In my former leadership roles, I had the great opportunity to lead culturally diverse teams worldwide. Some of those teams were remote as each entity existed separately from our parent headquarters. Each was “remote” and self-sustaining, but remote by location–not individuals. In my current role as Director of Consulting Services, I find myself, for the first time, truly leading a “remote team.”  In this case, each person often works remotely away from our multiple headquarters (including me). Yet, we form a team that is effective despite our separate locations.

Remote leadership challenges

Harvard Business Review article stated, “About 40% of the 215 supervisors and managers in our study expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely.” Time and time again, we hear organizations facing the same challenges as they adapt to leading remote workers. Organizations struggle without in-person supervision, low productivity, and poor communication. Teams often struggle to work together in remote settings.

Why is it that organizations struggle with effective remote teams and leadership? What are the primary causes for ineffective remote teams? What are the traits of the remote teams operating effectively, where a sense of shared vision, understanding, and goals propel the organization into the future?

Remote leadership process

If a 21st-century organization wants to retain its top talent, a successful remote leader will have to adapt to the 21st-century remote environment. Come along this journey with me as we explore how effective organizations Connect, Communicate and Cultivate the skills of the remote leaders for maximum effectiveness. For clarity: while these tactics can work for any employee, in-person or remote, I will focus on leading remote teams or employees.

Connect to the heart: ENGAGE

Leadership expert John Maxwell stated, “Touch the heart before you ask for a hand.” His axiom is about getting to know your people and understanding their needs before asking them to do anything for the company. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace, only 15% of employees are engaged in the workplace. For remote leadership to be effective there needs to be different means of engaging employees. Perhaps you could have employees take a personality assessment to understand their motivations, fears, and tendencies. How might you communicate expectations early and often to ensure clarity and effectiveness? Depending on how remote the employee is, how often can you visit face to face, virtually, or on the phone?

As an organization, how might an effective and consistent company cadence foster remote engagement? A cadence with a clear purpose for each meeting can serve as a “mental workout” that builds a sense of “shared vision” for remote employees. This cadence can help each employee feel connected to the overall strategy and success of the organization. Understand that until you connect to the heart of employees through effective engagement, the rest of the steps will be fruitless and empty.

Connect to the mind: EQUIP

Once you connect with your employees’ hearts, the focus can turn to the mind and how to equip your employees remotely. What’s your organization’s orientation program for administrative purposes? Is it difficult, cumbersome, and frustrating? Or is it enabling and building shared understanding? Through the first 3, 6, or 12 months, what’s the onboarding process? What do your new employees need to feel connected and equipped to thrive in their role? Consider the use of a sponsor for each new hire. The sponsor must be in like phases of life and should have several connections to the new employee to help with onboarding. What other equipping requirements does the role require? How will the first-line supervisor communicate remotely and conduct appropriate checkups with the new hire? During the first two stages, the desired outcome is for the leader to establish a shared vision and understanding between all remote employees as individuals and as a team. Then the focus can turn to establish shared goals and operating procedures.

Communicate clearly & effectively: ENCOURAGE

Remote work “evangelist” Phil Montero stated, “Remote management is not radically different from managing people on-site. The biggest difference is a shift in management style from “eyeball management” (assuming workers are being productive because you physically see them at their desks working) to managing by results.” 21st-century leaders can lead remote teams by communicating clearly and effectively through encouragement. How difficult was switching your leadership style and communication when COVID forced a global shutdown? How prepared were you to adapt your leadership to a remote environment?

The key to encouragement is what we at Solutions 21 refer to as “The Platinum Rule:” treat others the way they want to be treated. Ineffective are the ways of a leader who expects or demands everyone to adapt to them. Leaders must understand their employees and how they best receive information, then adjust their communication style accordingly. Communicating clearly and effectively also requires thought into what medium best suits the given situation. There are times when an email is most appropriate, but other times a phone call, virtual session, or text might be more appropriate. Consider the message’s importance. The more important, the closer to personal interaction you should consider. How else might you encourage remote employees or teams? What might be possible if your communication, on all mediums, was clear and concise so all recipients could work effectively from remote locations?

Cultivate the environment: EMPOWER

Cultivating an effective remote environment requires establishing trust, which enables empowerment. In his book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey stated that the equation for a high speed of trust is Character + Competency. How are you developing and sustaining your character in a remote leadership environment? How do you show employees your competence and desire for continued growth? How can you help your employees grow in their character and competence to enable shared trust? What does empowerment look like for each of your remote employees? Remember the Platinum Rule? Not everyone can heave the same level of empowerment, and you should never empower until you have educated and equipped the employee to handle it.

At Solutions 21, we pride ourselves on the “Commander’s Intent” concept for empowering our remote team. The Commander’s Intent can help an organization focus its intention and enable teams to move faster without returning to the leader for guidance. Buddy Hobart, Solutions 21 President and Founder, states in his book, The Leadership Decade: “A quality vision statement that reflects ‘Commander’s Intent’ clearly defines the purpose of an effort. When well defined, it allows members of an organization to move forward as conditions change without further guidance from superiors. Like a quality vision statement, a quality Commander’s Intent articulates the overall reason for an effort and conveys a clear image of why an effort is being undertaken, the key tasks that must be completed for success, and the desired outcomes. It helps subordinates gain insight into what is expected of them and why the effort is being undertaken.” True empowerment at its core.

Improve your remote leadership skills

Gartner VP George Penn stated, “Success in a hybrid work environment requires employers to move beyond viewing remote or hybrid environments as a temporary or short-term strategy and treat it as an opportunity.” Leaders who fail to adapt to the remote leadership environment will continue to lose top talent. How do you need to adapt your Connection, Communication, and environment Cultivation for effective remote leadership? If you’re unsure, the process outlined above can get you started.

If you feel you or your team could use support in adapting their leadership skills to a remote world, our leadership development programs have worked for both in-person, remote, and hybrid organizations.