By Dale S. Rose, Ph.D.
Leading any team under any circumstance is not easy. But when the entire team is remote, leaders face a host of challenges. So, when a leader has zero face time with her team, what changes?
It is good to keep in mind that a lot of things do not change. All the leaders I coach talk about how much more difficult it is to leading 100 percent remotely. While it is more difficult, the truth is they are doing a lot of the same behaviors regardless of physical proximity. Whether co-located or remote, team leaders still need to do the three basics to assure an effective team 1) provide a clear sense of purpose and measure results, 2) make sure the right people are doing the right work, and 3) create a positive climate that encourages individual effort and effective teamwork.
While the behaviors and outcomes are the same, what makes leading remotely so much more difficult is the dearth of information leaders have about the team and the team members. The three biggest challenges in remote leadership are 1) maintaining a positive team climate, 2) managing conflict, and 3) onboarding new members.
One of the toughest challenges for remote leaders is maintaining positive team climate. One leader recently confided to me that he missed being able to practice the age-old technique of “management by walking around” which encourages leaders to spend time in the team’s workspace frequently and somewhat randomly to problem solve spontaneously. It also allows a leader to check the temperature of the group. Just by walking through the workspace, he could hear the tension or humor in people’s conversations and immediately assess the level of conflict or unity in the team. He could see and hear who was busy and who was goofing off. He could notice whether the new employee was fitting in or not. He never had to ask explicitly because he could see it and hear it. Instead of walking around, now, he must ask each individual personally during a video chat: “how is it going?” “how is the team doing?” Then he has to evaluate the honesty in the responses. So, maintaining a positive team climate is still an essential need for leaders, but it is much harder to do remotely.
What’s the antidote? The virtual version of “management by walking around” involves a leader setting the tone on the team by using digital collaboration tools to encourage casual drop-ins. Instead of sending a formal e-mail request to a team member, check their calendar and then hit that “video call” button. A 3-minute chat can tell you a lot about how someone is doing (are they overwhelmed or highly focused today?) and it gives the team member a chance to raise concerns. If you’ve got concerns, casually tack on a question to the business at hand.
Constructively managing conflict is another core element of highly effective teams that can be particularly challenging in a remote setting. The scope and severity of conflict is very wide ranging, but let’s focus on the most common challenge: Acute, 1-1 conflict over a specific topic, event, or decision. Throw in a little emotional intensity and a dash of historical disagreement, and you have got a pretty typical challenge most leaders can expect to face during any given year. But, that situation in the middle of 2020 where personal lives are strained, employment status may be in question, and economics are teetering and now you’ve got a recipe for real conflict.
Here again, the task is made more challenging by leading remotely, but the core leadership behaviors to manage the conflict are the same as they ever were. It is likely that communicating at a distance will give individuals a greater sense of freedom to be overly blunt, or even rude. Group video and chat can bring out the worst in people. What to do when this goes wrong? First, pull the conflict out of any group meetings to discuss the issues at hand. Isolate the individuals to a setting (yes, likely a video chat) where you can talk with each person individually. Focus them on two core issues: Team climate and decision-making processes. First, to manage the climate aspect, both individuals need to be clear about how you expect the team to disagree: Different points of view should be encouraged, but disagreements need to stay professional and respectful – that’s how we do things here. As to the actual decisions or outcomes they may be disagreeing on, you’ll need to get them to present their opinions.
On the people front, onboarding new members is a real challenge remotely. While new team members working from home won’t need a team member to show them to the coffee station, they will need to figure out how the organization works, who the key players are and who to go to when problems emerge. This kind of culturalization is easy and can be successful in a co-located team without much planning (apologies to those of you who just created a new formal onboarding program).
To assure new members feel valued and included on the team and know “how things are done around here” the best bet is to pair them formally with a “buddy” on the team. Whomever you assign, make sure the buddy is a) a positive contributor on the team, b) knowledgeable about the organization, and c) is motivated to help others. Often, the person you have on your succession plan for your own job is a good choice. But, fight the temptation to do this yourself. You are an important resource for how things should get done, but your team is a better resource for a new team member for how things actually get done. And, new team members need informal connections on the team even more than they need connections to you which is more likely to happen during the course of work.
Without a doubt, leading a remote team requires more discipline in the way a leader manages. She needs to communicate in different ways, at different times, and often with new and unfamiliar tools. While remote leaders have more time to themselves to ‘get things done,’ it will take more time and planning to navigate issues among the team. So, while the core competencies of team leadership remain consistent in co-located and remote teams, leaders of remote teams will need to expend more effort to succeed.
Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., is the president and cofounder of 3D Group. He is an expert in leadership development and assessment-based human resources solutions. He recently co-edited The Handbook of Strategic 360 Feedback and authored the 2020 study, Current Practices in 360 Feedback, 6th Edition.
This article was originally published on HR.com