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Leading from a Distance: Managing Remote Employees Effectively

Due to the social and economic challenges that Covid-19 presented; the working world has changed significantly since the spring of 2020. Policies that allow flexible, location-independent work are firmly established in many companies and are a standard part of modern corporate culture. While remote leadership has long been the norm in international companies, it’s still new to many executives and managers. And it’s an issue in companies of all sizes.

New challenges that managers of remote teams contend with include:
 
  • Reduced motivation triggered when an employee feels disengaged and unable to connect with you or their colleagues
  • The elimination of geographic barriers which means employees may work from anywhere. As a result, managers are more likely to be responsible for leading a team spread over different states or located internationally. So, it’s important to take differences in language, culture and time zones into account.
  • Potential cybersecurity risks and lack of ability to meet data privacy compliance because of failure or inability to enforce company policy
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Developing your relationship with and between employees is a central part of motivating any team, but it’s even more vital when managing remotely. In this context, soft skills like active listening, effective communication and empathy are just as important as technical knowledge, strategic thinking and project management expertise. Remote employees are not just missing face-to-face meetings. A lack of the camaraderie that is nurtured by spontaneous get-togethers matters just as much. Creating space for informal, virtual interaction and encouraging open discussion are just some of the new fundamentals.
 
Interpersonal interactions within the team don't have to suffer because of the lack of in-person contact. Managers can regularly invite their team to face-to-face discussions that are not limited to technical topics, or they can shift team-building activities into the virtual space -- for example, in the form of an online game night. 
 
Encouraging employees to take regular breaks and establish a defined end to their workday will go a long way in preventing stress and potential burnout. Make empathy a priority. For example, be sure to pay attention when a new team member doesn’t yet have a solid connection to the group. 

A stable foundation promotes community 

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While being intentional about driving positive human interaction has taken on new importance, structure and planning strengthen a sense of belonging too. Take a 360-degree view of your projects to enable efficient delegation of tasks and facilitate independent work. The key is to divide the workload into clear, tasks and to define the desired outcome, responsibilities and deadlines for each one. 
 
In virtual teams, management decisions and actions should always be transparent and easy to understand. Update everyone on the progress of projects they’re involved in. When they are in the loop, they’re more likely to feel that their contributions are valued. It's important to actively involve employees in decision-making and to recognize their strengths and use them accordingly. 
 
In addition, a mix of opportunities for independent, online learning and group sessions that happen in real-time can maximize professional development. Learning at your own pace is better for undisturbed and concentrated processing of tasks. On the other hand, a live group session is better for generating ideas and problem solving. 
 
In this new way of working, performance shouldn’t be defined by the number of hours an employee spends at their desk. Managers should give their employees the freedom to allocate their time themselves. That way, each team member can work when they feel most productive and focus on delivering better results in less time. 

Clear and frequent communication really matters 

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Consistency, showing respect for others, doing what you say you're going to do, supporting team members when they make a mistake and admitting to your own are some of the components needed to create a climate of trust in the workplace. Employees value authenticity and need to know that you are on their side. 

8 communication strategies

  1. It’s better to communicate too much than too little - a constant flow of information benefits everyone. 
  2. Schedule 1:1 meetings consistently. Use some of this check-in time to ask about an employee’s personal life, family and hobbies.
  3. Ask your team to resolve disagreements over the phone or on a video call instead of via email. Relying solely on email can exaggerate misunderstandings.
  4. Avoid becoming a micromanager. You want to stay informed on their progress, but you don’t want employees to feel they’re under surveillance.
  5. Don’t assume you understand how an employee feels about the type and amount of work they’re assigned to do. Ask questions frequently and listen carefully to their responses.
  6. Whether it's a daily stand-up meeting in the morning or a recap at the end of the day, managers can translate some traditional in-office activities to a digital format.
  7. Set clear expectations and make sure everyone understands their deliverables and deadlines.
  8. Take advantage of opportunities to give positive feedback and recognize accomplishments. 

How technology fits in

Digital Tools

It's not just a matter of having a fast internet connection. Remote and hybrid workers need the right tools to increase the ease of collaboration. These resources range from videoconferencing to electronic whiteboards and online chat. Digital document management also has a significant role to play. It ensures that everyone is on the same page on their respective projects and that no important tasks are overlooked. All relevant information stored in a secure, central repository and authorized employees have access to all relevant documents and workflow processes at any time from anywhere. 
 
Document management systems fully support remote work. With a third of office workers saying they would likely quit their jobs if remote work is discontinued at their company, systems that ensure collaboration without requiring people to be in the same space are critical.

Leading at a distance does not require a completely new set of capabilities. However, developing your soft skills and exercising emotional intelligence are certainly requirements for managing remote teams successfully. Clear, transparent communication together with business savvy and the appropriate technology are the keys to building a remote working environment in which motivation, commitment to common goals and team spirit are cultivated and maintained.

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