How to be an effective remote team leader: 4 keys to creating a cohesive virtual work environment

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Prior to COVID-19, roughly 30% of employees had performed their job remotely at least on some occasions, according to a recent Gartner survey. That number grew considerably since the pandemic began.

Per the same report, half the organizations surveyed now say at least 81% of their workers are remote, while 65% revealed that at least 61% of their staff is working remotely.

For organizations making this transition for the first time, it was a daunting task, as they quickly turned their attention to getting their employees the tools, equipment, and technology needed to work productively. However, in the mad rush to set their employees up to work remotely, many companies overlooked an important piece of the puzzle: how to effectively manage a remote team.

As a potentially first-time remote team leader, how do you communicate, guide performance, and create work relationships with employees who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away?

Using J. Richard Hackman’s research on “enabling conditions” as a framework, here are four critical steps to create a reliable and effective virtual working environment.

1. Lay the foundation

Team members often learn about things like the company mission statement during onboarding. However, in a remote setting, while removed from places that help reinforce culture, it’s easy to lose sight of how their individual work is part of the larger mission and vision.

As leadership, it’s your responsibility to make sure everyone is driving toward the same goal and that each employee understands how their job fits the company’s overall vision.

Constant communication is the key to getting over this hurdle and developing a greater connection. Have more regular meetings, daily touchpoints, or town halls with your team. Deliver individual feedback more consistently so employees receive more one-on-one interaction. Talk to your team members about things outside of work, like their family or hobbies.

Once you’ve established more frequent communication, set clear and consequential goals for your team members to work toward. To encourage your team members to meet these goals, and to care about meeting them, create a rewards system. This can include anything from recognition and promotions to compensation.

2. Create a strong structure

With so many employees working outside the physical confines of the office, it becomes even more important to implement clear guidelines and boundaries.

As a team leader, it’s your job to make sure everyone knows how they’re going to work together to achieve their goals.

Start by defining individual roles. Determine how the role is to be performed and its path for delivering a particular outcome. Then, identify how these individual roles fit and work with other members of your team to achieve the same outcome.

To make sure everyone is staying on task, introduce a system that creates visibility and accountability for the work in progress. There are many available work management platforms that can help you identify what needs to be done, when the task is being worked on, and who is responsible for completing the assignment.

It’s also vital to make sure you’re keeping close control over the amount of work being assigned. While you want to ensure your team is staying on schedule, you also don’t want to overwhelm them.

3. Develop a trusting relationship

In a remote setting, leadership can’t just pop into a team member’s office when they want to have a conversation. At the same time, in this environment, being able to deliver feedback in an effective manner is that much more important to your team’s success.

So, the question is, how do you build a trusting relationship in the absence of proximity? It begins with creating vehicles and opportunities to give your team feedback.

Introducing weekly meetings can help motivate your employees. It gives them a space to talk openly about what’s going on in their lives, but it also gives you an opportunity to gauge their needs and see how you, as a leader, can better help them do their job. In a remote environment, it may behoove you to offer your team even more feedback opportunities throughout the week.

Aside from establishing trust with the group, you must also build trust with each individual. In a remote setting, this may require you to reevaluate different trust currencies – quality currencies, task currencies, visibility currencies, and personal currencies – to learn how to best approach each team member.

This doesn’t happen overnight. But, by deducing what your team members need, how they respond to feedback, and what motivates them, you can develop the trust required to complete the task.

4. Cultivate a shared mindset

Due to globalization, cultural differences play a new role as well. As a result, you must be cognizant of how communication varies across countries, regions, races, genders, and professions.

Therefore, it’s important to consider who you’re speaking to and how you’re speaking to them, as your messaging will be received differently depending on the recipient.

For example, high-context cultures tend to focus on the needs of the collective and the goals of the group as a whole. They also tend to be more indirect and non-confrontational. On the flip side, low-context cultures prioritize the individual and respond better to more direct approaches.

While everyone is working toward the same goal, your team members are all different. They have different mindsets, different cultural values, and they come from different places. By factoring in these various characteristics, you’ll have an easier time getting your message across and making sure everyone feels comfortable.

Become a better remote manager

When COVID-19 arrived, some organizations already had the pieces in place to support a wide-scale remote workforce. Other companies quickly scrambled to get their employees the tools they needed to do their jobs from home.

While the right technology enables your employees to do their jobs from home, succeeding in this environment goes beyond devices and apps. It requires effective communication between team leaders and their staff.

By laying the foundation, creating a strong structure, developing a trusting relationship, and cultivating a shared mindset, first-time remote team leaders will have the framework in place to build an effective and reliable virtual environment.

Joe Love and Ryan Huffine contributed to this post.