Leading from a Distance: Maintaining Leadership with Remote Teams

The conversation regarding “remote teams” was gaining attention even prior to COVID but the frequency and intensity of this conversation has definitely amped up recently.

In a recent survey by Gallup, 59% of employees said they would like to work remotely as much as possible. Interestingly, 59% of remote workers surveys replied in the following month that they were sure they were meeting the requirements of their job while working remotely.

Thus, even if or when companies begin to transition more employees back to the office, the discussion about remote work possibilities is probably going to be hotter and more prevalent than ever before.

In the past, prior to COVID, there were some businesses and employers that were flat-out against remote work when it wasn’t a necessity of the role or position. However, what this challenge presented courtesy of the dreaded virus has shown them, is that remote work doesn’t always have to be a “bad thing.” In fact, a 2019 survey found that not only did remote workers not slack off or cheat the company of time, remote workers’ hours totaled a full 1.4 days (11-12 hours) more per month than their co-workers who worked in the office. When looked at on the yearly level, that means remote workers covered almost 17 more days of work a year. Thus, that’s hardly slacking off… in fact, it means employers are getting a little over 3 MORE weeks of work when employees work from home.

Therefore, it seems pretty clear that productivity isn’t an issue when it comes to remote workers. And so, post-COVID, it’s going to be hard to use that as a reason for bosses to say, “No.”

If this is the case, the only real challenge then, will be whether the boss can step up and lead in a remote-worker — or distributed employee — environment.

There are three new or emerging leadership skills that will be necessary to manage remote workers and remote work most effectively.

High-Level Communication via Technology

As many of us have learned who have had to manage, lead, or coordinate meetings via technological platforms have learned, communication in this medium can be very different. Strong leaders need to learn to manage conversation flow and pace, while processing and measuring verbal and nonverbal input, and ensuring that no team member is “lost” in the process. Furthermore, it will be necessary to truly interact when it comes to how the business or organization will — and is or is not — achieving organizational aims and goals. In other words, conversation must be two-way and not as monologue-oriented as it may have been in the past, in person.

The Ability to Keep All Employees Engaged

Similarly, leaders in virtual environments need to implement or integrate tools that help keep team members connected and working together toward organizational goals. If the right tools or mechanisms aren’t used, this is one area that can really suffer. When employees are in the same physical space, this can definitely be easier, especially when it comes to brainstorming and the sharing of ideas. However, remote work or distributed teams do not preclude this—it just requires some creativity and the right platforms.

EQ: Emotional Intelligence

When using video tools for meetings, there isn’t always much difference or more challenge than is found in traditional office environments.

However, other times when communication or feedback is needed or necessary quickly, such as when a boss or manager would normally just pop into an employee’s office in person, this will often now be accomplished via email or messenger. In such cases, the boss or manager needs to be sure and practice emotional intelligence.

There are many aspects to emotional intelligence for remote bosses and leaders. But for the purpose of this article, we will focus on one of the biggest and most impactful to the employer/employee relationship—positively or negatively.

Importantly, as bosses or managers, we cannot or should not let our previous biases about remote work and productivity, if we have them, to cause us to assume negative things and react in non-positive ways. Specifically, we should not always assume the worst if answers don’t come right away when we send or ask questions, just because we might have fears or apprehension about activity or engagement with employees working outside the office.

In other words, we should not instantly think that a lack of “instant” response means the employee isn’t working. It may be, for example, that they are working so hard on a project that they have distractions turned off, or tuned out. 

Of course, this is just one example. But in this case, we need to make a conscious effort to check ourselves and not let our pre-conceived notions about remote work color or cloud our judgement.

Instead, developing and practicing EQ in this scenario means that we don’t take one factor or input and make sweeping generalizations. Instead, we learn to take multiple forms of input and synthesize that data to determine answers about productivity, engagement, and results. If an employee is meeting or exceeding output obligations or desired results, chances are that the fact we’re not receiving instant responses all the time, does not mean the employee is taking a long lunch or hanging out on social media all day.

Alternately, if output goes down, then we need to learn to address that result or that performance, and leave out the assumptions about “behavior” that may—or may not—have contributed to those outcomes if that is something of which we have no proof.

Again, as leaders of remote teams, who practice and develop our EQ, we must learn to make these decisions wisely by pausing to ask ourselves if a 10 or 15 minute, or even an our or two, daily in response would be abnormal if we could see the employee in their office working. If it wouldn’t bother us then AND if results are still optimal, then improving our EQ means you don’t let it bother you now either.

If we can develop these three new leadership skills as leaders of remote teams in this “new normal” we might find the results surprise us. In fact, we may not only find that remote work and remote workers don’t harm our company’s productivity — and possibly, our relationship with those who work for us — but instead, we could see both things thrive.