Whether you’re a newly promoted leader or you have years of management experience behind you, it can seem daunting to manage a remote team. So, to help you become a strong remote leader, here are five rules to follow.
1. Communicate clearly and effectively
The biggest challenge of leading remotely is making sure that you communicate clearly and unambiguously. You might think that this is easily done, whether through text or through a video meeting, but the message that you think you’re giving and the message that your employees are receiving can be surprisingly different.
In your communication, you’ll specifically want to think about whether a particular communication is urgent or not. Do you need to pick up the phone—or is sending an email fine? It’s essential to know whether verbal or written communication is going to be most appropriate in a given situation. Also, if verbal, you’ll want to document all verbal communication so that everyone has a record of what’s been decided. Finally, it’s important to understand that you might need to communicate differently with staff who may be in a different time zone or on a different schedule than you. So, make sure you’re communicating at times that work for everyone (not just for you).
2. Lead by example
When it comes to working well together remotely, you need to lead by example. That might mean being deliberate about saying a public “thank you” to team members who are doing a great job. After all, you want to cultivate an attitude of support and appreciation or your team. Or, it could mean something as simple as being sure to use your task management system correctly.
If you tell staff that something is important but ignore it yourself, then they’re going to assume that your actions speak louder than words. One great way to lead by example is to make sure to take time off when you’re unwell (and make sure your team knows you’re doing so). Remote employees may be anxious about using their sick leave, as they may feel that there’s an expectation that they’ll work from home even when feeling unwell.
Also, make sure to you use your flex time if that’s something that your organization offers. Again, make sure you communicate this to your team—e.g. “I’m putting in a couple of extra hours today so that I can head off early on Friday, so don’t be surprised if you see me online later than usual.”
Finally, make sure to model the interpersonal relationships you’d like to see on your team. This could be something as simple as always making a point of saying “Happy birthday!” in a public Slack channel when someone on your team is celebrating a birthday.
3. Get to know your team members
When you’re in the office, you have lots of ways to get to know your team. You might take a walk as a team, go out for lunch, hear them chat about their weekend, see how they like to decorate their workplace, learn how they take their coffee, and so on. But it’s not as easy in remote environments. You need to be more proactive about getting to know your remote colleagues, especially if you’re an introvert and this doesn’t come naturally to you.
For example, you could pick a day of the week to have everyone share a fact about themselves (e.g. favorite TV show). Or you could spend a bit of time at the start of your weekly meeting encouraging employees to share anything interesting going on in their personal lives.
It’s also a great idea to find out about how your team members would like to develop professionally. You could ask about their goals, encourage them to think about the skills they want to develop, and remind them about training opportunities that the company offers.
4. Set goals—and clarify priorities
When you’re leading remotely, you need to set goals and clarify priorities, just as you would in person. But in a virtual environment, it’s particularly important to make sure these are crystal clear. Without tone of voice, body language, and other cues, it’s easy for a message to be misunderstood. For instance, you might issue a low-priority instruction in case your team member has time on their hands: “If you get a chance, could you take a look through the documentation for our editing process and make any updates needed.” But your team member might think this is something you want them to work on ASAP, even if that means rushing other projects.
It may help to have a system where tasks are explicitly tagged with different priority levels, so that everyone is clear on what’s most important. For instance, a priority “1” might mean “drop everything and work on this, a priority “3” might be average, and a priority “5” might mean that it’s a small task, with no urgency, that should wait until other tasks are completed.
5. Create opportunities for employees to talk about their challenges
All leaders think they’re approachable. But is that how you really come across to your employees? It’s possible that your team is unwilling to speak up about problems—even if those problems are mounting up.
Your remote employees might mistakenly think that you’re too busy and you won’t want to be interrupted about their problems. Or that you won’t have the ability to help them anyway, you’ll view them negatively for complaining, they shouldn’t be taking up your attention during a time of crisis, or any number of other things that may prevent them from talking to you.
So, make sure your team members have the chance to bring problems to you. Be proactive in checking in with them on a regular basis and asking if there’s anything you can help with. If your employees seem hesitant, you could emphasize that you want to hear about all problems, big and small.
A final note
Leading remote teams can be challenging. You might have to resist the urge to micromanage your employees and you might feel disconnected from your team. But by focusing on clear communication and following the tips above, you’ll be on your way to becoming a remarkable remote leader. You’ll build a strong, close-knit team of people who know you have their best interests at heart—and who want to stick around for the long term.
Veronika Biliavska is an outreach manager at Resume Genius. She is passionate about rocket science and ancient Greek literature.