Leading Your Remote Team
Monitor the Challenges and Cues
More employees are working from home now than ever before, many for the first time. Working remotely is likely to become more commonplace going forward, even the norm rather than the exception. We might as well get used to it.
Everyone's experience is different, but there are clearly benefits to working remotely. Few miss their commute. Many mention enjoying time throughout the day with family, the freedom to dress down, and increased flexibility to manage their work around other personal commitments. People are adapting, some better than others. That includes leaders who are not only making their own transition to working from home, but also trying to keep their newly remote teams engaged and productive.
Some supervisors and managers worry their at-home staff might not work as hard as they do when on-site. However, the research suggests they probably work harder. A 2019 survey by Owl Labs found remote workers are more likely to work more than 40 hours per week than their on-site peers, mostly because they enjoy their jobs more. A majority of remote workers were also happier, more loyal to their employer, and willing to take a pay cut to continue working from home. The bottom-line is this: if you had good people working with you before the move to remote work, you still have good people working for you.
Working at a distance from co-workers and leadership though does present new, unique challenges that can impair individual and team performance, especially when employees find themselves working from home without much warning or preparation. If you lead a remote team, you need to understand these challenges, watch for them, and respond effectively. Here are the big ones.
When coworkers don't occupy the same physical space, the time and effort it takes to get even simple answers from others can be surprising. Out of a sense of responsibility, fear of looking bad, or frustration, some will just move on without asking for the information or explanation they need. If they do ask, the technologies that enable remote work - email, text, and video conferencing - don't allow full access to the non-verbal cues of tone and body language so important to conveying the content and intent of any communication. Misinformation and misunderstandings, even minor ones, seed potential breakdowns in execution and relationships.
Remote work can be lonely. Granted, the more introverted amongst us probably find the solitude easier to take than the more extroverted. Working from home though makes it easier for any team member to feel "left out", disconnected socially or from important decisions about their work. Over time, reduced interaction with co-workers and team leadership can also diminish the "belonging" members feel for their team, weakening the sense of common purpose and mutual trust that lubricate effective teamwork. Opportunities to connect and collaborate don't occur as naturally as they do in a shared workspace, and some team members will be more reluctant than others to initiate them.
We've all had it happen, taking offense to a curt text, brusque email, rushed phone call, or off-hand comment during a meeting. It's even more likely when distance makes it difficult to appreciate the circumstances that may have contributed to a co-worker's actions. Any of us can also fall victim to a primal human defense mechanism that predisposes us to assume malice or threat in the behaviour of others when inattention or incompetence just as easily explain their perceived poor behaviour toward us. And without ready opportunities to address concerns face-to-face, small misunderstandings and disagreements can fester into bigger conflicts that disrupt a team's work.
Working remotely just exacerbates the sad reality that even on-site workers often report they are unclear what's expected of them. On-site employees can take cues from what's happening around them to better understand what really matters and is expected, even if that hasn't been made explicit for them. And when sharing a workspace with team members, leaders have opportunities to directly observe an employee going off-track. Without needed context and ready access to direction, remote employees can more easily waste time and energy on tasks that don't matter, pursue quality standards that are not required, or become overwhelmed by an excess of demands on their time.
Great on-site teams benefit from a collective intelligence and shared skill base that allows everyone to be more competent together than they are individually. Because people can be reluctant to reveal weakness to their "boss", team leaders may not be fully aware just how much some team members rely on their peers for assistance. Distance makes asking for help more difficult, and co-workers can't easily see when their peers need it. The upshot is that performance breakdowns - missed deadlines, low quality, mistakes, etc. - can show up where they have not in the past, and from performers you would not expect to have problems.
At its root commitment is about choosing where your attention, energy, and time are invested. People can promise and genuinely want to do something in their head and heart, but then choose to do something completely different with their hands and feet. When assessing commitment, actions matter more than words. Our homes are full of attractive alternatives for our focus, some difficult to ignore. Even the most responsible performer can find time management and sustaining work/life balance significant challenges when working remotely. They intend to make the right choices, but find themselves distracted or drawn away from their work plans.
The Anchor: Monitor the Cues Intentionally
When you share a physical workspace with your team, you can see people working, listen in on their chit chat, and engage with them easily to get a feel for how things are going. Without much effort at all, proximity provides you regular, direct information about what is happening in the team. The cues are right there to spur you to action when problems or opportunities need attention.
Absent ready access to those cues, you need to be more intentional about monitoring the condition of your remote team and performance of individual members. What seemed trivial before may be more meaningful now. Things you might have ignored in an on-site team expecting them to work themselves out naturally, can linger unaddressed to grow into bigger issues. And don't be surprised if problems arise in unexpected places as individual team members with their own unique needs, preferences, and circumstances adjust to working from home.
To be more confident you know what's going on, make a habit of looking for and logging the cues you do get. Here are the steps...
- Observe your team closely when you have an opportunity, in virtual meetings, in one-on-one meetings, via their work products, via reports from 3rd parties, etc..
- Set aside specific space in a physical or virtual notebook to record what you see and hear related to each of the challenges above. If it seems the least bit important, get it down noting who was involved, a brief description of what happened, and the date.
- Capture your observations regularly, immediately after a meeting or conversation, and/or put a reminder on your schedule to take 5 minutes to do it at the end of the day.
- At least weekly, take a few minutes to review your notes looking for incidents, trends, or patterns that may require intervention on your part.
- Act when it becomes clear what you are seeing matters, you determine it is appropriate to step in, and you have a plan get the team or individual performers back on track.
Try this anchor out for just two weeks - here's a worksheet to help. At the end of that trial, ask yourself if attending to the cues more intentionally has helped you see things you had been missing. If it has, make this anchor part of your usual routine.
In climbing, the “lead” is first up, setting the path or route. Along the way, the lead places “anchors”, points of attachment to provide “protection” for the lead and those who follow, freeing all to use their talents confidently and competently.
Our Leadership Anchors are habits and hacks for leading. With the right anchors in place and used well, you will be better able to apply your unique strengths and style to the challenge of delivering results by leading others.
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