Managing Remote Teams

Managing Remote Teams: How to Increase Engagement and Performance

Managing Remote Teams: Relationships First

Dear Karin and David,

Do you have any best practices for managing remote teams? I’m finding it hard to build genuine connection and to stay on top of performance when the team is so dispersed.


On the Road Again #AskingForAFriend

How to Increase Engagement and Performance in a Remote Team

Employees working from home, virtual teams, and global teams in multiple time zones are an increasingly common reality for managers across industries. While some organizations are insisting everyone come to the office to work, the trend is undeniably toward geographically dispersed teams. To be an effective leader, you’ll want to master the art of managing remote teams.

When David talks with leaders about remote teams, one of the common problems he sees is diving into technology first, without thinking about why you’re using it.

To succeed with virtual teams and remote employees, think relationships first, tools second. As with a face-to-face team, what does your team need in order to succeed? The answers here are the same as for any team, eg: trust, connection to purpose, clear expectations, encouragement.
When it comes to managing remote teams, think relationships first, tools second. (Tweet this)
Once you’ve re-clarified these foundational team needs, then you can look for tools and methods to fulfill them. Key areas to focus on include communication, trust or connection with one another, mission alignment, and accountability.

Karin first tackled this topic back in 2012 when she was still at Verizon leading a remote team of 300 people around the country who were supporting 10,000 outsourced employees from 7 different companies.

In that post, she shared that despite the challenges, when done well, there are also some real benefits to managing remote teams.

  • Every interaction counts, people plan more for the time they have.
  • Both the leader and the team make extra effort to show up strong.
  • Teams and team members gain more confidence in self-direction.
  • Teams feel more encouraged to take risks.
  • It’s easier to be creative when no one is looking over your shoulder.
  • When teams are together they work hard to create relationships and are deliberate about maintaining them across distances.
  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder—remote teams call on one another when needed, and have quality interaction.
  • They make better use of tools and technology.
  • They listen more closely because they are not distracted by the daily noise.

You can read additional insights here. 

Many of our clients work extensively in remote teams, and in fact, we often leverage a variety of technical solutions to keep communication going across continents to create high-engagement while training these teams together, virtually.

Here are a few behaviors to focus on as your working to increase engagement and productivity while you’re managing remote teams.

  1. Establish and over-communicate a crystal clear vision and expectations.
    Managing a remote team forces you to be very clear and organized about your priorities and goals. Everything we share in Winning Well about establishing clear MITs (most important things), checking for understanding, and communicating frequently through multiple channels is EVEN MORE important when leading a remote team. Be sure your team knows what’s most important and why. It is more important than ever to check for understanding and ensure that everyone is on the same page.

    For example, to ensure meetings translate into action, an international project manager we worked with relied on agendas that are built entirely around the Winning Well meeting formula. Every item on the agenda is detailed as to the decision to be made and includes a clear ‘who is doing what, by when, and how will the team know’ outcome.

  2. Formalize your approach to informal communication.
    When you work together it’s easy to pop into the next office or catch someone in the elevator for casual updates. Don’t leave communication to chance. It’s helpful to formalize a communication process, even for informal updates, to keep your remote team informed. This is particularly important if some of your team are in other time zones.
    Mix it up – a common mistake when working with remote employees is to default to only one form of communication. Remember that people receive and retain information differently. In addition to project management software, chat platforms, and email, use a mix of more personal communication as well. There’s no substitute for a real human voice. We’re big fans of using video over phone calls whenever possible. Find creative ways to leverage technology.
  3. Be real.
    Building trust can be extra hard when face to face interaction is limited. A little vulnerability can go a long way. Find ways to get to know one another as human beings. Ditch the Diaper Genie® (or as this Fast Company article says, make an effort to  “talk about the tough stuff.” ) When people don’t have information, they make it up. And most of the time what they dream up is way worse than the truth. Reduce this tendency by taking time to intentionally “re-humanize” yourself and your team. Be vulnerable, be real, and use tools to help you make these connections. For example, one manager we worked with use a private Facebook group where her team had different fun and personal activities from sharing a meaningful object in their office to discussing what in their life mattered more to them than their work.
  4. Foster collaboration.
    One overlooked part of leading remote teams, is fostering peer collaboration. As the leader, it’s easy to become the hub of the communication, which can be extremely time consuming and limits creativity. Invest in building up the communication skills on your team. Encourage them to reach out to one another and to meet without you.
  5. Show up face-to-face more than is practical.
    Even with a solid communication plan, it’s hard to beat the benefits of spending some informal time together getting to know one another as human beings. If your budget allows, travel to your remote teams from time to time and invest great skip level interactions, roll-up-your-sleeves work, and some time to grab dinner or take a walk.

Your turn. What is your best advice for managing remote teams? 

Do you have a leadership or career question? Would you like some additional insight? Submit your question here and we’ll do our best to offer our perspective.

