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2020 has been a year full of adjustments. The familiar four corners of the office have been replaced by a bed or a couch. Most employees were forced to work remotely and managers were subjected to trial by fire; handling a remote team for the first time. But I believe this event has also changed the perspective of many. I believe it’s safe to say that companies and employees have realized the benefits of remote work. We have started to embrace this new work lifestyle. This goes without saying that managers are expected to become effective remote team leaders too. But remote work can be a challenging route to navigate for some. It requires a different approach and mindset when it comes to management. 

Challenges of Remote Team Leaders

While remote work isn’t a pandemic-born concept, managers saw themselves trying to find their footing during the start of the health crisis. Many realized that they needed to change their tried and tested management strategies and techniques for their teams to cope with this so-called “new normal.”

Managers were called to be remote team leaders and they quickly saw these challenges ahead of them:

  • Lack of face-to-face communication
  • Evaluating productivity
  • Building trust
  • Lack of focus
  • Cultivating company culture
  • Social isolation

All these challenges are caused largely by the fact that employees and managers are no longer working within the same walls. Managers worry that employees are not productive at home. In the same manner, employees get anxious that their managers don’t trust them. This pushes some managers to micromanage as they feel more at ease if they know what their teams are doing. But when this happens, it displays a lack of trust and makes it even harder for managers to create a productive and harmonious working culture for their remote team. These challenges require a different mindset on the part of managers. They must switch to becoming remote team leaders and adapt their management styles to the needs of their remote teams. 

Both managers and employees can experience social isolation. Working alone can get lonely at times. Managers as remote team leaders play a big role in ensuring that employees don’t feel isolated even when they’re miles apart from their teams. 

You might be one of those managers who are still getting used to this remote work lifestyle. Or maybe you’re looking on how to be an effective remote team leader.  Here we’ve got some 7 tips that you can easily apply to become the remote team leader your company needs in this extraordinary time.

7 Tips on How to Effectively Lead Remote Teams

Establish a Work Agreement

A work agreement is a Scrum concept that Scrum teams use to declare how they expect each team member to work and interact with each other. Borrowing this Scrum concept, remote team leaders should establish a work agreement that specifies work expectations as well as what remote teams can expect from their managers as well. In Scrum, it’s the team that comes up with the work agreement and they establish a consensus. This can also be done by other remote teams outside of an Agile or Scrum implementation. Remote team leaders can draft a work agreement, discuss with their team, and get their consensus. This approach will help establish trust and clarity between employees and managers. 

Treat a work agreement as your remote work policy. Read the ten most important things every remote work policy should have and start drafting your own policy for your team.

Set Clear Expectations and Goals

Even in an office setting, studies show that around 50% of U.S. employees struggle to have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them at work. You can just imagine how this confusion magnifies when working remotely. Setting clear expectations and goals help to diminish that confusion and enables remote team leaders to set a clearer path for their employees to follow. It also enables them to have a more sound basis of their team’s productivity and performance. For instance, a remote development team can deliver low-quality solutions when there are no defined expectations. In this case prioritizing speed over thoroughness lead to bugs, security vulnerabilities, or other quality issues.

Expectations should also cover how you want and expect your team members to communicate and collaborate. This will go hand-in-hand with your work agreement or remote work policy.

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Focus on Outcomes and Results over Activity

One thing managers need to overcome is the need to actually see what their teams are doing. Effective remote team leaders focus on outcomes and results and not on the amount of time worked. Sure, your teams can log as much hours as they want but are they getting their work done? Are they meeting the goals you set out for them? Are they showing up to meetings when you expect them to? Are they communicating to you and the rest of the team as they should? Time worked isn’t equal to work done well. While time tracking helps get an idea of an employee’s work schedule and availability, it should not be treated as the ultimate basis for productivity. 

Check-in Frequently

Since you don’t get to see your teams as often as you would in an office, it’s important to establish frequent check-ins. Not only does this make them feel that you care for them and the work they do. It also creates a sense of rhythm for them. It helps make them feel that they are part of a larger group and reduces that feeling of isolation. An effective remote team leader knows that supporting your team and establishing a connection with them is crucial to remote work success.

