How to manage a team of remote workers

The modern workplace has led to the end of the centralised office. Often, a manager can have team members all over the globe. It’s important that these team leaders know how to connect with their remote workers as if they were at the next desk over, says Anne Phillipson.

With the increase in remote working, globalisation and flexi-time, there is every chance that if you are not currently leading a remote team, you will be in the near future. This means that managers need new skills to engage parts of their team that they don’t see face-to-face; to make their remote workers feel as connected as the person sitting at the desk beside them.

The employee experience

Let’s start with awareness and mind-set. The single biggest factor in the ‘employee experience’ is their relationship with their direct line manager. It is critical that remote team members don’t feel disadvantaged because of where they happen to work. Whether that’s across the world or three floors away in the same building, it is easy to fall into the trap ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This means managers must consciously go out of their way to include remote team members in daily chats –whether that is using a messaging service, phone, Skype, or social networking apps – to check-in, update, offer support or challenge.

The leader must initiate these interactions at first, and hopefully, in time, the team members will also make the effort to connect daily. Otherwise, you run the risk of a team member feeling isolated and disconnected from the priorities of the team.

Awareness of circumstances

Awareness of the time zones of remote workers is also important. Don’t greet them with a ‘good morning’ when it’s already afternoon or evening where they are. Check your world clock when scheduling your daily check-ins as not to catch them when they are just arriving into or leaving the office. Little things like this make a big difference, and as you don’t have the opportunity to engage often, it is even more important that you get it right every time.

Cultural competence

Once you have adopted an inclusive approach, it is important to consider the leadership skills that are critical to leading a remote team. 

Top of that list is cultural competence, which is the ability to understand or find out how the execution of certain universal practices translates from one culture to another. A manager of a global team must be adaptable and exhibit cultural sensitivity, with the ability to modify behaviour for different situations, localities, or audiences. While there are lots of books and resources to help with this, nothing compares to actually visiting the remote team members on their home turf. A visit will help you appreciate the cultural norms and working environment of your remote worker. This investment of time and travel may cost initially, but the dividends in the enhanced relationship will generate returns for years to come. And don’t forget to invite the remote team members to visit the home office, too.

Find the extra energy

Leading at a distance requires extra energy. A global leader must possess extra capacity for focus, productivity and the ability to turn up the energy in a fast-paced, always-on environment. Global leaders must be extremely self-aware, make extra effort to engage, and need to be sensitive to adapting their messages for different audiences. They need to work smarter and leverage technology to enable them to spread their leadership influence wider.

It can be difficult to manage valued employees from afar, but to get the very best out of your team, you have to give them the very best in leadership.

Anne Phillipson is the Director of People and Change Consulting at Grant Thornton Northern Ireland.