Managing a Remote Team
More and more of us are working remotely some or all of the time. Leaders are now challenged with managing teams spread across time zones. Taking on this topic of remote leadership is Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel in their book The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.
Kevin Eikenberry is the founder of Kevin Eikenberry Group, the author of several books, and a leadership speaker. Wayne Turmel is the cofounder of the Remote Leadership Institute and also has authored numerous books.
I recently spoke with Kevin about the unique challenges of managing a remote team.
Your latest book is The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership and your website on leadership is superbly done. Let’s start with your definition of leadership.
Thanks for the feedback! I love this question, Skip, and while there are a hundred great definitions, here is one to consider: Leadership is the actions taken to help and encourage others consistently in the direction of a desired future outcome. It is a verb (action), not a noun (a position). And, nothing gets better without leaders.
“Use technology as a tool, not as a barrier or an excuse.” –Kevin Eikenberry
What unique challenges do long-distance leaders have?
The obvious one is that you can’t interact with some of your people face-to-face, and you likely won’t communicate with them as often. So that means that every interaction is important – and you should work to communicate beyond email (turn on those webcams) as much as possible.
One less obvious is that it isn’t just you and the remote team member who have to adjust. If you are like most teams where you have a hybrid – some work together and others are remote – you have to help the whole group learn how to collaborate and communicate most effectively in this new world of work.
“Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know that you trust him.” -Booker T. Washington
Pitfalls of Long-Distance Leaders
What are some of the additional pitfalls that long-distance leaders make?
I’ll share two.
One is worrying that you don’t know what those remote team members are doing, especially if they are telecommuting. I suppose visions of folding laundry, watching The Price is Right, and walking the dog float through people’s minds. The truth is (both experience and research show it) when people work from home, especially if they have some support and coaching to help them get started, they are more productive, not less. Why? Fewer interruptions! Stop worrying about what they are doing every minute and support them with the right work and metrics to help them succeed.
The second is assuming they are getting what they need. If someone is down the hall and sees you sitting at your desk, if they have a question, they will ask. If the person is working from home and you are the boss, they know you are busy and don’t want to interrupt you, so they don’t call. Or if they do ask a question, is it very transactional. How many times have you said on the phone, “I know you are busy; I will keep this short”? If all the interactions are like this, there will be no coaching, no depth of conversation, no chance for team members to engage. Make time for people, schedule times for check-ins and conversations and intentionally reach out – like you would do as you walk down the hall onsite.
“The greatest lesson you might ever learn in this life is this: it is not about you.” -Shannon L. Alder
Build a Strong Team
Building a strong team is always a challenge, but even more so for long-distance leaders. How do you build camaraderie and encourage collaboration when at a distance?
Carefully and intentionally. Make team dynamics important to you and the group. Set expectations about how people will collaborate and work together, and whenever possible encourage people getting to know each other outside of work. When (if) the group is all together, make sure there is time for play and not just work. While relationships are not all that is required for a healthy team, it is one valuable component.
One thing I do is when hiring a new team member is to make it part of their first two weeks to have a 30-minute conversation (preferably over webcam) with every other team member – where no more than 10 minutes of it can be about work. Setting this expectation drives home the importance of relationships—and gives them time to begin to form.
“You cannot manage men into battle. You manage things; you lead people.” -Admiral Grace Hopper
Set Reasonable Boundaries
Well into the book, you have a section on setting reasonable boundaries that may resonate with many readers. Share a little about the importance of boundaries.
I’m guessing you are talking about setting boundaries with ourselves. It’s something we don’t all do well – but if we are leading remotely, it takes on a new and important dimension. Think about it. You may have people in different time zones – maybe even half way around the world. If you want to be available to all of them when it is convenient for them, when will you eat and sleep? Your team needs you to take care of yourself so you can lead them most effectively.
Set some routines and boundaries for yourself – and let your team know when you are available and by what means. And be flexible too – don’t make your people in Singapore always meet when it is convenient for you – and very inconvenient for them.
Transition to Leadership
Finally, what advice do you have for someone who is just taking a managerial role that has a long-distance component? How does he or she get off to a good start?
This question has a special place in my heart because I not only co-wrote a book about leading remotely, but I also wrote a book about your first leadership role, titled From Bud to Boss: Secrets to the Successful Transition to Remarkable Leadership. Because leadership is so complex anyway, I would focus on leadership basics first, and not add too many worries about the nuances of the remote component.
Having said that, there is one thing a new leader needs to do right away wherever their team members work – have an initial conversation with them. Ask them what their concerns and challenges are. Ask questions to understand their perspective and ideas and just get to know them. Doing this early is important. Doing that with the remote team members as soon as possible shows not only your interest but sends a message that they are important members of the team.
“People with goals succeed because they know where they are going.” -Earl Nightingale
Your future success starts here!