Remote working is here to stay. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies across the world to adopt remote working, 66% of companies were allowing at least some of their employees to work remotely part of the time at least, with many forward-thinking workplace experts predicting that within the next decade, 50% of the workforce will be working from home for three days or more each week.
Thanks to advancements in technology and the growing global economy, companies often run offices throughout the world, with teams spanning multiple time zones. But how can business leaders prepare for the next generation of workers, and for an influx of employees who expect more flexibility than ever – in both work-hours and location?
For managers, the biggest challenge of leading distributed teams is too often the day-to-day management of remote workers. In this article, we’ll address that concern head-on, and look to minimise the top five challenges of managing a distributed team:
- Fostering meaningful connections
- The challenge of coaching/mentoring remotely
- Avoiding the temptation to micro-manage
- Keeping the team pulling in the same direction
- Ensuring employees remain motivated
So, keep reading to discover how to deal with these challenges and help keep your teams motivated, inspired and productive.
Fostering meaningful connections
One of the biggest challenges of leading distributed teams is fostering a sense of connection and camaraderie. When some employees are working in an office and others at home, it’s easy for remote employees to feel isolated or forgotten from important conversations. It’s also easy to fail to include remote employees when decisions are made in the office.
It’s these little communication details that trip-up most new managers and quickly erode trust. Whether you send out an end-of-day memo or a weekly team newsletter, it’s critical to make sure you’re communicating effectively.
Going beyond team communications, it’s also important for managers to take the time to build genuine relationships with their direct reports. Without a personal connection, it’s hard to establish trust and drive performance. Get to know what makes your employees tick, both professionally and personally. So often, one-on-ones with remote employees either get cancelled when things are busy in the office, or the manager uses the time on that call to catch up on other work, like email.
Instead, if you want to build meaningful connections, strive to be present – not only physically or virtually but attentively as well. Hosting one-on-one meetings via video instead of the phone can assist you in this, enabling you to appear face-to-face and give your undivided attention.
Finally, consider setting aside a budget to bring your distributed teams together once or twice every year. While the very mention of the word ‘teambuilding’ can send shudders down spines, the face-to-face interaction will be invaluable. When employees get to know each other on a more personal level, they’re more likely to perform at a higher level and pick up the slack for each other on a day-to-day basis.
Coaching is often easier face-to-face
The role of a coach is one of the most critical responsibilities for any manager. Effective coaching enables better employee performance and development, resulting in lower turnover. But sharing performance feedback with employees who aren’t in the same building as you can be especially challenging.
Again, that face-to-face connection is vital so, get on a video conference or travel to them and, most importantly be honest. When negative feedback is coming, don’t let feelings simmer – address the issue as soon as possible and prevent it from side-tracking the conversation. A straightforward method of incorporating micro-coaching moments into the day is by including pre-emptive praise for individuals and sharing it publicly in group meetings. Over time, these micro-moments of praise help motivate remote employees and enable them to better understand what managers expect. It also gives them the confidence that their work is making a positive impact.
For employees who are predominantly out of sight, this can be a very powerful tactic. It’s important to praise employees reflect the behaviours you want to instil and to communicate those behaviours to the team. Show your employees how they can ‘win’ and give them visibility into what other team members are doing well.
It can be more tempting to micromanage
Managers who are unaccustomed to leading teams distributed across locations often have a tough time finding the right way to offer adequate support without micromanaging. It’s tempting to over-communicate with the employees you don’t see in the office every day; if nothing else, to let them know you haven’t forgotten about them – a noble pursuit indeed.
But managers need to be aware that too much hovering can foster insecurity and harm engagement. This is particularly true for high-performing employees who’ve had experience working remotely. For these people, constant check-ins can become distracting and insulting.
It’s also important to watch your tone when checking in with remote employees. Rather than using accusatory language like, “I haven’t seen that presentation yet—don’t forget it’s due today”, use a more supportive tone such as, “I know you’re working to finish the presentation that’s due today. Please let me know if any questions come up or you need my help.”
Trusting employees to meet a deadline you’ve set, is another vital consideration, rather than nagging them in the days or hours leading up to a project milestone. If your employee is consistently meeting deadlines and producing high-quality work, there’s no need to ask for updates every step of the way.
If this is a struggle for your team, consider implementing a project management tool. Having access to quick updates and a clear view of key project milestones can often alleviate the urge to micromanage. It also helps to reduce the silos that often occur when some employees are in the office, while others are dispersed.
It’s harder to get everyone on the same page
A common complaint heard among business leaders is that their employees aren’t strategic enough, or that they’re not taking action to drive the leader’s strategy forward.
However, in many cases, the employees don’t even know what the strategy is, sometimes because managers tend to approach corporate communications as “one and done.”
If you have a new strategic direction or a critical initiative to share with the team, find five different ways to share it. For example, if you want your remote marketing team to prioritise your Q4 product upgrade, share why that’s the priority in a team stand-up meeting. Follow that meeting up with an email recap, outlining the talking points from your meeting. Discuss the product upgrade during each one-on-one meeting that week and ask each employee to share their initial thoughts, reactions, and questions. Assign them a brainstorming activity tied to the product launch, and the following week, have each team member share their best ideas during your team stand-up, and then send out recap notes from that meeting via email.
The bottom line is to never assume that one email or one meeting will drive the point home. If you claim something is vital to your strategy, demonstrate that in your actions and communications. If you want your employees to think and behave more strategically, prompt them to do so.
Distance can make it more difficult to keep the motivation and inspiration alive
How does that saying go – Absence makes the heart grow fonder?
That might be true for long-distance relationships, and yes, studies have shown that remote employees are more engaged than their peers. But like any personal or professional relationship – it takes effort to maintain. So, how can leaders keep all their employees performing to their potential – regardless of location – all motivated and inspired to work towards the joint mission?
Inspiring and motivating teams is a universal leadership skill and fundamentally, it all starts with communication. Motivating employees to perform at their best requires leaders to think carefully and strategically about how they communicate with employees. You must first build relationships with your employees and earn their trust. Once you’ve built that relationship, don’t shy away from the tough conversations. Set clear expectations, reinforce them, and address it when those expectations aren’t met. Approach those situations in a way that shows your employees you care about their success. Frame your conversation in a way that helps employees think about behavioural changes they might need to make to perform better.
Also, giving your team members visibility into what their peers are working on can be a big motivator. Especially for remote employees, it is difficult to know how other team members spend their time, or on which projects as they may not regularly see what a colleague working on. But, if a manager shines a spotlight on a peers’ achievements, others will want to rise to the challenge. Seeing wins in action inspires more wins for the future.
It’s all about communication!
Effective communication is the solution to so many of the challenges involved in leading distributed teams. By following the tips in this eBook, you’ll be on the path to smarter communication and more productive, high-performing teams.
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