Leading From Afar: How to Be Successful With Remote Teams

January 14, 2019
MRA Edge
Leadership & Management & Supervision
Read time: 4 mins

If you think managing employees in the office can be tricky, ask anyone who has direct reports across the state (or across the country) and you’ll realize that there’s a different set of rules to remote leadership.

When a team isn’t physically in the same space, important aspects of a traditional work group are missing. Think about how much team building happens organically in everyday activities. A lot of work gets done in hallways and stairwells. How often do you randomly bump into someone and have an impromptu conversation about a project? And think about how much work happens before and after meetings. You arrive a few minutes early, start out talking about the football game, and then evolve to what the heck happened with that client—you have answers to questions before the meeting even starts. But, not so much for your remote team members who aren’t logged in yet.

Relationships (Really) Matter

The biggest difficulty with remote leadership is building relationships. It’s common for off-site managers to call on the phone and jump into work too fast. There’s no chitchat about the family, that vacation they’re taking, or how the root canal went—banter that would normally take place in an office setting. But it needs to because that’s where relationship building starts. It may seem like extra effort, like you’re not getting work done, but it’s the glue that holds teams together, with the end result of a successful working relationship.

Here are some tips of the trade when managing people from a distance:

  • Choose video over a phone call. It may take a little more coordinating on your part but it makes the interaction more real. Of course, phone calls are functional but if virtual meetings are an option, take it.
  • Be clear on how you’re going to work together. Will you have daily meetings? What time of day is best to connect? Be well-defined on plans, goals, and expectations, and stick to them.
  • Go to where the employee is as often as possible. And when you do spend time in the same space, don’t do things in-person that you could do remotely, like talking about procedures and day-to-day work. Instead, focus on solving conflicts, coaching, giving feedback, discussing something delicate that needs to be explained, and having some fun together.
  • Schedule a coffee break on the phone. Take this time to have a conversation about life, not work. Enjoy a cup of coffee, tea, or soda together and talk about the little things. It’s a big deal in building your remote working relationship.
  • Remind your employee upfront (and often) to tell you about the good things that are happening. The challenging issues will always come up, but the "wins" you won’t always hear about, like a crisis that was averted. Encourage your remote employee to proudly share all of his or her "superstar moments."

Does Your Employee Fit the Bill?

Not everyone is cut out to work at home. If your employee is easily distracted, working at home may be a big challenge. Structure and focus are must-haves. At times, privacy is imperative. Remember the viral video when the adorable toddler and baby enter the room and hijack dad’s live teleconference call, with mom rushing in to get them? Space can be an issue—the kitchen table may not be as effective as a room less used.

But there are many positive aspects about working remotely. People who successfully work from home tend to put in more hours, be more productive, are happier, highly satisfied, and loyal to their company. The organization saves money because there’s no need for office space. Another bonus: Employees aren’t tied to a city, or a country for that matter—they can work anywhere they like.

Leading from afar can be challenging in different ways than leading an in-house team, but it can also be very rewarding. Following these guidelines is a great step in the right direction to your remote team’s happiness.

Source: Janet Stoffer, Learning and Development Manager, MRA - The Management Association