It’s been over a year of widespread remote work, but many people are still getting used to this “new normal.” And just because they may be higher up in the organization, workplace leaders aren’t any more prepared than the average worker. In fact, a remote leadership report found that 77% of leaders had never managed a fully remote team before the pandemic, and 89% had never managed a partially remote team.
So if you feel like you’ve been suddenly thrust into a new world of remote work, you’re not alone. And if we’re going to make this work in the long run, it’s time to adapt to a new way of leading. That’s why we are outlining some of the top remote leadership challenges, and then digging into the leadership skills that will help you ultimately overcome these pain points. Get ready to become a better remote leader.
The Challenges of Remote Leadership
We all know that leading a team in person is hard — and leading a remote team comes with its own set of challenges. Countless businesses have had to retrain their employees on new technology, shift processes and workflows, and overall transition to a digital-first workplace without notice. These major shifts happened overnight, so it’s no surprise that many leaders have been caught off guard.
Everyone is experiencing these problems, and recognizing your weaknesses will actually help you identify areas for improvement. So before we talk about building your new set of remote leadership skills, let’s review some of the common challenges of remote leadership.
We used to see our coworkers a lot. Maybe even more than our family members. Working at home alone means not seeing each other in person, which can get plain lonely. Remote leaders are finding it difficult to check in with their team members on a regular basis. They’re having trouble grasping how teammates are feeling and knowing what they need.
Ever wanted to avoid a coworker at the office? Well, the virtual world enables that easily. In a more transactional environment, it’s easier not to approach someone you don’t need, and silos develop quickly. A leader’s role is integral to breaking up the silo mentality, which causes power struggles and inefficiencies.
Lack of face-to-face supervision and involvement
Many managers find themselves less hands-on with projects in the virtual working world. It’s harder to keep track of day-to-day progress, read non-visual cues from team members, and confront remote communication barriers. While pulling back from micromanaging isn’t a bad thing, connecting with teammates asynchronously may lead to reduced collaboration, trust, and rapport.
Navigating the lack of information access
When you can’t ask a question by just walking over to your teammates, you’ll often catch yourself searching frantically in the company drive. Access to information becomes a hassle, and many self-conscious individuals just don’t like asking all the time and bugging people. This increases the time people spend finding information instead of analyzing it, which was already sitting at 19% of our workdays in our pre-remote world. The onus is on leaders to streamline communication, choose the right collaboration tools, and help build out processes that support their teammates in their daily activities.
Distractions at home
Being a leader is a tough enough task, but add on homeschooling the twins, your attention-seeking dog, and the renovation noises of your next-door neighbor? When you’re already struggling to support your team from a distance, all these interruptions can prove to be a little too much.
Top Remote Leadership Skills
Do those challenges sound relatable? If so, that’s a good thing. All of those team problems are easily solvable, and can be significantly improved with good leadership and direction from someone like you. So now that we have a better understanding of the situations at play, let’s take a look at the core remote leadership skills that will help your team conquer these challenges and successfully navigate the world of remote work.
1. Make communication crystal clear
Talking on video took us a pretty long time to get used to, and for me, it was by far the most challenging aspect of remote work. If you rely on video communication nowadays, you might notice that it’s much harder to get the point across. Choosing the proper mode of communication (written, video, async, or not) is critical for leaders. According to Hive’s remote work survey, 84% of remote workers communicate via instant messaging, 81% use email, 76% meet over video, and 54% talk over phone calls.
There are many collaboration tools to make make this communication as smooth as possible, but it’s also important for leaders to put extra attention on managing disruptions and making sure your tools are actually helping, not hindering, your team interactions. Using a project management tool like Hive is great because it brings everything to one single dashboard — imagine sending Slack messages, checking your email inbox, and starting a Zoom call from one simple window. Try Hive for free to see for yourself.
2. Learn and improve observation
What’s working? Has someone not taken a vacation for over six months? If there’s ever a time when we need to read between the lines, it’s now. Good listening skills are crucial; so is knowing when to help because not everyone will share every detail of their life. Still, a great remote leader should pick up on attitude or productivity changes to promptly address personal or professional problems within the team.
