27 April 2015
by Chen Mawson

Effective Remote Team Leadership

"Management is, above all, a practice where art, science, and craft meet"

~ Henry Mintzberg

Managing a team well is not easy. Leading a remote team successfully is even more challenging. It requires managers to put in a more conscious effort to build up the team, lead the team and each individual as well as foster a positive and collaborative culture. In this post, I would like to share 6 key leadership principles for remote teams to consider.

1. Expectation Management

In remote/distributed teams it is difficult to pick up early signs of issues and misunderstanding. However it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming someone has the same understanding of what is expected of them, a problem, or objective that you do.

To avoid having team members fly under the radar and become demotivated, it is essential to initiate conversations in which you clearly and openly discuss business goals and expectations with each individual and establish a system of trust where people can count on you for support. This is particularly important when bringing on new starters. If appropriate, allow time in the conversations to agree and commit to what will be delivered and remember always give plenty of opportunities for questions.

Once expectations are clearly communicated, don't wait for people to always come to you when they're done. Check in to offer support often, but without overdoing it. Make a conscious effort to get the right balance between giving people autonomy & accountability, and keeping a supportive communication channel open.

2. Team Building

Water cooler conversations, lunch breaks and other face-to-face interactions that bond coworkers in a traditional office do not exist for remote workers. To develop closer professional and personal relationships among remote workers, here are a couple of ideas:

  • Spare 10 to 15 mins during virtual team meetings on some fun team building activities e.g. asking people to share a simple fact about themselves that others don't know about.

    At a management training workshop that I once attended, we did an interesting exercise. The trainer spread out a large number of post cards of drawings, photos, illustrations etc. Workshop participants walked the room and each picked one or two cards that appealed to them. We then spoke about why we picked the card(s) that we did. A picture speaks a thousand words. It was amazing how much you get to learn about people's interests, priorities and personality in a short time through a creative exercise. This is an activity that can be easily carried out virtually and there are plenty of other fun ways to build camaraderie that achieve the same objective.

  • Bringing the team together once in a while for co-located planning meetings, training and/or going to a conference together.

3. Leading The Team & The Individuals

"Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else"

~ Margaret Mead

Know that everyone has their own communication style, personality and preferences. Make an effort to build rapport, understand each individual member's motivations, challenges and career development objectives by scheduling regular one-on-one meetings. And consciously support each person in the way that they appreciate. Give regular feedback and recognition as well as spend time for pure social conversations.

4. Eliciting Feedback Proactively.

When the team is remote, it's nearly impossible to pick up on the subtle, non-verbal communication clues that often tell us when there's a problem or an opportunity. Hence the need to be more proactive in eliciting feedback.

To foster a culture of continuous improvement, you need to have the courage to openly invite feedback from the team about the current systems, processes, problem solving approaches and communication methods, and to act on it.

5. Knowledge Sharing

Create an environment where people can share their knowledge via virtual/video presentations (e.g. on showcasing their work or specific knowledge that is relevant to the business which others are interested in). This would not only build better teamwork but also empower individuals and the team collectively for stronger performance.

6. Hire The Right People

"A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together."

~ Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

This point could well be moved up to be the first. It goes without saying that you are looking for self-motivated, experienced, autonomous employees. But just as important is to look for people who actively reach out to collaborate (i.e. both to impart their knowledge and to learn from others). These people make the best remote team members and help hold the team together. Leadership is not a position. Every individual can demonstrate leadership qualities through their actions, words and thoughts. Read more on collaboration and creativity.

There are probably plenty more other techniques and leadership principles remote teams need to be aware of. I would love to hear any feedback, suggestions, successes and lessons.

creativity collaboration teamwork

This post is written by Chen Mawson. Chen's interests are in Strategic Business Analysis, Product & Project Management and improving development processes. She lives in Australia with her husband Jeremy. Together they remotely assist innovative and socially positive companies to achieve their technology goals.

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