Coming in as a new manager and having to learn the ropes is difficult enough. But with many employees now working remotely, the task becomes even more challenging. Although once unheard of, it’s now not unusual to find yourself working with a team you’ve never actually met in the flesh.
Remote working comes with many benefits, but starting a new managerial position entirely online can be tricky. With most interactions carried out over Zoom (ZM), Teams or on Slack (WORK), there are no face-to-face meetings, no coffee runs to get to know people better, and no opportunities to ask quick questions in person.
“The challenges in leading a team who are managed remotely can be achieving rapport, getting a true understanding of their working styles and transparency of issues, as well as managing time zones, deadlines and complexity,” says careers, business and HR expert Laura Trendall Morrison, founder of the Gamechanger Consultancy LTD.
So how can you lead a team you’ve never actually met in person?
Communicate clearly and set expectations
Firstly, make sure everyone is clear on the part they play in your team. Ensuring people know exactly what they are doing — and making sure you are available if they have questions or need clarification — is always important, but even more so when working remotely.
“Set up shared technology such as project folders, using Sharepoint, Onedrive or other collaborative storage and use outlook, slack or other programmes to communicate deadlines to those that need to see them,” Morrison says.
Being supportive and available regularly may seem like over-communicating, but it’s essential when it comes to working virtually. “I recommend new team leaders provide a weekly time slot to be available to the team, like a surgery, to book in a call to ask for help and support with any issues they are having,” Morrison says.
Setting boundaries and clear guidelines about how the team communicates is also important too. “Be consistent with response times, core hours and expected and preferred ways to communicate – working across time zones and geography has its challenges.”
If employees work different hours or in different countries or continents, Morrison advises putting their working hours into their email signatures. “If they have condensed hours or an unusual work pattern, their colleagues and collaborators can be mindful of this when seeking responses or booking meetings,” she explains.
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Know your team
It can be more difficult to get to know people when working remotely, but it’s important to make time for one-on-one virtual coffees with each team member. As a manager, it’s important to find out what makes your team tick, and each person’s strengths.
“Ask curious questions to understand their preferred working styles, the talents they bring to the team, and what inspires them,” says Morrison. “Developing a human connection with your team members goes a long way to making them feel valued and gaining their commitment to the team's goals.”
Feedback allows people to recognise their skills, abilities and makes sure they know their hard work is recognised and appreciated. Constructive feedback also lets workers identify areas that need improvement, so they can develop and progress in their career. However, feedback is often forgotten when employees are working remotely.
“Remember to share outcomes back to the team – many contributors submit part of the work in projects and virtual teams, but never get to see the end-to-end impact on the final client or project,” Morrison says.
“Be different - ensure you keep the whole team in the loop with shared news and successes weekly, give briefings and share with them how their contribution has impacted the end goals of clients and business projects.”
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Work on building trust
A lack of trust among employers towards remote workers can seriously undermine the benefits of flexible working. Sometimes, managers try to ‘check up’ on what employees are up to in working hours, which can be invasive and kill morale, engagement and ultimately, productivity.
Trusting workers to get on with their jobs without being under surveillance is key.
“The golden rule always applies, treat others as you would wish to be treated and you will find you cultivate a harmonious and high performing team,” says Morrison. “Building rapport is essential, and cannot be overlooked. It builds and smooths our working and personal relationships with others.”
Building rapport means being genuine with employees, connecting through shared interests, listening and being empathic towards their needs. When treated with respect, people are more likely to feel fulfilled in their jobs and put in the effort.
“Finally, maintaining approachability, providing a wise and listening ear and providing coaching can help your team feel you are supporting them,” says Morrison. “A virtual team needs to feel you are on their side. When working remotely, you need to give the team space and time to develop their critical thinking and problem-solving by working through challenges alongside them, guiding rather than telling, so that they and the organisation develop successfully.”