How to Lead From a Distance

How do you provide a sense of purpose to your team when face to face interaction isn’t an option?


The importance of having regular meetings with team members can’t be overstated. Whether it’s to give feedback (positive and negative) or just to ‘check in’, much has been written about why this is important for overall team health, as well as individual job satisfaction and effectiveness.

Depending on the nature of the business, you could have staff that are working at a distance, or even a team scattered over a large geographic area, making connecting in person very difficult, if not impossible. So how can you authentically empower your team members from a distance and not have them roll their eyes at you?


1. Be clear on your purpose, as a team

If everyone is clear about what you are working towards and what the values are of the organization, it’s easier to motivate people, even from far away. When people are scattered, they need to feel that unifying purpose and they can’t do that if they don’t understand what the team is all about.

If everyone is clear about their roles and responsibilities, to each other, to the project and to you / the organization, they can get on with their work with a sense of confidence that they’re on the right track. Then it’s up to you to make sure they retain that feeling.


2. Keep in touch

Out of sight, out of mind: you might be tempted to push off the effort to keep in touch with each individual team member simply because you don’t see them every day. It’s easy to say that you don’t have the time and that you’ll do it next week. However, leading by example is essential to distance teamwork being effective. Reaching out regularly to each person individually also needs to be a part of your routine, as it would be in an office environment. It shows respect, commitment, interest in your team members, and enhances their trust of you. Hopefully, they will appreciate and even replicate the behavior with others.

More often than not, this will require a formal communication strategy, at least at first. Processes by which team members check in with you and you check in with them. Everyone works differently and so work with your team members in a way that is authentic to them. If a daily meeting is too much, drop it to weekly. Not everyone ‘needs’ to check in daily to feel included and empowered to get the job done. Others may need that support at least at first.


3. Don’t skip the small talk

Conference calls and video conference meetings are the norms for teams that don’t work in the same space, but often, they’re fairly regimented in the aim of not wasting anyone’s time. Fair enough, but there is a lot of ‘team building’ and morale-boosting that goes on during water cooler chats. It’s in these more informal interactions that you, and others, can learn each other’s non-verbal cues and idiosyncrasies. Replicating that in a Skype call isn’t necessarily easy but the person leading the meeting sets the tone for it and should make time for a little small talk at the beginning or end of the meeting. After all, you know what they say about all work and no play!

Another aspect is celebrations! Yes, celebrating a birthday, milestone, or project success at a distance can be tough but technology is there to make it easier. Such as? Send a package to each team member in advance that contains a treat, with instructions not to open it until the video conference scheduled for the celebration day. Then you can all open them together and celebrate! It may seem silly but it’s in these little ways that you can build a solid community, even miles and miles apart!


4. Open door policy

Make sure that your team knows when they can reach you freely, in the same way as they would in an office environment. If you were in the same space, they’d be able to see whether your office door was open or closed or have a sense of whether you are in the middle of a crisis issue and can’t break.

At a distance, those cues are gone, so creating a calendar with blocks of time when you’re available makes sense. Like a professor who has posted office hours, you can let your team know that they can always reach you but that X, Y and Z time slots are the best!


5. Focus on the outcomes and the effort

Unlike an employee whose desk is right outside your office, you can’t really observe or track how much effort a remote employee is making. Frankly, you shouldn’t be micromanaging an employee right in front of you that way either, but that’s another blog post!

Instead, focus on the outcomes. Are they delivering their projects/work on time? Is the work well done or does it seem rushed and incomplete? If they’re doing good work and they’re doing it on time, that’s what matters! If not, that needs to be dealt with too, so that other team members aren’t left feeling like that person isn’t pulling their weight.


Key to all of these efforts is authenticity. You have to believe in what you’re doing, and your team, in order to reach them. Going through the motions isn’t enough. Trust in the people you work with, show them what you expect and walk with them along the path. Even at a distance, thanks to technology, you can do all of these things and do them well.



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