Remote leadership – being there for your team without being present

How to be a good leader when leading from a distance

People Digitalization Apr 16, 2020
A young businesswoman presenting something to her team in front of a video camera

A quick “hello” while sticking your head in the office door, a chat at the coffee machine, an informal exchange between two meetings – often these little face-to-face encounters are a lot more important than we think. They build rapport, create trust and foster relationships. They enable your team to connect with you and feel connected to each other. How is it possible to strengthen those relationships without physical encounter? How can you build a cohesive team if you can’t see each other in person? When you are suddenly forced to lead your team remotely, with little to no preparation, how can you establish continuity, both professionally and personally?

We asked managers for their best tips and tricks on how to keep a sense of community and direction going in their teams. Whether you are temporarily managing a team virtually, or completely taking over a remote team, this advice could guide you through the process.

Listen to your employees

How do they feel right now? What is challenging them? How can you support them? Some people can cope with the situation very well and for others it’s more difficult. Show your understanding for everyone’s personal situation and don’t put pressure on your employees if they struggle to fulfill all their tasks. This is an exceptional situation for everyone.

David DiBernardino, Senior Vice President, Sales Beauty Care, North America

It is critical now more than ever to be connecting frequently throughout your organization, not just to your direct reports. Openly asking questions and listening…recognizing the anxieties and concerns your teams are feeling. Helping them to prioritize and acknowledge their health and the health of their families comes first.

Give your team some structure and guidance

When working from home, it is important to establish a routine. Help your employees in creating one, for example by daily video check-ins with the team to discuss what everyone has on the agenda or regular one-on-ones. Some guidance on which digital tool to use for which activity or which channel to use for which kind of communication can increase efficiency. Communicate clearly what the short-term priorities (for the day and the week) and long-term priorities (for the month and quarter) are and make sure everyone is working towards a common goal.

Thomas Holenia, Head of Purchasing Asia-Pacific & President Henkel Singapore

When your team is based in different locations, it is crucial to have absolute clarity of tasks and expected outcome in order not to lose traction due to double-work or interpretations of tasks and objectives. Writing skills also become more important: Emails must clarify requests, address questions, and get their point across – all while not wasting either the reader’s or writer’s time.

Connect with your employees on a personal level

Especially under uncertain circumstances, it is beneficial for the team spirit and morale to ask everyone how they feel and how they experience the current situation. You might want to use video calls more often to help overcoming physical distance and connecting on a more personal level with your team.

Katrin Sulzmann, Head of Corporate Communications Europe, India, Middle East & Africa

Especially in this exceptional situation, it is essential to maintain an even more regular exchange than usual with your Direct Reports, and to inquire about their personal circumstances. The exchange should be as personal as possible for example by showing your home office environment, letting your child waive into the picture or showing your cat. This promotes cohesion and increases motivation – if it comes from the heart – since the direct supervisor represents the lifeline to the company for the employee.

Keep track of what each team member is working on

This does not mean micromanaging. Some team members might struggle using their time effectively, while others risk of burning out because they don’t know when to switch off. Respect both types and encourage finding a balance by regularly checking in with them. Think about how team members can support each other or what employees can do if they cannot work on their usual tasks. For example, they could use the time to upskill themselves.

Head of Global Learning

Working remotely has motivated us to learn about and explore new digital resources that we might not have previously recognized – but now, don’t want to miss out on. With the many trainings available on our Learning Hub, we can manage our own upskilling journey and together, drive the digital transformation at Henkel!

Do not expect employees to be available 24/7 and allow flexibility

Working from home does not mean that your people are “always at work”. Taking coffee or lunch breaks and switching off after a workday, is just as important when working from home as when working in the office. Working hours may vary a lot among your team members, due to many different reasons. For example, parents have to take care of their kids during the day and therefore work late in the evening rather than during regular business hours. Make sure that your employees clearly communicate their availability and so do you.

Marianela Garcia, Head of Shared Services Center Mexico

The home may not always be a controlled environment, therefore as a leader you should respect the time of your team and your own time, allowing extra flexibility for unexpected situations or adaptability to new ones.

Ensure that there is an overlap of a few hours where the whole team is working

This is especially difficult if your team members are based in different time zones, but it gives everyone some structure and comfort, knowing that their colleagues are available for a quick alignment.

Amira Kamel, Head of Sales and Channel Excellence, Adhesive Technologies, United Arab Emirates

When working across time zones, it’s hard to maintain a normal working day for all. Therefore, it’s important to allow everyone to set their boundaries of what is an acceptable extension for them, whether it’s an earlier start or a later finish. While flexibility is needed to bring the team together, boundaries avoid conflicts and frustrations.

Don’t put yourself under too much pressure

There will be days where you just don’t feel well, where you have to take care of your family, and where the whole situation feels overwhelming and unmanageable. This is okay and shows your team that you are only human as well and that it is totally fine to struggle sometimes.

Build or maintain a culture of trust

This is a key ingredient for successful collaboration – no matter whether you share an office with your team or not. When leading from a distance, communicate even more and show that you’re there: When your team asks you for feedback, let them know that you received their request and give them an expected time for your response. This will create predictability, security and ensures that everybody feels heard.

A clear structure, good and frequent communication as well as showing understanding for the different situations your team members are facing are the foundations for successfully managing remote teams. If possible, organize a face-to-face event once or twice a year. Bring the whole team together to discuss milestones, achievements and next steps – and more importantly – give them the chance to get to know each other in person. No virtual communication tool will ever replace human connection.