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5 Challenges of Managing a Remote Team (and How to Overcome Them)

Mug in front of a laptop with a zoom call on

Running a remote team is far harder than running a team you can see. On remote teams, it is easier to make mistakes and harder to overcome them.

That is wonderful news.

It means that leaders have to raise their game and become much more purposeful and deliberate in how they lead.

If you can lead a remote team, you can lead any team.

However, there are five challenges that you must master to manage a remote team well. Learning to manage these challenges is vital. It is clear that remote working is not a temporary shift – it is a paradigm shift. While few people want to sustain full-time remote working, most teams want to shift to hybrid working where they spend about half their time in the office and about half their time at home.

Master these challenges, and you will become an even more effective leader than before.

1. Workload management

The nature of work today means that it is very hard to manage workloads remotely. Most professional work is highly ambiguous: a report could be one page or one hundred pages long and yet there is always another fact you could check or another view you could canvass. It is not like the old world where you could count the number of widgets each person made.

Combine ambiguous work with working from home and you have a formula for making workload management hard. Some staff will take the opportunity to enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle. Many more will work twice as hard out of fear that if they do not impress now, there will be no job left for them when the pandemic is over.

The slackers and strivers both cause problems: the slackers leave work for others, the strivers are the ones most likely to suffer mental health problems as they lose all sense of work-life balance.

The response of some firms has been to install spyware on staff computers: keyboard trackers and screenshot savers so they know who is on task and when. That is a good way to destroy trust, and all high performing teams depend on high trust.

Trust your team to do the work, but check that they are not being over-worked or under-worked. Ask each team member about their workload, most people will give you an honest reply.

2. Communication

Remote teams suffer from three communication problems: too much communication, too little communication and the wrong sort of communication.

  • Too little communication is an easy trap to fall into; out of sight is out of mind. It is easy, but dangerous, to assume that all is going well. Working remotely, you have to make a much more conscious decision to stay in touch.

  • Too much communication happens when the whole day is filled with virtual meetings, which become a substitute for actual work. In the office, a huge amount of communication is done very fast and very informally, which is highly efficient. When fast and informal communication is replaced by formal one-hour conference calls, the result is death by meeting.

  • The wrong sort of communication. Remote and global teams are nearly universal in viewing email as a plague, and chat forums are no better. Emails are often used to create an evidence trail rather than to help; they are easily misunderstood and fail to convey the nuance, detail and emotional content of face to face communication.

The solution is that you and your team need to agree clear rhythms and routines about how to communicate and when.

A simple way to do this is to hold a YTH (Yesterday, Today, Help) meeting every morning. In this meeting, each team member has ninety seconds to say what they did yesterday (Y), what they will do today (T) and where they want help (H). This lets everyone know what everyone else is doing; it ensures help goes where it is needed and it is a simple system for maintaining accountability remotely.

You may or may not want to use a YTH approach. What matters is that you have a system. You need to tame the communication beast.

3. Decision making

Traditional decision making was “tell and sell”. The boss made a decision and then sold it to the team. This rarely worked well because the team would not own the decision, would not be committed to it and even if they understand the “what” they would not understand the “why” and the “how” of the decision.

Effective decision making involves all team members from the start. That way, they can understand all the trade-offs behind the decision and will know how to act in uncertain situations such as:

  • Do I give a customer a refund or not?
  • Do I sacrifice speed of delivery to perfect quality or not?
  • Do I stand my ground on this turf battle with another department or not?

Working remotely, it is much harder to involve team members in decision making, because effective involvement is often informal, ad hoc and face to face in short bursts. The temptation is to then go back to the old ways of “tell and sell” which is easy but ineffective.

The easy solution is to return to office working, or at least hybrid working. The harder solution is to become much more deliberate and purposeful in reaching out to each team member when you know that a decision is going to affect them.

4. Newness

Remote teams are good for sustaining the status quo. A settled team which has established trust and familiar ways of working can keep going remotely. But remote teams struggle with new team members, new ideas and new ways of working.

New team members struggle because they do not have the relationships and trust which are vital to success. Initially, they may also lack the full set of required skills and they lack the team mentor who can help them acquire those skills and relationships. Formally appointing a mentor or sponsor for each new team member helps, but is still a weak substitute for being in the office.

Just as it is hard to help new team members land successfully in a remote team, it is hard to make new ideas land successfully when you are not in the office discussing ideas and options in real-time and face to face.

These are the challenges which make the most compelling case for the return to the office. The lesson from even the most established and successful global teams is that you have to get together face to face from time to time. If you cannot do this, expect to invest far more time and effort exploring and explaining ideas and options with your team remotely. Some things just take more time and effort when you work remotely.

5. Motivation

There is a silent epidemic of mental health issues arising from lockdown. Professionals are loathe to talk about their personal struggles with their team. I hear about these struggles because I am an outsider to the firms I work with.

As a team leader, you cannot tell people to be motivated, and you are not a personal therapist for each team member. What you can do is to create the conditions in which your team can flourish. The four elements of intrinsic motivation for you to work on are:

  • Supportive relationships: you are there not just to control your team, but to support your team as well. Make time for each team member, listen to their concerns and support them where you can.

  • Autonomy: professionals hate being micro-managed. Remote working is your chance to show that you trust your team by delegating to them properly. Let them rise to the challenge.

  • Mastery: no one is motivated if they lack the skills to succeed. This is where you can coach each team member to success, and you should ensure that they get the formal training and support they need to flourish.

  • Purpose: anyone is more motivated when they have a goal which has meaning to them. Frame the work of your team around the hopes and aspirations of each of your team members.

Remote working is a serious challenge for all leaders. This is your chance to take your leadership skills to the next level. Seize the opportunity.