Remote work is incredible yet, at the same time, it can be incredibly challenging. Throw in “leadership” and the responsibility of somehow keeping your team functional, focused, and engaged while you all work from different locations with limited communication and you have a beast of a different kind. But don't despair! If you are leading a remote team you can quickly become the master of the remote workplace by implementing a few remote leadership practices to get started off on solid footing and avoid the potential pitfalls of leading remote teams.
The positives of skipping traffic, having quiet time to concentrate (without random people stopping by to chat) and creating a better work-life balance make the promise of remote work alluring. However, without a solid leadership strategy, that promise can easily be destroyed.
These 7 quick ideas will keep your team engaged and moving forward during remote workdays.
Remote Tip #1: A Consistent Check-In Call
Hold a weekly or daily 10-minute team check-in call. You might try starting out with a daily call and then make it twice a week or once a week as you see your team acclimating to remote work. Call it a standing meeting for fun and hold it via video call or a simple phone conference call. The agenda is easy:
- What is everyone focused on today,
- Any roadblocks that need to be removed and
- Availability issues, i.e. working on a finance report that needs 2 hours of uninterrupted concentration, picking up a kid from school, etc.
Remote Tip #2: Become the Master of Email
Become the master of email by writing organized, succinct, clear emails. Writing good emails seems like a no-brainer, but when you email people who you also see on a regular basis, it is easy to become sloppy and rely on in-person conversations to clear up any confusion. When you are leading a remote team, chances are that you will increase the amount of email that is sent. By being strategic when you write emails, you can save people time, increase the clarity of expectations and people will be more likely to actually read, respond and implement actions from your emails.
- People remember the first and last thing they read, so put the most important action or idea that you want your team to keep in mind in both the first sentence and the last sentence.
- Use highlighting with colors, bold and color to accent the most important words and phrases in each sentence. Notice how I highlighted the most important phrases in this article so you can actually skim the entire article and quickly get what matters most? Do that in every email you write.
- Use indented numbering or bulleted lists to organize each email.
- Be strategic by using short sentences as much as possible. Short sentences are easier to read and this will help you to eliminate nonessential information.
- Utilize headings to organize your emails and chunk similar information together, such as “Action Items,” “Why This Matters,” and “Deadlines.”
Remote Tip #3: Motivation Matters
Focus a concerted effort on motivating and engaging your remote team. Because you won’t be holding off-the-cuff conversations as you walk around the office, you will need to make sure that you keep morale up. A significant contributor to the success of a distributed workforce is how well the leader engages and motivates the team.
- Be intentional in adding small-talk and checking on your team to your regular interactions with the team. Whether it’s a quick instant message, text or phone call to say, “Just checking on you. How is [project] going? Is there anything you need from me or any other team members?”
- In every email, video meeting, or phone call remind your team of the vision/purpose behind what you are doing. Not by quoting the vision in your signature line, but by incorporating the meaning behind it into the content of your message, even if it’s just a sentence or two.
- Don’t just tell people WHAT needs to be done, tell them WHY it needs to be done. The real WHY, not “because I said, that’s why” and not “because it’s a metric, that’s why.”
- You can phrase it as a thank you, such as following up on an action item list with “Thank you for putting in the extra effort to wrap this project up on time so we can provide a first-in-class experience for our customers. Your dedication is why our customers rely on us to [insert how you make the customers’ lives better].”
- Make it easy for your team to remember why their work is meaningful. Be sincere and consistent in reminding them, in video meetings, via email or on phone calls that their work is making a difference, especially in a stressful time.
Remote Tip #4: "You've Got to Move It, Move It"
Stretch and walk for at least 5 mins every half hour (or if you're a Madagascar movie fan, dancing works as well.) One of the negatives of working remotely is that it is SOOO much easier to get in the zone when you are working in the comfort and quiet at home that the hours will slip away and you will realize you haven’t moved in HOURS.
- Remind your team to do the same. You don't want your team to feel chained to their computer.
- We all need physical breaks and brain breaks, so make it an expectation.
- You might even send a fun group text or instant message and remind everyone a few times a day to make sure they keep it top of mind.
Remote Tip #5: Be Virtually Visible
Be available to your team and let them know you are still here to help, even though they don't see you walking around every day. Leading a remote team means that you will need to convert the form of your visibility from "line of sight" visibility into "virtual visibility."
- IM, email, call or text your team for 1-to-1 quick check-ins to make sure everyone has the tools and support they need to be productive. This doesn't have to be daily, but it should be regular enough that your team feels like they a relationship with you and that they can ask you for help if needed.
- If a team member IMs or texts you, respond with something like “How can I help?” so they know you are still actively supporting them even if they can’t see your smiling face.
- If you are on a call or in a meeting, let them know you’ll be right with them once you wrap up.
- It helps to share your calendar with your team, also, so they can avoid interrupting when they know you are tied up.
Remote Tip #6: Update Communication Norms
Set expectations for your remote team to be available or responsive to IMs, texts, emails, phone calls, or whatever communication methods you are using. Treat your team like the adults that they are and ask for their input on what seems like a reasonable response time for each form of communication given your typical work tasks and team synergy.
Make sure everyone knows what is expected, whether it’s 10 or 15 minutes, 1 hour, or immediately (unless away from their desk, of course). If you have different expectations for how quickly they should reply to instant messages or texts versus emails or phone calls, then specify that. Be clear in setting the norms for your team so that everyone can plan accordingly.
- Be reasonable and consider that people have to go to the restroom, go to get a glass of water from the kitchen or take that 5-minute stretch and walking break you told them to take.
- Ask your team to let you know if they will be unavailable or non-responsive for larger chunks of time so that you or other team members can plan accordingly and not sit idle because you are stuck waiting for some key input from a vanished colleague.
Remote Tip #7: Please Cancel the Meetings
Cancel any superfluous meetings that are not necessary. If you've always dreamed of finding an excuse to cancel meetings, this is your chance. Part of transitioning to leading a remote team is ensuring communication is efficient and no time is wasted, especially in virtual meetings. If you think you don't have any superfluous meetings, you are wrong. Ask your team. Seriously, cancel them.
- Boredom in a pointless meeting that should have been an email is worse when you are in your home office and attending by video or conference call. If you think they are all listening, they aren't.
- Only require people to attend meetings who are essential to the meeting. If they aren't needed to provide input to the discussion, then they aren't listening.
- The laughter or shared smiles that made these meetings endurable in person do not carry over into the virtual meeting space. If you can find a way to inject humor, go for it. Livening up virtual meetings is a plus.
- Do everyone a favor and only hold synchronous, live meetings with team members when it is absolutely necessary for shared planning or problem-solving.
- Keep lines of communication open and everyone on the same page using your 10 minute daily check-in meetings and scrap any other meetings that don’t yield results.
Transitioning to leading a remote team requires a bit of a shift in perspective and mindset, but it can be a smooth transition that produces a more engaged, more productive and less-stressed team if you do it right. Make sure your team doesn’t become out of sight, out of mind and become derailed by lack of communication or accountability.
Give your team the right tools to make the remote work experience the best workplace ever. Even in the face of stressful times and unanticipated changes, you can help your team make the most of working remotely.
If you have a solid plan and you make sure everyone knows what to expect and how to maintain their team synergy and lines of communication, then you'll have a team who loves the positives of their remote workplace and never falls prey to the negatives.
What strategies have worked for you in leading remote teams? Share below so we can all learn from each other.