Schedule both one-on-one catch ups and team check-ins with your team. Provide a venue for your employees to share their ideas, struggles, and aspirations with you. This will help build trust and cultivate a company culture that is inclusive, supportive, and productive to work on.

Offer Flexibility

Not everyone has the same working environment at home. It’s easy to focus on work when you’re in an office. You all have the same desks, the same breaks, and the same schedules. But working remotely, especially at home, is different. Some of your employees may be living with their families or parents. Some may have kids. Some may not have their own work desk at home. Whatever their situation is, offer flexibility to your employees. There might be times when they need to bring their kids to the doctor, run an urgent errand, or can’t open their video camera because the kids are running around the house. Whatever the situation may be, seek to understand them. A remote team leader can recognize and empathize with employees and how they manage both their work and personal life at home.

Provide Opportunities for Socialization Outside of Work

When working in an office, it’s easy to gather the team to have a lunch-out or a team dinner. It was easy to pull a team member for a quick catch-up at the nearby café. A remote setting makes this more difficult to pull off. But you can get creative with it. Hold a remote team lunch where everyone goes on a zoom meeting and eats together. Schedule a 30-min coffee catch-up with your team members or hold one with smaller groups and convene via a video conference. Hold remote team building activities and remote team celebrations. And if the situation permits, have a budget for teams to meet up personally if they live near to each other. Of course, they need to observe proper health protocols or you can introduce this as a post-pandemic program. 

These pockets of opportunity for team members to socialize and discuss non-work related things will help establish and strengthen their bond. Effective remote team leaders can enable a smoother working relationship and team dynamic through socialization and team building.

Show Empathy and Genuine Concern

It may be easy to think that your employees have got it easy because they’re working from the comfort of your homes. This is one trap you should not fall into. Same as with offering flexibility to employees, you should also show empathy and genuine concern. Be empathic on how they are struggling to keep it together – both on their personal and professional obligations. Show genuine concern for their well-being and career growth. And when your employees feel and see your sincerity, you get to build trust and put down the barriers that can be brought by remote working. This will make you more effective in being a remote team leader.

Why You Need to Invest in Remote Work Tools

All of the seven tips above cannot be implemented if you don’t have the right remote work tools. Technology will be your most important weapon to combat remote work challenges. My bonus tip to become an effective remote team leader is investing in remote work collaboration tools.

At the minimum you should have the following remote work tools to help your team be more productive:

  • Team communication and messaginge.g. Slack
  • Video conferencinge.g. Zoom
  • Task and Project Managemente.g. Kanban Zone
  • File sharinge.g. Google Drive

These are the core remote tools that you need to invest in. This will make it easier for your team to work together, even if they are not co-located. A task and project management tool like Kanban Zone, for example, will make it easier for everyone to know what each is working on. You as the remote team leader will also have an easier way of managing and tracking your team’s work without being a micromanager. 

You can also explore these productivity tools for your teams and equip them to conquer remote working. 

Leading a Remote Team to Success

Managers need to add effective remote team leaders on their list of skill sets. You can better ensure your team’s success, happiness, and engagement at work by applying the eight tips to be a better remote team leader. The future is remote. And now is the perfect time to start shaping the future of your remote team. 

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About the Author: Lena Boiser

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Lena Boiser is an Agile enthusiast. Starting off her career as a Software Business Analyst in 2010, she eventually performed other roles including Project Manager and IT Business Manager. When she was immersed in Agile methodologies in 2014, Lena found her way through honing her craft and eventually became a Certified Scrum Product Owner. In 2017, after 7 years of working in the corporate world, Lena started her own remote consulting practice. Today, she provides project management and Scrum Product Ownership services to various businesses including software development companies, e-Commerce business owners, and small to medium sized companies. She believes that even teams working remotely can harness the benefits of Agile in order to deliver results for their companies. In her free time she likes to write. One day she could be writing about Agile, the next she could be writing anything about fashion or travel.