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How to Effectively Lead a Remote Team

As if managing a team wasn’t hard enough before, with COVID-19, it’s even more complicated. Even with all the technology we have – video, phone, Slack, IM, texting, email – communicating with each other effectively and getting work done has been a steep learning curve. So has figuring out the best way to lead a remote team. What hasn’t changed for managers, though, is the need for mindful, thoughtful communication with employees and colleagues.

Communicating in a Virtual World

Are you someone who thrives in the office environment? Being around your team, interacting with people in the moment, or just sitting at your desk and hearing what is going on around you might be your fuel. What’s tough about the world we are living in now is that you’re not going to run into someone in the hallway or at the coffee station. Those little, invaluable, communication moments won’t happen spontaneously. What’s also missing is the non-verbal information that occurs face-to-face. You may have to devote more thought to how and when you communicate with others.

If you have found communication challenging while leading a remote team, here are some tips on connecting in a virtual world.

Have options. Working from home has its challenges. Parents suddenly find themselves trying to juggle childcare and job responsibilities. Whether it’s working in makeshift home offices, sharing small spaces with roommates or just going a little stir crazy, people are under stress. So, be flexible when choosing how and when to connect. A video call may be inconvenient, so might a specific time of day. Offer options. Being accommodating and giving people some control can go a long way to reducing stress.

Put it in context. In a remote work environment, it’s hard to know how busy somebody is because you can’t see it. So, when you need to communicate with someone, put the request in context. Is it urgent, or could it wait? When an employee gets a phone call or message from their manager, they often assume it’s urgent. If it’s not, let them know, and ask to set up a time when it’s convenient for them.

Listen more. Because body language is missing, even on a video call, listening becomes even more important. Keep these points in mind during your next Zoom or phone call:

  • Listen for inflection, tone of voice or the speed of a response (quick or slow).
  • Allow for pauses in the conversation. Don’t rush to get your comment in or talk over others.
  • Take notes. If you hear something that needs following up, jot it down.
  • Ask open-ended questions to encourage people to open up and get more information.

Checking in – and not talking business. A lot of managing is getting a sense for where somebody’s head is at and just having an informal conversation. In some instances, it’s not even having any real business to discuss. Those kinds of conversations would happen naturally in the office. When leading a remote team, you may need a plan to make them happen. Write notes, if need be, to remind yourself to check in with each employee. Try to do it with as many people as you can over the course of a week or two weeks, depending on the size of your team.

Use different technologies. Collective emails and Zoom calls are fine for when you want to communicate to the whole team. But not every point of contact should be a virtual meeting. Connect with your people individually using other, more informal methods be they video, phone or even a quick instant message. Schedule regular meetings but also just check in to see how your colleagues are doing.

Provide extra detail. When you’re not face-to-face, it’s easy for details necessary to get the job done to be overlooked. People may not know what is happening because much of your work is now out of sight. This means managers must be clear about expectations, give more detail and provide context. It’s more effort but essential if you want good outcomes.

Share information. When we’re in the office, a lot of information gets communicated without us even realizing it. In a virtual environment, making sure those ideas, facts and thoughts get disseminated to everyone must be more deliberate. Use all the channels at your disposal to share with your team so they are getting a variety of information from you at any given point in the day, week or month. As the manager, you are the nexus. Share the information you have and encourage and facilitate sharing among team members.

Encouraging Healthy Work / Life Balance

Working at home, it’s easy for the workday to stretch and blur into personal time. In the physical workspace, the rules are well defined but in a virtual environment, employees don’t always know what is permissible. No one wants to look like they are “playing hooky.” As a manager, you can help your staff manage those boundaries by setting clear expectations and encouraging healthy activities.

Take a break. Does the weather look good for the next few days? Encourage employees to go out for a walk. Make sure they know that it is okay to take a break, even necessary. Weave that message into your daily and weekly communications. For example, maybe ask people to share in your team meeting the best “break” they took that week.

Give permission to take time off. Sometimes we need more than a walk to relax. Let your staff know that it’s okay to take a “mental health” day or an afternoon to just hang out in the park.

Respect personal time. Some emails are more important than others. Sometimes you get a thought and just shoot off a message in the moment. What your staff doesn’t always know is whether they need to respond right away (that’s usually the default assumption, though). And because most of us check our email frequently, it’s hard to disregard an email from your boss even when it comes in at 9:30 pm. Try instead to draft the email but schedule it to send during working hours. It’s a small detail, but it sends the message that personal time really is personal time. If you don’t step over that boundary, it’s easier for them not to.

Balance your work and life, too. As a manager, part of your job is to be accessible to whatever may be going on. In this new working environment, that often means your day stretches, as things that could’ve taken a moment in the office, need another phone call or email. So, take care of yourself, too. Maybe you want to jump into the day early instead of working out. Then plan that exercise for another time, maybe during lunch or mid-afternoon. Monitor your stress level. Are you feeling less productive? That may be a sign you need to get away from the desk for a bit. Go for a walk – without the phone!

The future of work

No one knows for sure what the future holds. But how we work will surely be different than before the pandemic with more people working from home and teams communicating virtually. As leaders, we have to find a way to connect and work effectively in this new environment. To do this, we have to be more mindful of how we communicate, choosing our words carefully and valuing other people’s time.

Photo credit: Chris Montgomery on Unsplash


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