How to Lead a Team Remotely
By: Amy Miller
Despite stay-at-home orders that are moving entire workforces remote, companies and boards of directors are continuing their hiring efforts, looking for the right leaders to head their organizations. Finding the right executive can be tough. But finding one who can lead a remote team, without ever meeting their employees in person, is a new challenge.
EFL Associates in Denver recently placed two leaders, one with a team of 39 and another with a team of 40, who started their new positions remotely. That got us thinking -- how does a new leader successfully onboard, establish a rapport with his or her team and move the company forward in such times of uncertainty? Many experts agree, a manager in this new normal needs an extra dose of humility and empathy to fully connect with and lead their team.
Qualities a Remote Leader Needs
Today, a new manager will need to dedicate more time to introduce themselves to their workforce, whether it’s creating a rotating schedule of team check-ins or hosting virtual staff members more regularly than they would in person. Some suggest calling employees on the phone, instead of a holding video conference, for the first meet-up to ease the pressure of appearing on screen. For those meetings that are held by video, set an example that a picture-perfect background -- one that’s tidy and free of distractions from children or pets -- is not expected. Showing the real side of your work-from-home space will allow employees to relax in their own spaces and help them see a more authentic leadership -- an opportunity that likely wouldn’t exist in the pre-pandemic world.
“It’s been very personable and much less formal,” said Bob Lay, CFO for American Water Works Association. Lay was placed by EFL Associates in his new role just one week before his entire team started working remotely. He’s had to introduce himself to several team members virtually – just half he met face-to-face.
Overcoming the Challenges of Onboarding a Remote Team
For Lay, the biggest challenge was learning a new organization’s culture while not working in-person with his colleagues. To help better understand, he scheduled one-on-one meetings with employees he called “tour guides” – one, the director of human resources and the other an employee who was a hired a few years ago -- who could help him navigate the ins-and-outs of the company, giving him a solid foundation to stand on while he adjusted his leadership style accordingly.
In a new leader’s initial meetings, it’s important to convey expectations by using clear and detailed deliverables, while also extending grace and understanding that all tasks may not be completed in a typically 9-5 work day. James Parker, CEO of Masergy, said it best when he told Forbes: “With the current health crisis changing norms, work-life balance is no longer a binary concept, but one that has evolved into a challenging confluence of needs between work, home, and family, all under one roof. As a leader in this new paradigm, it’s important to provide employees with flexibility in how and when their work gets done, and trust and empower them to find the right life balance in these trying times.”
Of course a new executive will also need to combine that empathy and flexibility with the capability to lead the company through this economic downturn and out the other side. A sharp vision, and one that can be conveyed clearly to the team, will not only help motivate employees as they work through the new normal, but it will guide decisions and provide a roadmap for the workforce. In this new reality, even small changes may cause unease among employees. Providing a clear vision will motivate and inspire, while giving employees confidence that the company is moving forward with a strong focus and exceptional leadership.
Lay learned it’s mostly about “overcommunicating,” possibly more so than an executive would have in the past. “To have that level of reassurance, but also to say ‘here’s the expectations, and I’m setting those to ensure we're staying the course,’” he said.
Joining a new organization as an executive leader is hard. Stepping into that role during a pandemic is even harder. But tapping into emotional skills, coupled with a clear vision for the future, can help ease the transition into leading a virtual workforce. Empathy may not be a skill listed on a resume, but it’s one thing that can build strong relationships between teams while also moving the company forward.