How to lead a remote team

By Jane Sparrow

Last week, as part of some consulting work we are doing, I was having a conversation with a leader who was new in post at a large global organisation. He was sharing with me how he couldn’t quite believe it when just a few days into his new role and the day before his first meeting with his team of 10 senior direct reports, 99 per cent of the organisation moved to remote working owing to coronavirus. 

He took the immediate decision to move the meeting to be a virtual one and the first thing he did at the start of that meeting, after checking in to see how everyone was feeling given the situation, was take the team on a tour of his house, introducing his wife and two kids and pointing out a few things that were really special to him and why. It went down a storm, created immediate human connection with all those on the call and for me, was a great example of many of the principles of leading a remote team. 

Lead your remote team in a human way 

Leading any team is a tough gig but when you have to do it remotely, it’s a whole other dynamic. We often see leaders come at remote working assuming that their people will just do it well or adapt easily to it, if it’s new for them. The other thing we see all the time is leaders assuming that a new or enhanced virtual working tool is enough to make remote working work. In reality, there’s a lot more to it than the tech. 

We need to remember that we’re all human – and so dropping people into a totally different way of working with just a new video communication platform – it doesn’t work. We have to think about how we keep people feeling connected, that they’re still part of a team and that there’s still a strong support network in place. How we lead our teams and the behaviours we role model is a key part of this.

Top tips for leading a remote team 

1. Don’t focus on tools alone

With video communication, webcasting, messaging platforms and more, the tech is there to make this work. But attitudes and behaviours are key. Talk about what’s important for effective remote working in your team and how you’ll work, behave and communicate to support that.

2. Be realistic and honest 

We’re all in this crisis together so there’s no need to hide your practical limitations and challenges – team leaders being open and honest about their own remote working patterns (and limitations) is essential to set the tone for this and make others feel comfortable.  

3. Create a third culture

There’s how you work, there’s how I work and then there’s a place in the middle where we can all work effectively. Help your team to create a ‘third culture’ with agreed approaches e.g. it’s acceptable to send a quick message to say “I’ll call you back” if you’re deep in focus. 

4. Ensure social continuity 

When we work remotely, our exchanges become more formal and task focused. Pick up the phone, or ping a message, just to see how someone else’s day is going. Virtual team check-ins at the start and end of each day replicate the usual social greetings and create connection.

5. How are we feeling?

Keeping in tune with how your teams are feeling is critical – allow time on the start of every virtual meeting to say hello properly and see how people are. Avoid a diary nightmare and assume all meetings will take longer than scheduled to allow people space to talk and share.  

6. Help people to manage distraction 

Distractions are the biggest reason why many people say homeworking doesn’t work for them. Team leaders talking openly about their own distractions, how they’re managing them and getting people to share their own tips is a great move – specific break times are a good start. 

7. Say thank you more 

We have a human need to feel valued and when we work remotely the opportunities for this diminish. As a team leader, recognise people’s contribution even more, seek out and actively share success and make sure you’re intentionally dialing up the appreciation every day. 

8. Walk the virtual walk 

There’s a critical role for leaders and managers to connect, support, coach and role model during this time. Don’t revert to email for everything because you’re remote, start a vlog to stay visible and connected, choose two different people to call each day for a 10 minute check in. 

9. Embrace a different lens

The COVID-19 situation will mean that we’re looking through a new window into each other’s lives (literally through the laptop!). Embrace that and use it as an opportunity to connect on a more human level with people – if kids burst into a video call, say hi to them!

10. Be human  

‘Words create worlds’ and at times like this how we make people feel is everything. Leaders who always remember the human beings behind the laptops and the challenges they might be facing are the ones who will prevail – in this crisis and always. 

If you need support with creating or embedding an effective remote working culture or leading a remote workforce – find out more about how we can help here or get in touch.