8 Tips for Leading a Team Remotely

There are loads of benefits to working remotely. For one, we can roll out of bed with time for a workout, wear trackpants on our lower half all day and cook up a storm in our home kitchens at lunchtime – all obvious perks! But leading remotely can bring its challenges.

That lack of face-time means we need to rethink ways to build meaningful connection with our teams and get the best performance and engagement. So I’ve pulled together a list of some things you can dial back on or introduce, to lead a remote team effectively.

1. Focus on output and outcomes

It’s no longer about working “from this time to this time”. The quality of a team’s output is far more important than the time they spend on it. That’s the true measure of productivity. What are some ways you can measure output with your team?

2. Embrace flexibility

Some of your team might not have the luxury of a home office free of distractions. It pays to become familiar with the unique circumstances, traits and skills that lead your team to approach their work differently. The best leaders know it makes sense to get to know each of their team members. They know that what works for one person may be different to another.  We know from research on burnout that if people have a say in the way they carry out their work, it can act as a buffer to burnout. Give those you lead the freedom to carry out their work their way, as much as possible, within the context and constraints of your working environment.

3. Establish team norms and expectations around working virtually

scary stat that made me wince showed that only half of professionals understand what’s expected of them. That’s a recipe for a very disengaged (at worst), or only partially committed (at best) team. I talk about the importance of clarity when delegating here. It’s also important to establish team norms for collaborating virtually beyond your WIP meetings. If you have room for team-based decision-making, use it. Some decisions need to be “I decide” but many benefit from a “we decide” approach. At the very least, this is an area where garnering feedback and ideas from your team is a useful approach.

4. Keep up regular one-on-ones with your direct reports

The one-on-ones that have a balance of “what are we doing?” as well as “how are we going?” are the best.  Communication in a virtual environment needs to be more purposeful in this regard. It benefits both of you to check in properly and intentionally once or twice a month. I have a few tips for doing so, here.  

5. Good connection doesn’t mean always connected

Virtual meetings can be more cognitively draining than in-person ones. Consider shortening your meetings. Or even better, ask yourself: “is this meeting even necessary?” Do the team need their cameras on? Should you take five to freshen up? If it’s a large group, can you use smaller breakout rooms for discussion on a topic? Most importantly avoid back-to-back meetings to combat Zoom fatigue. 

6. Avoid mixed mode meetings (if you can)

I’m a fan of, where possible, going for consistency when it comes to online or in-person meetings, as opposed to having some of you in the room and some online. This short video by social psychologist Heidi Grant shares best practices for interacting when some are in the office and some are remote. It’s well worth the watch! If it’s not possible for everyone to show up in person, can you have in-person team members dial-in individually? Or at the very least, create some norms for mixed mode meetings that avoid only collaborating with half of your audience.

7. Use technology wisely

One thing I have rediscovered is the old-fashioned phone call as an option, rather than scheduling a meeting with someone as the default. Sometimes a quick phone call to someone is all that’s needed. Or consider, is there a different platform (like Slack) that might be better used instead?

8. Make time for informal communication

Non-work-related chatter seems a whole lot more awkward over Zoom. Structure ways for employees to interact beyond work where possible. Maybe give your team a heads up that you’ll be on the call early to connect – I have had some of my best chats this way. Sure, in-person team social catch ups are priceless, but try asking your team what they would like to see remotely and trial it.

The true and long-term impacts of remote working are still largely unknown. Some love it and have embraced it in their ‘new normal’, while others loathe it and have gone straight back to the office when they could. Many others have a hybrid approach.

As tough as it was, Covid was a kick in the pants to consider new ways of doing things and our leadership habits are no different. We have to adapt. And it is possible to lead a cohesive team, even if you find yourselves in different locations.