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10 essential tips to lead your team remotely to maximize engagement and productivity

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Managing your team? You’ve got this! Your team is a well-oiled machine, you have your systems in place, and everyone is in the groove.

Managing your team… remotely? Hmmmm. Things suddenly aren’t quite the same. Without “being there,” how can you ensure your team’s productivity and engagement from a distance of 20, 200, or 2,000 miles?

Remote work is here to stay, and managers will need to adjust accordingly. We’ve collected the top 10 tips for managers to keep their remote teams connected, empowered and productive during a pandemic – and beyond.

1. Touch base – regularly and often.

When your team is in the office, everyone can physically see each other, answer questions and resolve conflicts on the spot. When you’re remote, though, how can you make sure everyone is focused? Are the individuals who need to communicate with one another actually talking?

Regularly scheduled and frequent communication will be the core of your success as a leader of a remote team.

According to Gallup, “Managers need to communicate with their teams in multiple ways and through multiple mediums to keep expectations clear, to reinforce priorities, and to help understand and address barriers to maximizing their team’s work while they are away from the office.”1 This can range from team videoconference calls to individual check-ins.

The Harvard Business Review notes that “the important feature is that the calls are regular and predictable, and that they are a forum in which employees know that they can consult with you, and that their concerns and questions will be heard.”2

2. Create clear accountability and manage expectations.

Make sure all team members know what is expected of them in terms of output and deadlines. Gallup notes that “managers must create or improve upon their systems for holding their teams accountable when everyone is working remotely” and stresses keeping track of timelines and deliverables, check-ins, and evaluation of submitted work.3

The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) offers these simple steps to communicate your expectations:

  • Clearly communicate to team members who will be held accountable for what.
  • Agree on a timetable for every project and assignment.
  • Monitor progress by scheduling regular check-ins.
  • Avoid blame if a deadline is missed or another issue arises.4

3. Provide context and how you all fit into the big picture.

As a leader, it’s your job to provide context for the team – the reason you exist, your purpose, your role in fulfilling the company’s goals, and how each individual contributes to that big picture. “[Leaders] need to paint the big picture for team members and bring the importance of their roles to the forefront. Team members need to know what their roles are, and why they matter,” says Melissa Lamson, president and CEO of Lamson Consulting in Phoenix.5

Given that many managers are new to managing a remote team due to the coronavirus pandemic, this will figure significantly into your “new” big picture. Has your company had to make major changes due to global events? Make sure everyone on your team understands your company’s situation and the goals you are all working toward.

4. Embrace technology and facilitate accessibility.

Few things are more frustrating to remote employees than technology problems. We’ve all been there – you can’t log in to the videoconference call because your connection dropped. Or maybe access to the company’s central server is painfully slow. Tech problems can derail an employee for hours.

To the best of your ability, help to ensure your team members have the equipment, software, and other tech tools they need to do their jobs. Advocate for them when needed. Make a “tech support” check-in part of a weekly meeting, to ensure no one is suffering silently with slow or glitchy technology.

5. Set up and encourage multiple communication channels – videoconference, chat, etc.

Now use all that wonderful technology to connect with each other! It’s generally accepted that video calls offer a more personal connection among teams. As Harvard Business Review notes: “Visual cues allow for increased ‘mutual knowledge’ about coworkers and also help reduce the sense of isolation among teams. Video is also particularly useful for complex or sensitive conversations, as it feels more personal than written or audio-only communication.6

For quick, informal interactions, the team can make use of chat apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams.

6. Connect socially to build relationships

Loneliness is one of the most common complaints employees have about remote work. When even one team member is feeling the stress of isolation, it can impact everyone. As a leader, you can take steps to combat this phenomenon and bring your group together.

Establish social interaction by working it into regularly scheduled meetings or creating an event that is just for the purpose of having fun. For example, you could choose to spend the first few minutes of your team meeting catching up with each other – did anyone do something fun this weekend? What are your latest favorite television shows? Or, you could plan a virtual party, complete with a theme and games.

