“Hey, got a minute?”
Careful not to knock over my Starbucks latte that was sitting precariously at the edge of my desk; I leaned over, rattled off some questions, and got my answers from the product lead. Just as I was about to reach for my coffee, the intercom buzzer rang. It was the boss, wanting a status update on our marketing campaign. I hurriedly scribbled some notes on my pad before heading into her office.
Familiar? I didn’t make this up. This scene is a page from my days back in the office. Those days, the office was easy to navigate. Any question could be answered quickly, simply by popping over to a colleague’s desk. Everyone was at their desks, like sitting ducks stuck between curious colleagues and enquiring bosses. And for the on-site manager, it was easy to see what was going on in the office - until the arrival of an unknown virus.
Departments scrambled and everyone took shelter behind zoom meeting screens, leaving the office behind. The manager now finds that supervising a remote team is alot harder than it seems, because no one is in actual sight. And it’s hardly surprising, as most of us were thrown into remote mode unprepared, and unready.
Add to that the demands of managing direct reports from different geographies and time zones, and the job gets even more challenging. While it’s true there are apps and tools to help make the transition easier, that too takes some learning. Managing remote teams requires new skills, and soft skills remain a key priority for employers in 2022 in a recent global report.
In a traditional office setting, management style tends to take the form of a top-down, hierarchical structure. In remote management, transparent communication takes the lead. As it turns out, emotional intelligence is a soft skill all modern remote managers need to possess in order to build a support system for remote teams. And empathy, transparency and trust are emerging as strong traits of great remote leaders.
Empathy and sensitivity go a long way toward building a foundation of trust. A 2019 survey concluded that 82% of employees would "consider leaving their job for a more empathetic organization," while 78% would "work longer hours for a more empathetic employer."
In a physical office, managers have instant access to direct reports; and in-person interactions make it easy to identify who needs support. But when we move everything to a virtual world of calls, messages, emails and Zoom meetings, recognizing when individuals need help becomes an uphill task. In a remote setting, managers need to be proactive in asking direct reports how they are and pick up any cues of employee disengagement, frustration, burn-out or anxiety. When approaching issues such as mental health, managers have to be sensitive toward, and supportive of, individuals who are experiencing anxiety or depression. By showing empathy and providing a safe space for them to talk about their problems, employees know that they are supported and not alone.
A remote leader who is transparent in his communication and encouraging of his direct reports to do the same will empower employees to interact without ambiguity, and ensure that both manager and employees are on the same page. Having open discussions with direct reports on communication and work styles are equally important. Without which, working relationships can quickly deteriorate. For example, daily project updates which may be perceived as proactive “check-ins” by the remote manager may be viewed as micro-management from the employee’s view and this can quickly erode trust in relationships.
When it comes to the sensitive topic of feedback, great managers go out of their way to make feedback timely, constructive and safe. Giving and receiving feedback in a remote situation doesn’t make it any less challenging. But it can be made easier if managers ask for employees’ preferred feedback styles and make feedback sessions frequent rather than the one-off annual appraisals. When safe spaces for feedback are created and adapted to employees’ preferred styles, feedback conversations become open, honest and constructive.
The foundation of all relationships is trust. In dispersed teams, a culture of trust becomes even more important in order to build effective and productive teams. Trust is a two-way street, and stewards of remote work understand that when they trust their team to do the right thing, the team will return it. When a manager encourages mistakes rather than exercising a tight rein over employees, teammates partake in decisions, take risks and feel valued and empowered to find creative solutions, thereby increasing productivity.
As inspirational speaker Simon Sinek puts it: “When we tell people to do their jobs, we get workers. When we trust people to get the job done, we get leaders.”
Effective remote managers help teammates thrive through these actions:
A remote team doesn’t mean out of sight, out of mind. Managing a remote team involves a great dose of trust and an even keener focus on the team’s priorities and needs. The key is to establish a solid support system around your team, no matter how dispersed they may be.
You may also be interested in this: How To Turn Remote Work Pitfalls Into A Formula For Success
It’s about rethinking traditional employment archetypes. Can we progress from an economy built on full time employment habitually enslaved by unemployment fears, to one where individuals have greater autonomy and are self motivated to do work that inspires them? And as a result, benefit the economy as a whole?
You can’t own full time employees. But you can build a winning team with talent management companies. As businesses demand more, external talents are emerging as the sure forerunners of an agile workforce. At Chance Upon, we partner businesses to get a head start over competition by creating collaborative work between companies and the right talents.
The Future Of Work, Monster 2022 Global Report (2022)
2019 State of Workplace Empathy, Businesssolver Executive Summary (2019)
Sharon K. Parker, Caroline Knight, Anita Keller, Remote Managers Are Having Trust Issues, Harvard Business Review, (30 July 2020)
Alfredo Atanacio, How To Be A Successful Remote Manager, Forbes (18 Aug 2020)