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Long-Distance Leadership: Managing Virtual Teams

By Merge Gupta-Sunderji

The reality is that remote workers are becoming the norm. Whether it’s people working at home for one day a month, a week, or even full time, or staff who are geographically remote from the bosses, or even salespeople who operate mainly out of their vehicles, virtual leadership is a fundamental necessity in today’s world of business.

The number one complaint from those who work remotely is that they feel left out of the loop. “I never know what’s going on” and “I’m not included in the decision-making” are the most common criticisms I hear. But long-distance leadership IS possible if you’re willing to fine-tune your leadership approach.

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Here are four keys to leading from afar:

1. Focus on the End, Not the Means
“How will I know they’re working?” The simple answer: you won’t. But realistically, you can’t be sure they’re working every time you see them in the office, either. So don’t confuse activity with achievement.

Effective leadership has always been about setting clear priorities, establishing strategic direction, and holding your employees accountable to action. It’s even more critical from afar. Focus on developing specific, measurable, and attainable goals with your employees. For example, targets could include the number of outbound calls made per week, the number of support issues resolved in a month, a completed checklist of month-end activities and reports, or other appropriate measures of job outcomes. Make sure the goals go beyond just productivity though; focus on results.

Set objectives for communication and professional development. For example, goals-related reporting, contact frequency, and training should also be included. Ensure you develop the goals and delivery timetable jointly with your employees so everyone is on the same page, the goals and expectations are realistic, and you have their commitment.

2. Set the Communication Patterns
One of the biggest challenges in a remote relationship is the strain it places on communication so it’s critical that you work hard to overcome this potential pitfall. Establish the primary method of communication upfront – whether it be phone, e-mail, or instant messaging – and the frequency. This may differ from employee to employee to fit individual preferences and work responsibilities. Outline what kind of progress reports you expect and how often.

On the other side of the coin, a common complaint of on-site employees is that they can’t reach their off-site colleagues when they need to. This problem can be avoided by clearly setting expectations about work hours and creating a standard for checking and responding to voice mail and e-mail.

Frequency of communication is also critical. In my consulting experience, every leader who is successfully managing people long distance has, at minimum, a weekly teleconference with the team. On-site employees should be included in this meeting.

Finally, don’t let your off-site employees’ efforts to communicate fall into the great abyss. I recall one remote employee making this telling statement: “I sent the boss this great idea on how to change our reporting process and I’m still waiting to hear back. That was six weeks ago.” In a face-to-face environment, employees can corner you at the watercooler and ask for an update. Off-site employees don’t have that opportunity, so your lack of response will contribute to their feeling of isolation. Make it a point to respond to their comments or suggestions with either a “yes” (be sure to give them credit), a “no” (tell them why), or a “not right now, but maybe later.”

3. Be there
Make yourself accessible to your employees. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to set office hours – periods of time when you will be next to the phone and available to talk. Some leaders I know set a fixed time each workday, others block off Monday and Friday afternoons. Pick whatever works best for you, let your employees know, and then stick to the schedule.

Another basic leadership technique that often falls by the wayside in long-distance leadership is giving employees ongoing feedback. Most leaders offer feedback and praise in a very informal way, and usually it comes to mind when they see the employee in the office. Because remote workers don’t have the opportunity to bump into you, you have to put in some extra effort – a brief voice mail or e-mail works wonders.

Finally, just as you would for any other employee, schedule regular performance reviews. Face-to-face meetings are always more effective, but chatting by phone is better than nothing at all.

4. Make Them Feel Like Part of the Team
There are a variety of things you can do to make sure remote employees still feel like part of the gang at the office. In addition to regular teleconferences and defined communication schedules, be sure to route informal memos and notes to remote workers, and, whenever possible, include them in impromptu lunches and social events. Keep in mind that meetings don’t always have to be face-to-face for them to be effective team builders. By using a combination of teleconferencing, video conferencing, groupware, and Web conferencing, your remote workers can participate in meetings and attend presentations in real time and feel like they’re (almost) in the office.

Having said that, it’s important to bring your remote employees into a central location for an in-person meeting at least twice a year. If you have on-site employees, make sure you schedule enough time for the two groups to socialize. It will strengthen the relationships between off-site employees and office staff, and help smooth over the long-distance conflicts that can inevitably rise.

At an individual level, you should talk to your remote employee by phone at least once a week. Even just a short conversation to check in will make them feel like part of the team.

More than anything else, off-site employees need to know they’re not alone – that you’re behind them, you support them, and you understand their challenges. With these four important points in mind, you’ll be leading the pack on your way to being a first-class virtual leaders.

Merge Gupta-Sunderji, MBA, CSP, turns managers into leaders by giving them specific and practical how-to steps to create high-performing, productive, and positive workplaces. Contact her at www.mergespeaks.com or 403.605.4756.

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Category: Leadership

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