5 Top Leadership Articles Week of September 18, 2017

5 Top Leadership Articles for the Week of September 18, 2017

Each week I read a number of leadership articles from various online resources and share them across social media. Here are the five leadership articles readers found most valuable last week. I have added my comment about each article and would like to hear what you think, too. (Click on the title of the article to go read it for yourself.)

Burn Your Rule Book and Unlock the Power of Principles by Eric McNulty

The producer of a thought leadership event for senior executives called me recently. She shared with a rueful chuckle that the theme for this year’s meeting was uncertainty: in economic policy, trade, healthcare, international relations…the list went on. I replied that the event would certainly tap into a larger zeitgeist — everyone is wrestling with uncertainty.

Although some argue that there have been more turbulent periods in history, I would respond that these comparisons don’t matter. Perceived turbulence and uncertainty is higher than it has been in several generations.

My Comment: This is such an important concept. You’ll never have a rule for every situation. When we share Winning Well with our corporate clients and keynote audiences, we always start by sharing the core model: an internal balance of both confidence and humility combined with an external focus on both results and relationships. Even in our six-month programs we can’t possibly give you the specific solution to every single scenario you’ll ever encounter (they’re constantly changing, after all). When you have principles, however, you’re ready for whatever comes. How can I show up with confidence and humility? In this moment, how can I achieve results and build relationships?

When to Quit Your Job, if You’re a Leader (and how to exit well) by Mark Crowley

A number of managers have asked us forms of this question; What do you do when you’re deeply unhappy in a job, and you’re a senior leader?

Today we tackle that question, and how to transition out in a way that’s good for your career, and the company you’re leaving.

When do you make a change?

When you’re an individual contributor, if you’re unhappy for too long, it’s easy to just go get another job. You give your notice, help find and train your replacement, and all is well.

For better and for worse, when you rise in an organization, the stakes are much higher. While normally this is a good thing (more responsibility, compensation, and ownership), it has major drawbacks if you want to quit your job:

My Comment: I read this one with interest as I’ve been in a senior leadership position when the time came that I knew I needed to move on. Crowley addresses both when and how to make this transition gracefully. Even if you’re unhappy or ill-treated: don’t burn bridges or depart with any less dignity than you want to have every day.

4 Strategies to Build a Company Culture of Employee Engagement In a Virtual Workplace by Perry Koh

As the number of Americans who work remotely continues to increase, business owners and managers are finding that keeping workers engaged in a virtual environment can present some challenges. A recent Gallup poll found that only 30 percent of workers who work exclusively from home or mobile devices are engaged with their jobs, compared to a 33 percent engagement rate among all workers. Lack of connection with co-workers and lack of developmental guidance from managers contribute to these lower engagement levels.

Gallup’s research also found that companies who achieve higher engagement rates from remote workers take proactive steps to equip remote workers for success, with managers playing a key role in maintaining motivation. Here are four steps companies can take to build a strong company culture that promotes engagement in the virtual workplace.

My Comment: The first sentence in the second paragraph above reads equally well if you remove the word “remote.” High engagement results from proactive, intentional effort and managers play a key role – both for on-site and remote teams. In fact, remote teams need the same things: connection, purpose, encouragement, growth, and influence, but how you create these things changes when people are not sitting next to you. Koh discusses four elements and how you can help create them for your remote team.

5 New Leadership Literacies to Prepare for the Future by Skip Pritchard

If you want to get ready for the future, you need new leadership literacies. That’s what noted futurist Bob Johansen teaches those who aspire to lead well into the future. If you’re a rising star and want to prepare for what’s ahead, this book outlines future trends and skills you need in the decades to come.

Bob Johansen is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Silicon Valley. He has worked with global organizations from P&G to Disney. He’s the author or co-author of ten books. His newest is The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything.

My Comment: It can be challenging to think about how you will need to lead in the future when you have immediate issues and a team that needs you now. However, looking at these views of leadership in the future will help you lead more effectively today. Some elements – particularly being there when you’re not and clarity over certainty — are totally applicable today.

11 Emojis That Make You Look Really Unprofessional at Work by Peter Economy

As technology advances each year–if not each day–we, as consumers and communicators, are always delighted by the new ways in which we can strike up conversations with each other. Whether it be online or on our smartphones, long-gone are the days ruled by the simple colon-parenthesis smiley face. Our horizons have expanded, and the smiley and winky faces of the past have now made way for emojis, emoticons popularized by iPhone text messaging….

If you’re just boarding the emoji train and are not sure which emojis specifically should be left alone when it comes to their workplace use, here are 11 emojis that are guaranteed to make you look really unprofessional…

My Comment: I would hope that no one needs to be told that a poop emoji is unprofessional, but I’m sure it’s happened before. As with all your communication, does it represent your personal brand as you intend? Will you be comfortable with it representing you in a year or two? Would you be comfortable if it were printed in a newspaper or website for everyone to see?

Your Turn

What thoughts do these articles bring to mind? Do you see something differently than the author? Did you have a favorite leadership article this week? Leave us a comment and let’s hear from you.