Remote management and virtual leadership

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With more people requesting alternative ways of working and more employers offering such flexibility to attract top talent, team dynamics and how to lead are changing.

“Alternative work arrangements, like telecommuting, flexitime and compressed workweeks, are no longer cool perks at select companies, they’re becoming ‘the norm’,” says Matt Weston, director at finance recruitment specialist Robert Half UK.

Yet as Joseph Grech, a Watson Martin Partnership consultant and L&D expert, highlights, managers who lead teams remotely/virtually need a whole set of skills, as well as general leadership and management skills. “They need to be able to manage, motivate and handle team progress and performance remotely, using new communication and shared online technology to ensure their team meets its objectives.”

Yet it can be worth it. “Building engagement and commitment from a distance presents a unique set of challenges, but when done well can lead to increased productivity and well-being resulting in a motivated, flexible and adaptable workforce,” says Grech.

Remote challenges

Which is perhaps easier said than done. Rudy Chen, founder and CEO of Yes Accountants, with offices in London and Malaysia, points out a few of the difficulties. “Time zones are a huge factor; it is true that when you sleep the remote team is working, which is obviously the beauty of this almost perfect system, but with limited time for overlap, it is difficult to monitor them, their performance or even mentor them. If they have any issues they will need to wait for you to ‘wake up’, which may be counter-productive.”

Additionally, Chen highlights the classic managerial concern – when the cat’s away, the mice will play. “Without the boss/employer physically present, staff often abuse their freedom, especially more junior staff members who are not used to such freedoms. Junior staff need more training/guidance/mentoring, so not having senior peers physically present can be problematic, especially for those who lose focus easily or are not self-motivated.”

However, ultimately Chen is positive on the potential for remote teams. “Obviously with time and the right people in place, you can build a well-oiled machine that runs smoothly and automatically. You just need to put in the effort and hours to ‘make’ it work.”

Trust and feedback

Managing from a distance requires trust in a team, because you can’t ‘see’ what they’re doing. Remote leadership relies more on input from your team, which essentially means the manager’s role changes, says Grech. “You have to develop team members to be proactive so they can deal with issues as they arise, while at the same time ensure they feel comfortable to ask for support when required. You have to learn to be more of a coach. The big mistake many managers make is they think they have to manage their remote teams more when they actually have to manage less.”

Alternative work arrangements, like telecommuting, flexitime and compressed workweeks, are no longer cool perks at select companies, they’re becoming ‘the norm’

Holistic leadership

A major pitfall is for managers to think they have two teams – the home team and the virtual team, says Grech. “This divides the team in two and can create biases. Think of one whole team that is interacting virtually all the time. Fairness is of paramount importance so be aware of the difference in time zones and don’t always hold your meetings at 10am because it’s convenient to the home team. Ensure everyone is treated equally.”

Communicate expectations and goals

Managing remote teams can be disorganised if you don’t set standards. “When agreeing to let employees work remotely, discuss what days they will work offsite, what technology they will use to communicate, and when you will have one-on-one and team check-in meetings,” says Weston. “Clarify these expectations before they begin. If you have multiple direct reports who work remotely, consider establishing a policy to keep everyone in the loop, like instituting one day a week or month that all team members must be onsite.”

Promote work-life balance

“Providing flexible schedule options, like flexitime, is a great way to establish a culture of work-life balance,” says Weston. “However, it’s easy to become a workaholic when working from home. Encourage remote employees to practice time management. Set your own start and stop times, and have remote workers do the same. And make sure you respect their schedules by refraining from contacting them outside of office hours, when possible, or expecting a response while they’re offline.”

Make time for face-time

Loneliness is a concern for remote workers who communicate mainly in writing, so managers should arrange to see their teams as often as possible. “Encourage video chats for one-on-one meetings with your direct reports,” suggests Weston. “Seeing them – even if virtually – helps you feel less disconnected and avoid miscommunication when giving feedback, as they can read facial expressions and body language.”

Build morale and strengthen the team

Getting everyone in the same place at the same time is the most effective way of bonding teams. “Consider planning an all-staff meeting once a quarter and encourage remote workers to attend in person, if possible. You can also host brainstorms and plan a fun activity or dinner so your team can better get to know one another,” says Weston.

Building morale remotely requires creativity. “Is your team tackling a big project and juggling multiple deadlines? While you can’t physically treat them to coffee and cupcakes, consider sending them each a £10 gift card and encourage them to take a break as a ‘thank you’. Little gestures can go a long way toward making a difference in your employees’ day,” says Weston.

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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