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Remote Leadership: Why a Distributed Team Needs a Different Approach

Laura Martisiute Laura Martisiute
Remote Leadership: Why a Distributed Team Needs a Different Approach

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the way we worked, distributed teams were already entering the mainstream. Between 2005 and 2018, the number of people working remotely grew by 140%.

More than just an emergency measure, remote working has proven to be a genuine asset for many organizations. When you separate work from “workplace,” you get increased productivity, access to the best talent, and fewer overheads, to name just a few benefits. However, as anyone who has had to abruptly transition from managing in-house employees knows, distributed workforces aren't without their downsides.

If managing a remote team is a new thing for you, here are three challenges you have probably already encountered as well as some practical steps to overcoming them.

Communication

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One of the best (or worst, depending on who you ask) features of in-person teams is constant communication. Whether you have a question or a great idea for a project, getting a colleague’s or manager’s input is usually only a few steps away. Replicating the seamlessness of in-person communication with distributed teams doesn't happen without focused effort.

While it's always easiest to pop off a quick email or chat message, relying too much on written communication can have serious unintended consequences. Linguistics research shows that how someone perceives a particular statement can be highly personal and often far from the statement's original intent. The research study uses the word “love” as an example. For someone who is, or has been, happily in love, the word carries positive meaning. However, for someone who has had a bad love experience, what might seem to you as a positive word will have a negative connotation.

That's not to say email or voice calls don't have a place. However, without a way to read someone's body language, well-meaning managers can easily create unwelcome dynamics through poorly worded communications.

Solution: Set ground rules for communication channels

For remote work, communication is incredibly important. Establish rules for how you and your employees should communicate from the get-go and stick to them.

Be clear about which channels should be used for what purposes but don't neglect the need for casual conversations either. For example, a Slack channel can serve as a virtual water cooler. Even though encouraging employees to divert their attention from work might sound counterproductive, creating a designated virtual space to talk freely has been proven to help build connections, improve morale, and ultimately develop better organizational cultures.

While you can conduct regular check-ins via email, you might consider clarifying the intent behind your messages by using emojis or more descriptive words. However, a better idea is to allow more time for video calls and one-on-ones. Video calls are especially important for hard conversations —  no one should be told they are an under-performer through an email.

Collaboration

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Whether or not collaboration could work in multimodal or fully remote working environments was a primary challenge hindering the adoption of remote working in the pre-pandemic world.

Even though many organizations have transitioned seamlessly into distributed environments, achieving genuine remote collaboration isn't easy, mostly due to inadequate tools.

On one level, video conferencing tools like Google Meet and Zoom are a far less effective replacement for in-person meetings than business leaders had hoped for. On another, technical issues are still too common, and teams are worryingly likely to create dangerous “shadow IT” situations. Shadow IT is when employees use their own software solutions for work without authorization, creating gaps in an organization’s cyber security.

Solution: Have the right tech in place

For most employees, keeping track of all the apps (and, consequently, all the files, notes, and documents they need to do their job) is time-consuming. An average employee uses 35 apps and switches between them over 1,000 times per day. These numbers add up to most employees wasting an entire month per year on workplace apps.

A far better solution is to give employees access to everything they need  — video conferencing and chat tools, Google docs, and Miro, among other things — in one place. That’s where solutions like RemoteHQ come in. With RemoteHQ, employees can:

  • Create virtual workspaces that allow remote employees to communicate and interact as if they were co-located.
  • Launch meeting rooms dedicated exclusively to brainstorming sessions.
  • Co-browse and co-control any web page using the Shared Browser feature. With a Shared Browser, rather than trying to explain to your screen-sharing colleague how something works or where to click, you can jump right in and show her exactly what to do. Your colleague will even be able to recognize your cursor on the screen should more people join the session.
  • Upload files right into the session in real-time to get feedback from everyone that’s on the call.
  • Collaborate directly via Trello, Google Drive, Figma, Miro, Whiteboard, and even YouTube — all without leaving RemoteHQ.
  • “Pin” apps you and your colleagues use in a specific session to a particular room (for example, a brainstorming room) so that they open automatically in the next session.
  • Go back through session history to see who said what and what files were uploaded and chats sent.

You know what's even better? All of the above is available from your browser, so there is no need to download any apps onto your device.

Trust

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According to a Harvard Business Review study, 38% of managers think that remote workers perform worse than office employees, and 22% are unsure.

Even though the facts about remote working productivity beg to differ, this lack of trust is still understandable. Whereas in the past, managers could simply walk around the office and see what everyone was up to, remote leadership requires managers to inherently trust their employees.

Lack of trust is bad for both employees and their employers. For managers, distrust can lead to micromanagement and the expectation that team members should be available at all times. Not only can this expectation cause job stress, but it can also lead to a drop in employee motivation and a sharp decline in productivity.

In reality, trust goes both ways. When employees don’t trust their leaders, the chances of them being engaged are 1 in 12. In contrast, when trust is established, the likelihood of an employee being engaged increases by 600%.

Solution: Encourage transparency and be responsive

With their teams out of the office and out of sight, leaders need to create a transparent system for measuring remote employee productivity. Managers in charge of remote teams need to move away from “presenteeism” — the unfortunately widespread phenomenon of workers being on the job but not really working —  and evaluate productivity based on actual results.

Far from a paradigm shift, this measure is as simple as measuring what people achieve rather than how many video meetings they attend each week. Depending on your employees’ roles and the industry you’re in, this may be anything from the number of sales made to the number of logos designed.

However, on the other side of the equation, individuals can also benefit from more attention — particularly when they can approach you themselves. Sharing your availability can give struggling employees a nudge to contact you for feedback. Presenting yourself as “available” and responsive can go a long way in helping you build trust with your employees.

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