The snowball effect has been in full force. First, Facebook made a work from home announcement, then Google, Twitter, and Salesforce followed up with policies of their own. While these companies’ WFH policies are slightly different, managers will be leading remote teams for the foreseeable future.
On the surface, this is great for professionals because it provides built-in flexibility to control their commute and work schedule. However, when you dig deeper, it exposes some real challenges for people in positions of leadership. Sustaining productivity, performance, teamwork, and culture are all more complicated in a remote work setting.
After studying remote work and helping managers prepare for their changing responsibilities, one thing is abundantly clear:
Most people manage a remote team, but few lead one.
Managing focuses on numbers, KPI’s, schedules, and performance management. These are obviously important when it comes to remote work, and often can be automated or be executed successfully, even by bad bosses. Leadership, on the other hand, is about inspiring, empowering, and serving others. The best leaders elevate others to levels they didn’t think possible.
Challenges for leaders of remote teams
Leading this way is hard, but it’s even harder with a remote team due to the inability to gather the team together, in person. In a recent episode of the WorkLife Podcast with Adam Grant, he covered two primary challenges of remote teams that leaders need to be aware of:
Shared identity. Teams need to feel they are all in this together. When working remotely, it is easier than ever to feel like you’re on an island and lose sight of achieving things as a group instead of individually. Grant said it so well: “We bond best when our individual actions contribute to a common purpose.”
Shared understanding. Individuals need to feel alignment with what a team is doing and what it values. Since each remote team member will have a different personal situation and remote work set up, having a shared understanding is essential.
While both seem simple on the surface, they are difficult for leaders of remote teams to achieve. If you are faced with leading a remote team, here are a few best practices to help ensure you are leading and not just managing:
Connect them to a shared cause and objective
The verb form of the word “team” means coming together as a group to achieve a common goal. Setting a clear cause and an objective for a team is instrumental in achieving higher levels of success.
Do not go another minute without being clear on why your team is doing what it’s doing and what you’re working towards achieving. It’s easy for people to get lost in the monotony of their everyday work without considering how their work impacts the larger organization and customers.
If you’re unsure how to communicate this to your team, start by answering these two complicated yet straightforward questions:
- What do you do, and why do you do it? (Hint: it’s got to be more than making money)
- What goal would your team be excited about achieving?
It’s easy to skim past those two questions, but I’m challenging you to pause. Reread those two questions and ask yourself if each member of your team could answer them. If the answer is no, you have some work to do.
Clarify remote work standards
A standard is defining what good looks like. From all of our research in studying what the best leaders do in Building the Best, it’s clear:
Managers define what good looks like; leaders define what great looks like.
It will be tempting to lower the standards for your team since you are working remotely. I urge you to reject this temptation and instead maintain or even raise the standard. Clarity your team standards around work schedules, team and one-on-one meetings, and communication methods.
Every leader of a remote team should have a standing weekly team meeting; Don’t just stop there; leverage a weekly one-on-one scheduled meeting each week with every team member. Use a tool like Peoplebox to help you be an effective leader during these interactions.
Coach for development
Since so much of remote work is about outcomes, leaders need to make a dedicated effort to coach and develop their people. The word coach comes from “carriage,” which means to take someone from where they are today to where they want to go. The late great John Whitmore took the formal definition even further saying:
“Coaching is unlocking people’s potential and helping them learn rather than teaching them.”
Be present. If you are going to coach your people for development, being present in your interactions is essential. Reject the temptation to multitask and instead lock in and focus on how you can help them develop.
While being an effective coach isn’t easy, it will not only pay off in the short term but will leave a lasting impact. If you ever find yourself veering away from coaching your people ask yourself this simple question. “What is the value I can give the person in front of me right now that’s meaningful to them?”
I have included a list of remote coaching questions to get you started:
- I’ve struggled to unplug from work since we are now remote, how are you managing it?
- Do you have a proper work setup at home?
- Which aspect of remote work do you enjoy the most?
- Is there anything I can do to help you be more productive when you’re working from home?
- What’s the biggest challenge you face while working remotely?
- How often are you speaking with other team members?
You are capable of leading your remote team through this unprecedented time. Embrace the discomfort of your virtual environment and elevate your people to higher levels of performance.
Download the Leading Remote Teams Toolkit for Free Here.
About the Author: John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company making virtual training easy and effective. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success and host of the “Follow My Lead” Podcast, a show that transfers stories and best practices from today’s leaders to the leaders of tomorrow. You follow him on Instagram @johngeades.