Be proactive and touch base frequently, but remember there’s a fine line between consistently supporting and being a micromanager. That makes it even more essential for leaders to stay present and not be easily distracted during the limited synchronous communication with team members.
3. Organization and project-planning
Is it time to bring in a new tool, process, or solution? While ensuring systems are in check, don’t forget to agree on how to work as a team and choose the right tools together. Take some time to brainstorm, define, and review any formal team processes and ways to deliver feedback, collaborate, and meet deadlines. These expectations have to be aligned and consistent, and any changes should be presented to the wider team before execution.
There are many remote work tools to help teams stay organized, manage tasks, and work together online. Using a project management tool like Hive is a great way bring all of your tools together in one single dashboard, so your team can communicate productively and efficiently.
4. Set precise goals and outcomes
Count the results, not the hours! Virtual leadership involves setting measurable metrics while also maintaining flexibility and understanding. You shouldn’t constrain your employees into working around your terms rather than theirs.
Expecting your employees to meet their deliverables during fixed hours really defeats the benefits of working from home. The “hours worked” approach to monitoring productivity is also something many leaders have to let go of and instead focus on end goals.
Adaptability isn’t only critical during a crisis or when you need a backup plan. It’s a key skill for any leader, whether remote or not. The ability to manage people, projects, and change in a distributed environment is particularly challenging! That’s why encouraging innovation and experimenting with different problem-solving approaches will show a culture of openness, resilience, and adaptability.
6. Figure out your meeting cadence
Determine the optimal frequency for individual check-ins while being open to increasing or adjusting them according to shifting needs. It’s easier said than done: try to avoid being a micromanager while staying helpful. Equip your team with tools and technology, like recognition platforms and intranets built to maintain connection and help them locate the files and people they need.
Losing sight of your employees and what support they need will lead to feelings of neglect and isolation; an excellent remote leader must also help equip people with the right resources so they can be self-sufficient. Remember, out of sight but not out of mind!
As you might’ve noticed, casual jokes are much harder to pull off when you’re typing away or chatting from home. Team spirit can help people maneuver through ups and downs. Building and contributing to a positive remote team culture is often overlooked, but we see how important it is after the past year.
8. Ability to bring people together
Company culture is crucial in any workplace, but by default, you’ll need to work harder to maintain connection in a virtual environment. It’s the leader’s responsibility to uplift the team, eradicate silos, and promote collaboration. You play an integral part in matching company values with actions, as well as defining the workplace boundaries and rituals that serve all your employees.
Being able to use digital platforms to unify the vision and maintain company culture is even more crucial when working remotely. Defining the practices and celebrations by including everyone is a healthy way to start. Virtual team building activities can also help maintain company culture in a distributed work environment.
Let’s not forget why we switched to remote work in the first place. The story of the past year inevitably involves a grim side to it, whether it be caring for someone sick, dealing with loneliness, or disruption to our daily routines. As leaders, you’re obligated to deal with professional tasks, but make sure you’re there for the people and their personal matters as well. Open conversations that address what’s been different can help your team navigate change closer together.
Unfortunately, certain tough decisions just can’t be avoided. When it comes to delivering and handling bad news, leaders who show special efforts in crafting human-centric layoffs and maximizing support could increase credibility even during tough times.
Mastering any of the remote leadership skills mentioned above is not a task for the faint of heart. Instead of viewing remote work as a burden and a temporary situation, perhaps look at the past year as an opportunity to master a new set of leadership skills. It’s time to shift away from reactive mode and spend that energy creating sustainable strategies to serve long-term success.
We’ve already jumped over many hurdles of using new tools, developing new processes, and embracing the benefits of this new mode of collaboration. Build on that momentum! Let’s not reverse the progress we’ve made; hold the past year’s learnings close, and trust that we’re training our remote leadership skills to adapt to a better world of work.
This is a guest post written by Faye Wai, Jostle’s Content Marketing Strategist and a curious lover of stories. Her own career experiences inspire her to write about all things employee engagement and workplace wellbeing on the Jostle blog. Jostle helps leaders build connected organizations so that everyone at work can unite and grow together. Find out more at www.jostle.me.