Leading remote staff can be a headache. However, remote and virtual teams are becoming more common as technology advances.
People with valuable skills exist everywhere, not just in your local area. Technology lets us build teams with remote staff more easily, without needing everyone in one place.
As businesses grow, they are likely to expand. Expansion often means multiple physical locations that need to be coordinated.
I’ve led remote staff as part of outsourcing, and as part of virtual teams working on projects and operational work. This post is a summary of my experience with remote staff and how I made it work. Or…how I got it wrong and managed to learn from my mistakes!
Hopefully some of these tips help you when you are leading any sort of remote team.
Why leading remote staff is challenging
Out of sight, out of mind
A significant part of leadership is being able to observe how team members are working and coping, through their body language and behaviour. When you can’t see them very often, this becomes difficult.
You might jump on a conference call and speak to a team member when they are on their “best behaviour”. Then as soon as they put the phone down, their behaviour reverts to show how they really feel.
Is work really getting done?
Another challenge of remote staff is that you often can’t easily observe your team completing their work. It’s common to have the following questions:
- Has the work really been completed?
- How has the work been done – is the quality right?
- What else is your remote team member doing? Do they have enough work? Or too much?
Let’s look at how we can tackle some of these challenges.
1. Introduce systems and processes to collaborate with remote staff
One way to tackle the challenge of remote staff is to introduce systems and processes so that you have clearer visibility of the work your team is doing.
Use a shared, web-based system to collaborate and manage work, so that tasks and progress are clearly visible. Basecamp, Asana and Trello are just three popular examples, but there are many more. If you’re part of a large organisation, you’ll probably have other tools at your disposal. Just beware that having a system is useful. However, without process, it’s only half of the solution.
Make sure that your team knows the process of how work should be managed and documented using your chosen solution. If this process is not followed, reinforce this with your team. Make sure there are consequences for failing to follow the process.
You will then have a clearer view of what work is being accomplished in your team, when, and by whom. If your team has a mixture of local and remote staff, make sure this applies to the whole team – not just your remote team members.
2. Build a relationship with remote staff in person
When you meet somebody face to face, you have a better chance to build rapport and forge a strong relationship. Sometimes when you only communicate with someone via phone or email, conversations can become detached and impersonal.
Take the opportunity to visit remote staff (or have them visit you) as often as you reasonably can. Sit down with them and discuss their goals and interests like you would with any other team member. Make time for small talk. Meeting in person will help them to feel part of the team and less detached.
When you can’t visit in person, try to use video instead of phone or email. Being able to see the person helps you build rapport and observe their body language and get a sense of how they are feeling. This can be more effective than relying on email and phone communication.
3. Develop strong networks with remote sites
When leading remote staff, it’s important to be aware of what is happening in your team. Obviously this is harder with people you don’t see every day.
What you need is to develop a communication network of peers in your company who can provide feedback on the work of your remote team, and let you know of any good and bad things happening to do with your remote staff.
This network could include:
- Other managers who work at the same remote site as your team member(s)
- Other leaders who are customers of your remote staff. That is, they sometimes use the services that your remote team member provides
- The direct manager of your remote team member (in the case of outsourcing arrangements where you don’t manage them directly).
4. Treat your remote staff like other members of your team
Sure, you might not be able to buy your remote staff coffee or take them to lunch every day. But you should try to treat them like regular team members. This is particularly true if you have a mix of local and remote staff. Sometimes, leaders have a tendency to pay more attention to those team members they can see.
Try to remember that remote staff have goals, interests and aspirations like any other team member. As such, schedule regular one to one performance discussions and catchups like you would with anyone else. Whatever you do, don’t cancel them.
5. Provide multiple communication methods and be flexible
When you work with remote teams, someone is likely to be living in a different timezone. This can make scheduling difficult. Make sure you provide multiple options to be contactable, such as phone, email, video or instant messaging.
It’s good to have an open door policy. But if the door is only open to those in your general vicinity, you’re going to have a problem with your remote staff. Promote flexibility and get comfortable having video calls late at night or early in the morning.
Make sure it’s not only your remote staff who have to put up with an inconvenient meeting time. Show solidarity by occasionally scheduling meetings when it is convenient for them, not just for you.
Do you have any other good ideas about how to lead remote staff? Let me know in the comments below!