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How to Lead Remote Teams that Thrive

Lead Remote and Virtual Teams

When you lead remote teams, your leadership habits and practices must adapt. 

As the novel coronavirus spreads across the globe, people are working from home more than ever before. The transition is happening dramatically, as businesses figure out how to enable remote work, often for the first time.

While there has been a flood of advice for newly remote workers about how to thrive in this environment, I haven’t seen many resources for leaders.

Because of the nature of remote work, leaders must be intentional about creating employee experiences that foster personal connection, reduce loneliness, and protect against burnout.

I’ve been leading a fully remote, geographically diverse team for the last fifteen months, and these are my recommendations for other remote leaders.

1. Turn On the Camera

If you have the capability to use video for your conference calls, do it. Being on video improves communication and connection because everyone can see body language – head nodding, smiling, gestures, and posture. It helps team members feel less isolated.

At first, you may feel self-conscious seeing yourself on camera. As a leader, you have to get over your insecurity and set an example for your team. In time, the awkwardness will fade and you’ll look back on audio-only calls as a remnant from the dark ages.

Accept that team members will have different home working environments, and you may see artwork, pets, and children in the background. Celebrate these distractions, and use them as an opportunity to make deeper connections with your team.

2. Don’t Cancel Meetings

In an office environment, team meetings and one-on-ones frequently get cancelled. There is a conflicting meeting, or the participants have “nothing urgent this week.” 

However, there are many informal connection points where team members can interact with their leader and teammates – walking to and from meetings, socializing in the break room, or stopping by each other’s desk for a quick chat. These opportunities don’t exist in a virtual environment.

When leading a remote team, resist the temptation to cancel meetings – especially one-on-ones with your team members. (You are having regularly scheduled one-on-ones, right?)

Even if there’s nothing urgent to talk about, making that connection helps reduce the feeling of isolation for you and your team members.

Avoid the temptation to stick rigidly to the agenda. Team members often look forward to these virtual gatherings as a chance to chat, catch up, and support each other.  Allow conversations to drift off-topic, as long as everyone is engaged.

This is a great opportunity to practice the Social Awareness skill of Emotional Intelligence by paying attention to the emotions of others.

3. Create a “Virtual Water Cooler”

Office-based employees build relationships with each other in the break room or at lunch, talking about their personal lives and sharing pictures of recent vacations or the kids’ halloween costumes.

Your remote team needs that same opportunity to take a break, have a laugh, and connect with colleagues on a deeper level.

Use technology to create a “Virtual Water Cooler.” It could be a channel in Slack or Microsoft Teams, an intranet site, or a group chat over instant message.  Once again, lead by example and share something that’s not directly work related.

Need inspiration? Share a photo of your working-from-home space, pets or kids. Link to an article or blog post that you found useful.

4. Respect Boundaries

As the team leader, it is your responsibility to model good behavior. Your actions, more than your words, set the precedent for respecting each other’s personal work-life boundaries. This is especially true when you lead remote teams.

Many people already struggle with work-life balance, and that problem can be exacerbated when working from home. If you don’t have to leave a physical office building to “beat traffic,” it can be easy to succumb to the temptation to stay just a little longer to finish that next task, slide, or email. 

If you choose to work at unusual hours, make sure you have communicated your expectations to your team. Getting an unexpected email from “the boss” on Saturday night can put your team in an awkward position, trying to balance family commitments and job performance. If you don’t expect your team to reply to your emails during the weekend, make that expectation clear.

If you do need to make emergency contact, you can also establish that protocol ahead of time. Tell your team that you’ll call or text for urgent issues, but weekend emails can be ignored until Monday.

Lastly, be aware of any team members in different time zones. Many families have morning and evening routines, so be considerate when scheduling meetings. An 8am meeting in Eastern time is 5am in Pacific!

The Experience Matters

You may not have access to video conferencing, or the technology to create a Virtual Water Cooler. If that’s the case, you’ll have to get creative with what you have.

In the end, it’s the experience that matters. Remote work unlocks huge potential for employees to be more productive, but there’s a downside as well – loneliness and burnout from the loss of connection and community.

Chance meetings in the break room aren’t going to happen virtually. To lead remote teams, you must find new ways to enable those experiences and encourage genuine human connection among our employees.

Whether you are leading a remote team indefinitely, or in temporary response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, these strategies work. With consistent application, you can create a great remote work experience so your team can thrive.

And when this pandemic is over, find a way to get together in person to celebrate.

1 thought on “How to Lead Remote Teams that Thrive”

  1. This was such a good article Dave. Great balance. Of course we do remote over seas and in US. Now also with office staff. Let’s try to connect again on Zoom or face to face.

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