Leading remote teams

May 4, 2022

Working as an Executive Coach currently with business leaders one of the key questions that people are asking about is best practice for leading and managing remote/home based/disparate teams.

My Top Tips are below and will be updated as we learn, and reflect, more on this going forward. Where the term ‘remote team’ is used this applies where some of the team are still office based and some are home- based/or where all are home based.

An equivalent note has also been produced on Maintaining Leadership Resilience.

1. Ensure they are set up for success

At a basic level your team need the infrastructure and physical capability to work effectively remotely. That might not exactly replicate how they are able to work in the office (which they will need to understand) however as a leader you need to ensure they have enough effective tools to do their job.

You need to encourage them to establish their routine of working remotely – their hours, their place of work, their environment etc. They should be capable of doing that themselves – however some may not do so effectively and therefore the right foundations will not been laid on which they are to work.

2. Clarity of communication

We all knew that this would be one of the key aspects for leaders. It is true with all teams – it is especially true for remote team. At its simplest there is an enhanced need for clarity of communication with a remote team around:

  • Your expectations of them in terms of work outputs
  • Your expectations of them in terms of priorities (the 2 or 3 key priorities for the business now). Be aware that these priorities may be considerably different to what you were saying they were only a few short weeks. Change in priorities needs to be explained – and repeated – by you.
  • An honest appraisal of the needs of the business currently. One of the things that you are responsible for as a leader is to absorb some of the ‘pain’ of business uncertainty whilst holding adult to adult conversations with your team that ensure the reality of business is understood.

3. Still lead them as a team – indeed more so!

The team remains a collective and collaborative group that needs to be led accordingly:

  • Technology can lead to a higher level of 1:1 discussion than team-based discussions. There is some great technology available to create team discussions – we can be nervous of using it or think that remote group interactions cannot be effective – they can be if established and managed well.
  • If you are holding technology-based team discussions, ensure that they are led by you in a way that ensures that all participants have their say and that members of the team are still communicating and exchanging views and ideas with each other. The discussion should not become a one way debrief by you to the team; or the rest of the team listening to a series of 1 way exchanges between you and each member of the team in turn (whist the others not involved do their emails).
  • Establish a clear purpose for each meeting and agenda item (Is it for making decisions, Is it for discussion? Is it for information only?) and lead the meeting or agenda item accordingly.
  • Establish clear meeting etiquette (e.g. How do people let you know they want to contribute? What is the rule on doing emails and having access to phones? What do you do about coffee and toilet breaks? What is the maximum length of time?)
  • Regular short meetings (i.e. start-up meetings in the morning or at lunchtimes) are as important as longer more in-depth discussions.
  • If some of your team are office based and others remote manage any interactions to ensure that the discussion is not dominated by the office-based people (for whom it is easier to interact) listened to by the remote based people
  • Ask for people’s responses and reactions to items (it is harder to read faces using technology)
  • Establish Whats App groups or similar for informal exchange of news and view
  • Replace those coffee machine moments (some teams stop to have a virtual coffee at a regular time for an informal discussion).
  • Establish regular ‘All-team’ meetings (of an appropriate direction and purpose) to connect the overall team

4. Understand and respect team members current ability to listen to you, assimilate your communication and behave in line with your current priorities

Currently many of your teams are not only remotely based (distant from each other and you) they are also facing high levels of personal uncertainty and highly distracting family challenges/discussions. On a personal level you should be aware of that and ask them how they are feeling/responding to that.

This level of distraction will affect their ability to listen to you and to then assimilate what you require off them in terms of behaviour/outputs and change of focus. Do not assume that because they have been told once that they have heard you. Equally do not assume that because they do not appear to be responding in the way you have asked that you have not communicated clearly – repeat, repeat and repeat your communications.

Once you have repeated the expectations and/or requirements continue to hold them to account for their outputs and delivery – in a respectful way that considers but does not pander to their personal circumstances.

5. Further engage, and avoid a sense of isolation for members of your team, by still having non- transactional discussions with them

There can be a tendency to focus on task-based discussions with remote teams (i.e. KPIs, clients, projects, deadlines, budgets). When working with remote teams it is more difficult to pick up how they are feeling generally, and not possible to wander into their office to ask that question, so it is important for leaders to make a point of asking those more engagement based questions of members of your team. (i.e. How is it working for you being more remotely based? Are you getting the information that you need? What more do you need off me or your colleagues to work well?)

Look out for a team member who is not contributing as you would expect them to, were they not working remotely, and enquire respectfully as to why and what you can do to help.

6. Keep your talent occupied

People who are used to being busy, travelling and having a series of scheduled events in their diary find one of the most challenging things to do is to have the discipline and focus to produce their outputs when those external stimuli lessen.

Some of your team will have busy diaries dealing with the current priorities – others (perhaps those in growth-based roles) may not be. Can they be redeployed to help those that have the biggest workloads in the current environment? Can they be asked to work on projects that are future focused (i.e. What will the plan for the business in 2, 3 or 6-months’ time? Or can they solve a challenge within your business that no- one has had the time or headspace to solve before?). Remote teams can send their leader more emails as they re-create activities in their diaries – distracting for you – far better to focus them on other things.

7. Protect and display your culture

The core of your culture and your values need protecting and displaying by you as the leader whilst you are leading remote teams. Communications remotely need to be carefully attuned to, and consistent with, the culture of your business. Leadership teams need to pay particular care to this.

8. Understand how different people react differently to remote working and adapt your leadership style accordingly

Help your team members understand how they are likely to respond to remote or disparate working and lead them accordingly.

Many of you will be familiar with the DISC or Insights profile that demonstrates behavioural preferences on the 2 continuums of having Task or People preferences; and Active vs reflective preferences. Different behavioural preferences tend to respond to remote working in different ways.

Broadly speaking (at a high level):

  • Team members with Active People based preferences (lead I in the DISC model/Yellow in Insights) will miss the informal and regular interactions with others and needs to replace those to still feel engaged and connected. They need regular and informal communication from their leader to feel involved as well as the structured and planned communication referred to above.
  • Team members with the Active Task based preferences (lead D/Red in Insights) will not miss the informal and regular communication with others as much and will want to have regular task-based discussions with their leader. These discussions need to be efficient and effective based on the priorities – however their leader should remember to ask how they are feeling.
  • Team members with the Reflective Task preference (lead C/Blue in Insights) will not miss the informal and regular communication and will be comfortable working remotely. Leaders need to ensure that they are involved in communications and contributing to them rather than withdrawing to their world so that the leader, and others, understand what they are focusing on and their outputs.

Team members with the Reflective People preference (lead S/Green in Insights) will miss the regular and informal communications and need a strong sense of belonging to a team. Their leaders need to enquire as to their well-being and what they are working on and understand the quiet (and hidden) sense of isolation that can develop within them when working remotely.