If you’re worried this type of activity feels “forced,” keep in mind that studies show “experienced managers of remote workers (and the workers themselves) report that virtual events help reduce feelings of isolation, promoting a sense of belonging.”7

What happens if you don’t make an effort to form interpersonal bonds? You may run the risk of creating virtual distance – “a sense of emotional and psychological detachment that builds up over time when people become over-reliant on technology to mediate their relationships.”8 It’s critical to create a structure for your team to feel emotionally and psychologically connected to each other, to help boost productivity, morale and trust.

7. Schedule break time.

When you’re all together in an office space, there are plenty of opportunities for breaks. A quick chat at the water cooler, mid-morning walk around the block – you can have a quick mental or physical boost then get back to work. However, individuals who work at home tend to take fewer and shorter breaks,9 which could lead to decreased concentration and burnout.

You can aid here by simply making breaks a part of every team member’s workday. It can be as simple as adding a calendar item to remind employees to stretch or take a short walk at various points in the day.

8. Listen and empathize.

There’s no doubt the global pandemic has fundamentally impacted everyone, forcing your team to face new stressors in their professional and personal lives. As a leader, you should acknowledge this and lend a listening and supportive ear.

“Especially in the context of an abrupt shift to remote work, it is important for managers to acknowledge stress, listen to employees’ anxieties and concerns, and empathize with their struggles,” states the Harvard Business Review. “If a newly remote employee is clearly struggling but not communicating stress or anxiety, ask them how they’re doing.” Leaders can also take a role in encouraging and supporting their teams, providing affirmation of their confidence in their teams with phrases such as “we’ve got this,” or “this is tough, but I know we can handle it,” or “let’s look for ways to use our strengths during this time.”10

9. Grow in new ways and encourage development.

Chances are, the pandemic situation has thrown your business for more than a few loops. Let this be an opportunity for your team to think outside the box and come up with new solutions. Knowing that they’re working together to help solve problems will be a great source of motivation and inspiration for your team. Be sure to celebrate the teams’ achievements.

For individuals, this may also be a time of reflection about their own purpose and life goals. If your normal company training and growth activities have been put on hold, consider alternatives to keep your team members curious and looking toward the future. HR software company Humu notes that “if your team relied on group events or trainings for growth, you’ll need to leverage your people’s expertise to substitute for those channels.” They suggest enabling employees to participate in cross-departmental projects to widen their exposure and gain more knowledge, or create a “virtual shadowing program” for employees who want to learn new skills.11

10. Remember: One size does not fit all.

Your team is made up of individuals – and every one of them has different communication needs, different work styles and preferences, and different personal circumstances. For practical purposes, you have to create structures for your team to operate within. But how you motivate and manage individuals can be done on a case-by case-basis. “Motivation takes many forms—for some, it might be improving the lives of customers, while for others it might be helping out their coworkers, or perfecting their craft. Your team members are best suited to figure out what motivates them individually.”12

According to Gallup, 70% of an individual’s engagement is driven by their manager.13 It’s up to you to meet the challenges of effectively managing your remote team with the right combination of structure, empathy and creativity.

1 https://www.gallup.com/workplace/296528/leading-remotely-managers-need-keep-teams-engaged.aspx
2 https://hbr.org/2020/03/a-guide-to-managing-your-newly-remote-workers
3 https://www.gallup.com/workplace/296528/leading-remotely-managers-need-keep-teams-engaged.aspx
4 https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/technology/pages/building-leading-high-performing-remote-teams.aspx
5 https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/technology/pages/building-leading-high-performing-remote-teams.aspx
6 https://hbr.org/2020/03/a-guide-to-managing-your-newly-remote-workers
7 https://hbr.org/2020/03/a-guide-to-managing-your-newly-remote-workers
8 https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/technology/pages/building-leading-high-performing-remote-teams.aspx
9 https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/15259-working-from-home-more-productive.html
10 https://hbr.org/2020/03/a-guide-to-managing-your-newly-remote-workers
11 https://humu.com/2020/06/29/five-ways-to-protect-your-teams-emotional-health/
12 https://humu.com/2020/06/29/five-ways-to-protect-your-teams-emotional-health/
13 https://www.gallup.com/workplace/296528/leading-remotely-managers-need-keep-teams-engaged.aspx