Top tips for leading remote working teams

We are all facing significant new challenges right now. Having been working with clients and colleagues face-to-face, COVID-19 many of us now having to get used to working remotely full time. As individuals and as teams we must learn and adapt quickly to a very different way of working. And for leaders, having to oversee their teams remotely brings added challenges.

So, what can we do to navigate and more effectively lead others in these most tricky times?

1. Make the most of technology at your disposal

Establishing new working habits is a big challenge – particularly if you’re used to regular face-to-face interaction. This is particularly true for remote leaders. Working at home full time can cause people to feel isolated and aimless. And while digital communication enables us (technically), it can also create new problems. Don’t forget that you’re dealing with real human beings!

Dr Karen Sobel Lojeski describes ‘virtual distancing’ as a sense of emotional and psychological detachment that builds up over time if we become over-reliant on technology. She explains that disconnection creeps in and undermines trust, engagement and goal clarity. It’s harder to pick up on non-verbal cues that are essential to understanding people’s intentions or feelings. In short, you lose the ability to build and maintain meaningful working relationships with people.

Don’t worry though – there are ways around this. Several studies suggest finding ways to reduce ‘virtual distance’ by helping team members feel emotionally and psychologically connected to one other and the business:

  • One found that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the frequency of face-to-face exchanges among team members.
  • Another found that 50% of positive changes in communication patterns within the workplace can be credited to informal interactions outside of the workplace.

And while it’s no longer an option to grab a coffee or go to the pub after work, platforms such as Yammer, Microsoft Teams or Slack can be used to foster those informal interactions. Likewise, a daily ‘Virtual tea break’ can maintain that oh-so-important social interaction (we’re already using this one ourselves!).

Also, consider setting some team ground rules for how to use technology. In principle, the more similar you can make your virtual meetings to face-to-face ones, the better. It will allow team members to pick up on non-verbal cues that are crucial to effective communication. So, for example, one rule should definitely be: “in meetings, we turn on our webcams”.

2. Balance freedom with accountability

Good leadership is essential in any high performing remote team. Leaders new to remote working may initially find it difficult to fully trust what their teams are doing when they can’t see it. Some might even question how they can know if employees working away from the office are really working.

So, right off the bat, remote team leadership requires a mindset shift. Rather than overseeing all communication and actions, leaders must focus on the objectives and outputs. Set clear expectations up front, communicate who is accountable for what, give people the freedom and flexibility to achieve those expectations in their own way, monitor progress without micromanaging and hold them to account for their output without blame or criticism.

The basic principles of good leadership are the same, whether working virtually or face-to-face. The difference is that demonstrating trust and providing your team with freedom and clear accountability becomes even more important when leading remotely.

3. Establish new rules of engagement

When communicating as a team, don’t always go straight to ‘task mode’. Think about how you want to work together. A common mistake for remote teams is to slip into a purely transactional mode of communication, focussing on the ‘what’ and the task without considering the ‘how’ and the relationship. Remember that trust, collaboration and strong relationships are all essential to good teamwork. So maybe begin by asking – “what are we trying achieve?” followed by “how do we need to be with each other, to get the most out of this time together?”.

As a leader, you should also be asking what each team member needs – particularly important under the current unprecedented circumstances – in order to be at their best. Listen to how people are feeling and what’s on their mind. Try tuning in to these things by asking effective open questions, really listening and creating an environment in which people feel safe to have these open, honest conversations on a regular basis. This will provide you with clarity on how you can support your virtual colleagues in the best way, in the process ensuring you and they get the desired outcomes.

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