Leading Remote Teams – opportunities and challenges
The future of work, or at least the part relating to the elimination of traditional workspaces is currently playing out in business decisions, with many discovering the benefits of virtual and hybrid working and embracing the shift to more flexible working patterns.
However, this means business leaders are realising the need to raise their game and be far more focussed and considered in their planning for the future. Even the most experienced people manager will face challenges of successful leadership without the benefit of face-to-face interactions and some will be feeling overwhelmed and disconnected to their teams.
On an individual level, changes in traditional working can be seen to bring a raft of opportunities, not least of which are the flexibility for employees (to an extent) to be able to set their own schedule, no longer needing to factor in the time and cost of commuting and in many cases, enjoying a better work/life balance. Employees now want the best of both worlds, working between home and office, and businesses need to accept and embrace this change. Still, there are challenges for business leaders and line managers in successfully leading remote teams, with issues on innovation, creativity, spontaneity and knowledge sharing being sited as some of those most discussed, along with the need to accommodate remote working whilst ensuring the day-to-day schedule and quality output is achieved. There is certainly an argument that being physically present with others facilitates particular positive work experiences that often fail to happen remotely.
Time for a re-think of management technique
Business leaders are now faced with a need to devise a hybrid working plan for flexible working, and how this will impact how they recruit, retain talent and respond to the changing world of work. Any solutions will also need to be fluid and have the flexibility to change as required.
It will take time to adjust to managing remote working and it may help to look at the common challenges remote line managers are now facing.
Communication or miscommunication
Common communication challenges relate to;
Communication with direct reports
Communicating between team members
Dealing with differences in communication styles
In the remote work space, over-communication can be a good thing. Maintaining regular 1-2-1s via Teams or Zoom for example, is crucial in allowing managers to check individuals know what’s happening at work and to confirm they’re clear on the next steps of a project and their expected input. This is less about micromanaging and more about ensuring people feel connected and part of the team, despite their remote status. Regular 1-2-1’s also provide a chance for managers to remind employees of their expected behaviours at work, any health and safety requirements and provide an opportunity for individuals to raise any issues or problems they are experiencing in the remote workspace. Common issues being cited by employees working remotely are; loneliness and isolation, a disconnection to fellow workers and a lack of proper understanding of their role due to reduced contact with their line manager.
Technology assists more communication, although that does not necessarily lead to better communication. Communication via technology needs to be limited so it doesn’t destroy important boundaries between work and life, which in turn can lead to lower productivity and teams spending inordinate amounts of time communicating and co-ordinating, rather than ‘doing’.
Office based miscommunication can often be discovered and quickly remedied. Remote working is less forgiving of management mistakes and foibles. If miscommunication happens via a virtual meeting, leaders may be unaware how it has ‘landed’ and by the time they do, the employee will may have had plenty of time to deliberate on what was said – rarely a good thing. Many an off-the-cuff remark has led an employee to believe they are out of favour, or worse, about to lose their job. Managers need to consider carefully the language they use when communicating remotely and be mindful of the negative effect of what they believed to be an innocent remark.
Identifying performance issues
When someone is struggling or not performing in the office, it can often be easily identified, with any subsequent support or knowledge required swiftly provided by line managers. None of this is easy with a remote team. One of the biggest challenges – particularly for new recruits, is having been inducted and subsequently working remotely, they can be unaware of even the most basic rules of working behaviour, such as:
core working hours and how they will be scheduled around tasks?
what technology and communication platforms will be used?
how and when will communication take place?
what are the timelines for delivering work?
how and to whom are difficulties or support requirement discussed?
how will personal development and promotional prospects be communicated?
The answers to these questions and more may not be commonly known in the way they would be if everyone was working together, in the same space. Established staff have networks of trust and influence which help them succeed both in the office and remotely. New team members are not so lucky and to retain newly acquired talent, leaders need to understand that the usual unplanned practices of leading an office-based team simply do not work when applied to remote working.
With collaboration in teams good results can be creative, such as;
setting of core hours so that meetings are only held during those times
team calls to ensure everyone knows what is happening and their expected involvement
flexible working that sets clear boundaries between work and home life
consideration of team members who have caring responsibilities and how that can fit in with working schedules by adaptation of availability
Spotting and dealing with conflict
It’s easy to spot conflict in an office environment. Body language cues show there is tension, but in a remote environment this can prove problematic. Disagreements or discontent may take place in private messages and emails which managers are not even aware of. Even the most seasoned line manager can miss signs of tension or conflict when managing remotely. Left unresolved, tension and disagreement can lead to decreased productively and to individuals becoming less willing to contribute positively. Conflict can also lead to an increase in absence, mental health issues and disengaged employees may even decide to resign.
Learning to spot the signs of conflict, such as out-of-character silence, a lack of communication between team members, or lack of engagement generally are key to enabling managers to address conflict early. The issue could be personal, such as someone struggling with their mental health, or, they may simply be non-plussed about the direction their work is taking. There may even be an underlying work-related conflict that is making them prefer silence over an argument. Whatever the issue, managers need to find ways of having difficult conversations in an attempt to resolve issues informally and avoid them escalating to formal proceedings, such as a grievance or disciplinary matter. Regular 1-2-1s and meaningful listening to team members will help uncover issues before they accelerate into something more difficult to manage.
Neither working remotely or returning to the office are easy transitions for businesses. It can be fraught with controversy and whilst some employees have loved the freedom from commuting, the flexibility and autonomy afforded by working remotely, others have suffered loneliness and isolation and have struggled with competing priorities, with many reporting they have experienced burn out with a lack of defined boundaries between work and home life.
Achieving success in managing a hybrid team takes time and patience and there is no quick fix. However, in providing a level playing field and consistent employee experience – wherever they work, businesses can demonstrate commitment to their teams and a consistent and fair approach. Much can be achieved by testing, learning from mistakes, collaborating and experimenting with new approaches, which allow the business to adjust as necessary, without becoming stuck with procedures or processes that simply don’t work.
For many business leaders, the disruption to the traditional way of working has been seen as an opportunity to embrace and introduce more flexible ways of working that put talent and people at the heart of business success, whilst affording them the chance to lean into the challenges raised. Only time will tell which styles of managing remote teams will prove most successful for the future of work.
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