5 principles for leading and managing remote teams effectively

By Frans Campher

Respecting boundaries is a key principal to maintain when working remotely.

I am not sure we fully understand the magnitude of societal and professional change that the current pandemic has created. The speed of many 'organisations' responses to remote working, providing their people with the resources and capability to be at their best, has been breathtaking. The indomitable human spirit has been alive and well through these very trying times; there are many fantastic stories we will tell when looking back in the years to come.

Why we need to focus on building resilience, even with restrictions easing

However, we are not out of the woods yet. Whilst we might have shown resilience so far, the endless video calls, email conversations and lack of old-fashioned networking have tested the limits of the most robust companies and teams.

There have been numerous articles written about leading and managing remote teams successfully, but the same crucial ingredients for success seem to run through them all.

What I would like to do is to focus on five key principles that will go a long way to ensuring that your people are engaged, self-motivated and will give you their discretionary effort to deliver exceptional results.

1. Balance your relationships and tasks

Over the past six months, I have had the good fortune of getting to understand the common challenges facing business leaders by asking them the question, "What has COVID-19 taught you about your leadership"?

A common theme played back to me was the realisation that the best results are achieved by focusing first on maintaining the relationships they have built before moving on to the task at hand. Even a small dose of human interaction between colleagues and managers significantly boosts engagement and wellbeing in such trying times.

In your next meeting, I invite you to practice putting the relationship first, asking your team members how they are, enquiring into the challenges they are facing, and coping with all they are dealing with. This investment of time reaps considerable rewards in fostering discretionary effort and speed of delivery.

2. Update your psychological contracts

How many of you have updated your 'ways of working' agreement with your team members? So many things have shifted and changed over the last year. What would it be like if you engaged in a purposeful two-way conversation with each team member and you both answered questions like;

  • How can we be even more effective while working remotely?
  • How do I get the best from you?
  • How should I communicate effectively with you?
  • What support do you need from me?

In such uncertain circumstances, providing your team with a measure of control over how they wish to work can work wonders in boosting morale and motivation. Furthermore, the ideas your team members suggest could help inspire new and better ways of working together in future.

3. Coach your people

The most significant human need is to believe that we are seen, that our ideas matter and that we can grow and develop. Turbulent times often offer the best opportunities to coach your people to create the context to achieve far more than they thought possible. 

When working at a distance, a manager's temptation is to ensure people remain engaged by being as visible and connected as possible. Too much attention can produce the opposite result. If we treat our people like adults, they will react as adults and deliver extraordinary results. 

It means giving them the space to innovate, be creative, and they will surprise you with their commitment and drive, shift your approach from imparting to an enquiry, asking great questions, and seeking ideas and solutions rather than imparting them.

4. Create a compelling purpose and ensure alignment

Through discussion and engagement, distil a compelling collective purpose and gain commitment by using the team's thinking, creativity, and opinions to establish a shared goal. Check for alignment and agreement through constructive debate and use cognitive diversity for the best thinking and ideas. Purposefully ensure everyone has a voice and has had the opportunity to share their thoughts and be heard.  

Confirm that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities and how they add value to the mission and team. Agree how you will communicate, what the rules of engagement are and how you will work together most effectively.    

5. Respect boundaries and encourage your people to do the same

Support your people to create boundaries between work and home life, take time for their mental wellbeing and switch off at the end of the working day. Studies show that many people struggle to balance their home and work life and the many demands they face; this problem is compounded when people are required to work from home and juggle caring, parental and practical responsibilities alongside their professional ones.

Often your people are competing for space in their homes to have a private conversation and time to focus. Support them to take breaks, to work in sprints and avoid always being online. Please encourage them to take a walk or have a practice where they can disconnect and breathe. 

Frans Campher is a seasoned and sought professional coach, trainer, and facilitator. He is also Programme Co-Director the “Leadership in a Technology Driven World” Executive Education programme at Imperial College Business School.

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