The steady march towards working from home and remote teams was sped up drastically by the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, a survey conducted by IBM recently found that more than half of employees want remote work to be their primary method of working, and 75 percent said they’d like the option to continue working remotely at least some of the time. And many companies are responding in kind.
So, it seems like a fair prediction that, as a leader, you will likely be asked to lead a remote team at some point in the future—if you’re not already. Whether that team is fully remote or “free range” meaning they come into the office every once in a while, geographically dispersed teams present a unique set of opportunities and challenges. In this article, we will consider three elements of remote team leadership that will help you manage the risks and see more rewards from remote work: shared expectations, shared empathy, and shared vision.
The first thing you’re going to need as a leader of a remote team is to make sure the team develops shared expectations. There are new rules to remote work, and everyone is finding out what works for them, what their communications preferences are, and how they’ll balance work and life. There’s no water cooler for chit chat and no one is checking their cubicle to see what time they clocked in and out. So, it’s even more important for team members to know what to expect from each other.
Don’t assume that 9:00 to 5:00 at the office means 9:00 to 5:00 working from home or working remotely. People need to fit other areas of their life into their work, but you are going to want to find periods of overlap so you can have a few times you know work for calling a meeting. And you, as the leader of the team, need to lead that conversation.
While you’re leading the conversation about shared expectations, you’ll also need to seek shared empathy between team members. We’re in a new style of working, and people have been experimenting with how they can fit their work in life better together, which means we need increasing amounts of empathy and understanding that not everybody works the way you prefer to work. Maybe people are working out of a dedicated home office or maybe they’re working from the same kitchen table that their children are trying to learn on and that their spouse or partner is also trying to work on.
When someone on the team is nonresponsive, it may not be because they’re angry or lazy. And it may not be because they don’t understand what you asked of them. It just might be that their life and work balance looks a little bit different than yours. And as the leader, it’s your job to develop that empathy and understanding.
One way to create shared empathy and understanding is to provide some “check-in” times where team members get a glimpse of each other beyond the work. For example, you absolutely should start virtual meetings on time, but you should actually start them about 10 minutes early. That way people can have the chit-chat, the socialization, and have the discussions about other areas of their life that actually help lead to shared empathy and shared understanding over time.
The last element you need to develop, and then reinforce on a regular basis is a shared vision. Shared vision means that people know what they’re working for. They know why they’re working, and how that work helps the world. In organizational psychology, the concept of task significance has a huge influence on human motivation. One question for a lot of work situations is “how salient, or obvious, is the significance of the tasks we’re asking people to complete?”
In a remote team environment, where it’s hard to even see your team members let alone see how your work contributes to their ability to do there, the salience of task significance can plummet unless leaders create regular reminders for their people.
If you’re familiar with my work, you know that I believe one of the primary jobs of a leader is to give his or her people a clear and concise answer to the question, “What are we fighting for?” Not, “Who are we fighting?” That’s a question about competitors. But rather “What is the good in the world that we are working towards?” or “What are the values in the world that we are seeking to defend by our work?”
If you don’t want to use a fight rhetoric, you could try this: Ask your people during the next meeting a simple question:
“If our team ceased to exist, who would be most negatively affected by that?”
Their answers not only point to who you serve and how their work helps them. The answer itself serves as a method to bring task significance back to the minds of your team.
If you’re leading a remote team, either because they just became remote or because you just became the leader, then developing shared expectations, shared empathy, and shared vision should be your primary focus—not just in the beginning but on a regular basis as well.
Reminding your team of these three key elements will help them stay the course, no matter where the course takes them in the world.
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