenly requires extra planning and flexibility as workers from later and earlier time zones work to find a time that is neither too early or late.
Maintaining company culture
Company culture plays an important role in creating a supportive, rewarding, and fun workplace. Having a positive company culture can even help recruit and retain workers, but maintaining it is difficult with remote teams. This is especially problematic when onboarding new employees.
Keeping workers productive is an important part of management, but how do you ensure productivity in remote teams? Shifting from measuring the number of tasks checked off a list to more remote-friendly measurements isn’t easy for many leaders, but it’s necessary.
Tips for managing remote teams
Managing remote teams requires techniques that differ from those used in traditional office settings. The following strategies can be utilized to help you lead remote and hybrid teams.
1. Elevate your communication skills
Improving communication skills can help remote leaders create a more supportive and collaborative work environment. It can also reduce the frustration that comes with misunderstanding tone or instructions.
Here are a few ways you can sharpen your overall communication skills when dealing with remote teams:
- Practice active listening and avoid the temptation to multitask during online conversations. Your team will feel like you prioritize them if you give them your full attention. You can reduce misunderstandings by paraphrasing what you hear and asking if you’re on the right track. Listen for changes in tone and defer judgment. Remember, your goal is to hear their concerns and facilitate their success. This is only possible if your team is comfortable talking with you, especially when problems arise.
- Create detailed instructions for projects and tasks so that your team can refer back to them when needed. Never assume that everyone knows the steps involved or the goal you’re working toward. This level of communication may be seen as time-consuming, but it actually saves time by eliminating unnecessary back and forth and by ensuring everyone understands the task at hand. It can also reduce the frustration and stress workers feel when they have tasks assigned to them that they feel unequipped to handle.
- Don’t skip opportunities for “face-to-face” communication, even if it means simply using video in meetings. While you don’t have to always insist on having cameras on, having some face time with your team makes communication feel more personal. It also gives you a chance to read their body language and make a more human connection. This can keep remote teams from feeling isolated and disconnected from their coworkers.
2. Provide regular feedback
Your remote team needs more than a list of to-dos that get crossed off. They also need feedback. Providing regular feedback may happen organically when you work in the same office, but in a remote environment, it takes more effort.
All too often, remote leaders simply watch passively as work gets handled, only speaking up when a new task needs to be completed or if something goes wrong. From the perspective of a remote worker, this can feel like you’re a hamster on a wheel. It can also feel like every time you say something, it’s negative, so your team may shy away from conversations or feel stressed every time you reach out.
Positivity over negativity
The solution to this is to provide regular feedback to your team through email, messages, and conversation. Always shine a brighter light on the good than the bad and address problems privately while offering praise publicly. This will create an encouraging, supportive, and more productive environment.
3. Measure productivity differently
Productivity has traditionally been measured by the time a worker spends working and the number of tasks they complete. This approach to leadership is largely ineffective when managing remote employees. Reducing an employee’s worth to how many items they check off a list fails to properly value the impact of the work they complete.
Quality over quantity
For example, one employee may quickly move through a list of small administrative tasks while another worker may spend hours on a larger, more complicated task. If you’re only concerned with counting the number of tasks completed, you may see the first employee as being more productive and overlook the impact the second employee has made.
Useful work versus busy work
Remote leaders need to see the whole picture and that requires understanding the importance of useful work over busy work. While completing necessary tasks will always be important, it’s not the most important measure of productivity. It is critical that you learn to consider the impact a task has on your company’s goal and use that as the ultimate judge of productivity.
4. Trust and build trust with your teams
Trust is an essential ingredient for building successful teams, especially in a remote environment. Unfortunately, it is one of the more difficult challenges faced by remote leaders and their teams.
Leaders may feel like they can’t know if an employee is really working, so they micromanage and impose restrictions on their remote teams. Remote workers may feel resentful of actions that communicate a lack of trust, like micromanagement or random video calls to see what they are up to.
The trust-first method
Developing trust is not simple, but you can move things in the right direction by using the “trust first” method. If someone has made it through the hiring process and is working on your team, assume that they are trustworthy.
This simply means you extend trust to those on your team unless you have clear reasons to think otherwise. And if you see something that indicates that an employee is not doing the work they should, don’t jump to conclusions. Ask them if they are facing challenges or need help before judging them to be ineffective or untrustworthy.
5. Set clear expectations
Setting clear expectations is essential for achieving success in any organization, but it is especially important for remote teams. When workers understand what is expected of them, they are better able to focus their efforts, stay on track, and meet performance standards. In a remote environment, however, workers may start to feel disconnected and unsure about what is really expected of them.
6. Establish the team’s purpose
When setting expectations for your remote team, start by defining specific goals and objectives that align with the organization's mission and vision. Put large team or department goals in writing and in a shared location that everyone can access.
For smaller goals, create a brief that defines the purpose of the project, the steps needed to complete it, and the names of those involved, along with their role. This makes your team’s purpose and each individual's expectations clear and transparent.
7. Practice empathy
Leaders may be obligated to focus on business objectives, but that is not where the job description ends. We are humans first and employees second, but leaders sometimes forget this due to the pressure involved in reaching company goals. As a remote leader, it is even easier to forget that the people on the other side of the screen are real humans juggling life and work.
Empathy increases trust
Empathy increases trust, improves communication, and makes your team feel more valued. Regularly remind yourself that your team is made up of people that are just like you, with goals, challenges, and a life outside of work.
Create opportunities to:
- Listen without judging
- Ask questions to build rapport and open the lines of communication
Video call body language
Pay attention to body language when you’re on video calls and watch for signs of stress, like a sudden drop in communication or missing deadlines. Last but not least, approach issues with a sympathetic ear, not anger.
Explore your potential as a leader
Remote leadership is poised to become more important in upcoming years as remote-first, hybrid, and global workforces become increasingly mainstream. Improving your communication skills, providing regular feedback, and learning to measure productivity differently can help you create a more supportive and collaborative remote work environment.
Seeking executive training and continued education can also help you acquire the right skill set as a leader.
Are you interested in exploring your potential as a leader? Thunderbird’s Executive Education programs can help you gain the vital skills you need for success in today’s dynamic and challenging environment.