Over my career, I’ve led remote teams at several companies even before the COVID-19 pandemic compelled many of us into working from home and onto Zoom or other videoconferencing software platforms. My current employer, Lightship, is a remote-first company. I’ve yet to meet any of my team members in person, and it wasn’t until very recently that I met my manager despite working at the company for more than a year. The lessons I’ve learned managing remote team members over the years also apply to hybrid teams.
Remote teams used to be unusual unless you worked for a big company with a global workforce, but the pandemic changed that, and now most professionals have experienced remote teamwork to some degree. These teams require a more nuanced approach if leaders and middle managers hope to be successful.
The basic tenets of leadership still apply to remote or hybrid teams, but leaders must pay special attention to honing their communication skills, striving for clarity, and giving—and being open to receiving—feedback. These things take on more significance with remote or hybrid teams because remote employees don’t get face-to-face reinforcement or body language cues that can help those in the office to be successful.
For example, leaders often benefit from spontaneous interactions with team members in an office. Such conversations can spark new ideas or offer an opportunity to encourage employees if they’re struggling. While leaders can undoubtedly do the same thing remotely, they must make a concerted effort to create these beneficial interactions.
Good leaders communicate frequently, but when everyone is in the office together, ad hoc and nonverbal communications amplify the messages that the leader is trying to convey. Unfortunately, those off-the-cuff interactions and nonverbal cues don’t happen frequently with remote teams, so leaders lose a big part of their arsenal to inspire and motivate their teams.
To combat that loss of in-person conversations, leaders of remote or hybrid teams must focus on frequent communication with the tools they have to connect with their direct reports. My company uses Zoom and Slack as the primary means to communicate beyond email, and I utilize them extensively. Almost all my calls with my team are on Zoom, and we turn on our cameras. I want them to see and hear me and vice versa. Those visual cues are just as important as my words, especially if I’m having a difficult discussion.
For short-form communication, Slack works well. It saves my team from the pileup of emails in their inboxes and lets us keep multiple conversation threads going. Slack works like text messages and can be a great way to connect spontaneously and broadcast messages across the team. Not everything has to be a Zoom call or email, but I don’t want to shy away from communicating because I’m afraid of stuffing their inboxes or giving them video fatigue. With an in-person team, I may chat with everyone in the hallway outside our offices to build rapport and boost morale. With remote teams, Slack can accomplish similar goals.
Working together in the office provides ample opportunities to have interactions that demonstrate what’s important to the organization. For example, leaders can drop into a team member’s office for a quick update on a project or field critical questions in the break room, but remote teams miss these opportunities for reinforcement and clarification. As a result, remote employees may feel rudderless because of a lack of clarity about the organization’s mission, strategic plans, and priorities.
To combat this, leaders must continually remind their teams of the most critical goals to provide direction and give assurance that they’re on the right track. For example, at my company, we’re small enough to have all-hands town hall meetings where the CEO reminds us of what we’re focused on. After a few company-wide meetings, this may seem redundant, but it keeps what’s most important for our company top of mind. Additionally, those priorities can change rapidly, so having a regular reminder of strategic plans and key initiatives keeps us all focused on value-added tasks.
Not every organization can hold regular town hall meetings with all employees, but at the business-unit or team level, these all-hands meetings are necessary for organizations with remote or hybrid teams. My team is small, but I’ve adopted the same approach as my CEO in our team meetings. I remind everyone of what we’re focused on and how we’re progressing as part of our periodic check-ins. This gives them clarity about what’s most important for our team to prioritize and accomplish.
Give Regular Feedback
Feedback is essential regardless of whether a team is in the office, but it takes on a heightened level of importance for remote or hybrid teams. Remote employees often feel like they’re on an island, which can sometimes seem desolate. As a result, it’s hard to gauge success or failure, especially if the company’s performance-review processes revolve around an annual cadence. In addition, limited feedback can make remote employees feel less connected to their organization, which can negatively affect performance.
Remote or hybrid team leaders must provide regular feedback. I prefer a quarterly cadence for formal performance feedback because it allows employees to adjust or improve their work throughout the year. Still, I also provide informal feedback on Zoom calls or Slack to ensure my team members know when they’ve done well or have opportunities for improvement.
I find it especially important to provide positive reinforcement for remote or hybrid employees because they don’t get such cues as often as they would if we were in an office together. In addition, many employees leave their jobs because they don’t feel appreciated by their managers. That risk is particularly high with remote employees, so regular feedback is critical for leaders who want to keep great team members amid a challenging environment for recruiting and retaining talented accounting and finance professionals.
Leading remote or hybrid teams can be challenging, but with a few adjustments, it can be done as effectively as managing in-person teams. Frequent communication is essential to ensure that everyone feels connected even if they never see each other in person. Leaders must provide clarity of purpose and priorities so that disparate teams can work toward a common goal rather than meander independently through their work tasks. Finally, formal and informal feedback must be frequent and thoughtful to help remote teams succeed. Remote and hybrid work is here to stay, and leaders must adapt to be successful.