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Leading remote teams: how to improve effectiveness and drive positive culture

Different strokes for different folks


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Melissa Voderberg

3 years ago | 4 min read

Covid-19 has forced a considerable shift towards working from home. Business leaders face a new challenge– how to manage teams without seeing their staff daily.

Organisations are struggling to maintain ‘business as usual’, meanwhile managers can find themselves overwhelmed with governing workloads and supporting staff through the transition.

Some leaders hit the ground running, applying their knowledge and adapting to new ways of working. But unfortunately, many traditional management principles don’t translate to distance work.

What can we adopt from organisational psychology and management best-practice to effectively lead teams remotely?

In their comprehensive study into how remote work affects well-being, Sara Perry, Cristina Rubino, and Emily Hunter identified three main challenges with distance work: coordinating with others, managing ambiguity, and loss of social-emotional support (4).

Here’s a set of tips to address these three challenges and improve the way you lead, manage and sustain a positive culture for your teams.

Different strokes for different folks

Manage on a case-by-case basis. Consider the personal situation for each member of your team before organising check-ins. Do they have young children and a partner also working from home? They might be tag-teaming work and parenting duties outside a 9–5 schedule.

If a 7am or 7pm meeting works better for them, offer it.

Put your team first, be flexible and exercise forgiveness towards rescheduling requests. Improved adaptability from leadership can rouse better performance and boost team commitment.

For staff members living alone, suggest more check-ins or a social channel. If you aren’t already using a social platform, check out Slack, Teams or WhatsApp for team communication. Birthdays, cultural days and staff recognition are important events to highlight.

Screenshot of staff communicating via Slack to stay connected

‘Check-in’, not ‘Check-up’

Trust that most people will be doing the best they can. Classify any ‘underperformance’ you might notice as an adjustment period rather than signs of a larger issue. Veer on the side of positivity.

Set up formal and informal check-ins and utilise project tracking software like Trello, Jira, Microsoft Project or Float to improve autonomy for staff.

This way, instead of listing project updates during your meetings, you’ll be able to dedicate time to listen and support your team.

It’s an opportunity to check how employees are coordinating with others and managing in isolation. “Remote managers are least concerned about employee loneliness, while this is consistently ranked as one of the top struggles for remote workers” (1).

An example of Float, a project tracking software

Here Comes the Sun

People yearn to feel needed, valued, and recognised for their work. We all like the sun to shine on us; find ways to digitally recognise your team.

What was once celebratory team drinks, a team outing or congratulatory printouts on the staff fridge, can be replicated digitally.

Create a shared channel and provide frequent commendations. Engage and incentivise teams to participate in positive feedback. Implement monthly accolades to highlight achievements and praise staff for their tenacity during trying times.

A little recognition can go a long way

Acknowledge, scan and act

From her book Lead Positive, Kathryn Cramer suggests leaders use the Acknowledge, Scan and Act (ASA) mental process to address challenging management situations (2).

Example: A staff member comes to you with an issue regarding team collaboration, he feels unable to make progress without regular instruction from others.

  1. Acknowledge the negative: “I understand it’s difficult to get immediate feedback from your colleagues, as you’re working from home instead of sitting next to each other.”
  2. Scan for the positive: “The good thing about this is that we are able to explore new ways of collaborating that we haven’t tried before, like Miro.”
  3. Act on the positive: “I’ll set up a session with you and your team this week to show how you can collaborate in real-time using a Miro board and virtual post-its to give each other feedback.”

When you meet with individual staff, identify one action you can resolve immediately to assist them with their work, this will deliver value to your catchups.

In his recent book on management, Henry Mintzberg recommends an engaging management approach,

“To manage is to connect naturally with human beings. Managing thus means engaging, based on judgment, rooted in context” (3).

Working together­­ — especially during this testing time — will demonstrate your role as a responsible leader, not just as an enforcer of deadlines.

More autonomy, fewer interruptions and less time commuting are the top advantages of remote work (4). Some companies are finding it difficult to trust and let go– by ‘trying to maintain connection’ they schedule extra meetings and interrupt staff with unannounced calls.

Unfortunately, these impromptu events eliminate some of the positive gains of remote work.

When leading remote teams– empower autonomy by minimising meetings and ensure your check-ins add value.

Following these tips should improve effectiveness and motivate your team. Best of luck!

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Melissa Voderberg

Strategic Design Consultant. Insights on design strategy, business transformation, innovation, and leadership.


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