How To Lead Remotely

How To Lead Remotely

How To Lead Remotely 

By Mark Wager

A live virtual semianr on this subject is available 

The workplace has changed dramatically during the past few years, mainly because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now more than at anytime previously the core concept of what a team looks like and how they operate is being fundamentally changed with more people working remotely and the traditional office is now something that is becoming less and less essential for a successful business. As the workplace has changed so has the people within the workplace and this is especially true for Leaders. Having a team that is not in the same location as them creates a lot of challenges. So Leaders need to learn how to adapt to this new way for working. In this week’s article, I want to share some advice on how to lead remotely.

Let’s start with exploring how human behaviour  changes when people work remotely. It’s vital that Leaders don’t make the mistake of trying to lead a remote team the same way they would lead a team that is physically together because they will achieve nothing but failure. The changes in human behaviour can be broken down into three categories. Emotional, proximity, social influence and non-verbal communication.

Emotional proximity. 

An important factor in determining how people communicate is their proximity to the person they need to communicate with and in particular the amount of barriers they have to overcome in order to communicate. What people have found with remote teams is that a lot of quick communication that would usually take place in the office, by this I mean turning around to a co-worker and asking their opinion,  just doesn’t happen when people are working from home. With the increase in emotional proximity there is also an increase in the threshold of when we communicate. The question a Leader needs to ask is “what is my team not telling me?”

Social influence 

People tend to adapt their behaviour to fit within their team. This is why you can have a poor performer walk into a high performing team and without a word the poor performer raises their standards yet the opposite can occur when a high performer enters a poor performing team. Humans are social animals that instinctively look for a pack to be a part of, so are very susceptible to be influenced by those around them. What I have found is that when teams are remote the level of social influence is far less which results in individual behaviour not being kept in check by the group. For example it’s very difficult to be lazy when the person sitting next to you is working incredibly hard yet when you work remotely you set your own standards and those may not be consistent with what the Leader demands.

Non-verbal communication.

The last category of human behaviour is the most obvious to observe or should I say not observe and that is the lack of non-verbal communication. When a team is physically together you can pick up on the non-verbal cues that people give off and you don’t have to be an expert in body language to notice when someone is upset or is doubting themselves yet when people are instead chatting on videoconference it’s much more difficult. Firstly, just the amount of time spent together in an office. You may be sitting next to someone for six to eight hours yet today you may be only seeing a person for a few minutes or hours in a week. That’s a lot of time difference and secondly it’s much more difficult to observe behaviour when someone is on a screen especially if that screen is turned off.

So now we have explored how things are different let’s get to some practical tips on how to lead differently. It’s by no means an extensive list. However if you want more information then just contact me and I’ll be happy to share more but here are some of the most important changes a Leader needs to make. 

Proactive communication. 

When leading a remote team, you need to make your communication more proactive. You can’t assume that people will contact you if there’s an issue because a lot of people either don’t want to look bad or feel their Leader may be too busy to talk. So it’s up to the Leader to initiate communication. Even if the communication is just for a few minutes the key is to make it regular both for team meetings and individual catch-ups. 

Avoid the “how are you?” conversations. 

When the Leader is communicating with the people within their team they need to make sure that the communication is effective so they need to avoid the common “how are you doing?” or “is everything okay ?” questions because people are very prone to saying “yes” even if the answer is “no”. One of my clients are a group of doctors and they found that when they asked their patients “How are you?” They all answered  “fine” even though they obviously weren’t because they were visiting a doctor. Instead try being more specific. Either ask about how they are overcoming a particular challenge or ask how you can help, switching the focus on the conversation that will make  your time together more effective.

Set and maintain expectations.

The key principle of a successful team regardless of location is to set high expectations and to maintain them. With a remote team you can’t assume that people understand the expectations as it’s less obvious when you are not physically around other members of the team. The Leader needs to talk to each member of the team and explain the expectations of performance when working remotely and then ensure that the leader’s behaviours match those expectations. So for example if the leader is chasing people up or reminding them of deadlines then expectations are low and they are no longer leading and now have become the teams Secretary. A Leader needs the ambition to set high expectations from the team and the courage to maintain those expectations 

Never forget the small things 

When working remotely it’s easy to lose track of what makes a team work which is relationships. People who know, like, respect and trust each other. This is much more difficult when people don’t  see each other on a regular basis. So  it’s the responsibility of the Leader to ensure that relationships are developed. Remember not every meeting has to be about a serious work issues. In  a traditional office there is a lot of small talk or discussions about non-work topics and it’s in these discussions that relationships are forged. So feel free to get the team together for a social chat on videoconference or a virtual meal together. Take time to celebrate the small things such as anniversaries or special occasions because work relationships are like all relationships. In fact it’s the small things that matter.

Posted: Thursday 17 March 2022

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