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What to look out for when leading your team virtually

Sophia Wichtowska
2020-04-13

Across the globe, social distancing measures are now in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. With these changes comes a substantial increase in the number of people working remotely. Leaders are now re-thinking their approach to management to maintain business as usual and minimize disruption.

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To offer leadership teams support, we have explored the research on leading remote workers, and offer some tips to keep teams on board and engaged. 

Challenges when leading remote workers

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, one study found that 70% of workers globally were working remotely at least once per week. 

Leadership in a remote work setting was also a concern for many organizations. In the Deloitte Human Global Capital Trends 2019 report, “the ability to manage on a remote basis” was believed by 50 percent of respondents to be a unique requirement for 21st-century leaders. 

In an article for the MIT Sloan Management Review, Whitney Johnson explains that managers of remote teams need to be aware of the challenges involved. She summarises the potential pitfalls into the following categories:  

Communication

When members of your team work in different countries, communication can become complicated. Employees share information at a slower rate, and managers need to be aware of how this affects productivity. 

Text-based communications also limit the meaning we can derive from a conversation. According to research, 93 percent of communication occurs nonverbally through body language and tone of voice. We only receive seven percent of understanding through words. Managers need to be aware of the moments where a phone or video call would be more appropriate. 

Project management

There are many tools to support project management, but it can still be difficult for managers to know who is doing what. When workers are in the office, managers can wander through the room and check in with employees, which isn’t possible remotely. 

In this case, leaders need to encourage employees to reach out to them more often and to highlight their achievements. 

Talent development and management 

When building a remote team, it can be tempting to seek out employees who are experienced and can deliver with little guidance or instruction. This approach has its benefits when employees are working remotely, but leaders do miss out on the energy and creativity of less experienced, but perhaps more enthusiastic employees. 

It is essential to keep a balance here and to accept that you may be in contact with new hires who work remotely more often than seasoned professionals. You will also need to develop a robust training system. 

IT support and service

When it comes to technology, managers must understand that not all employees have access to a high-speed internet connection or the latest technology. Even those who do might have technical difficulties. Be patient and understanding in these circumstances, and support your team members as best you can. 

How to lead your team virtually

Reflecting on this information, the following tips will help you to get your remote team operating successfully:

1. Go beyond instant messaging

Working with others face-to-face has many benefits. We can collaborate more efficiently, connect with others, and their intentions become more transparent.

Instant messaging is undoubtedly useful, but it is crucial to be aware that much of what is said is lost when we communicate in this way. If there is conflict or tension, misunderstandings can happen quickly.

When communicating with your team, be aware that sometimes a call would be better to avoid misinterpretation. 

2. Organise whole team catch ups 

While it is relatively easy with modern technology to connect with a team member or a small group of people on a conference call, it can be harder to get the whole team together. Team members might be used to after work drinks on a Friday night, or regular dinners with colleagues.

In this case, it might be worth putting it to a vote and seeing whether your staff would like to do an end of week call. Using video call software, everyone can dial in when they are ready. Employees who feel comfortable could take it in turns to lead the call. This strategy works well to connect the remote members of the team at Go1! 

3. Build a culture of trust

Before employees can work efficiently in a remote setting, organization leaders need to develop the appropriate culture. This process includes building trust between team members at all levels.

Doing so can be challenging when you don’t see your employees on a day-to-day basis, but the work they deliver will give you an idea of how well they are performing. 

Focus on monitoring which team member is delivering what, and only chase up if they fail to meet their targets. 

4. Encourage your team to be autonomous

Linked to building a culture of trust is encouraging your team members to become more autonomous. As a manager of a remote team, it can be hard to keep track of the different projects happening. The more employees can lead themselves and keep you informed, the better.

On a systemic level, independent thought can be challenging to manage, particularly in a large organization. Nevertheless, autonomous work is a necessary part of progress, and organizations need to embrace it to keep up with the pace of change. 

Autonomy also gives employees the headspace and confidence they need to make creative contributions - an essential skill in today’s work landscape. 

5. Ask your team for regular feedback on their experience

Although there is a growing bank of research on remote work, managing a team offsite is a relatively new concept. COVID-19 has also forced many unprepared organizations into remote settings. 

If your team is new to remote work, it is crucial to check in with them regularly at the beginning. Ask them about team cohesion, and whether they know what projects they are assigned to. If there are problems with communication, project management, or IT support, they will let you know, and you can make adjustments accordingly. 

Take a look at our Go1 Leading Remote Workers pathway, a curated pathway of courses to equip yourself to work comfortably from home, while maintaining productivity and supporting your team successfully.

Sophia is a freelance writer who specialises in thought leadership, opinion pieces and content creation for learning publications. Her work focuses on the latest research in learning theory and practice. She regularly contributes articles on workplace learning and personal development to the Go1 blog. You can connect with her on LinkedIn. 

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