Let’s be honest – 2020 hasn’t been anyone’s year. If nothing else, it’s brought about massive amounts of change in how we live and work.
One of the biggest changes has been the global shift to remote working.
With more and more offices being closed during lockdowns across the world, teams are having to adjust to Zoom calls and chat boxes, with whiteboards and paper becoming a fading memory.
For managers, this shift has changed the face of management and on a larger scale, leadership.
Are you ready to adapt? We’ll show you how.
Leadership skills for remote managers
Managing a team online is very different than leading one in an office. What makes a good digital leader during these difficult times? Focusing on remote leadership skills will be useful not just during the pandemic, but after: the writing on the wall says that the work-from-home revolution is here to stay.
After all, what are leadership skills for if not getting your team through times like this?
It’s hard for your team to work well if what’s expected of them changes from day to day. That’s why, when the world is changing, the most valuable thing you can offer is stability.
You can’t solve this pandemic by yourself, of course. But you can set down clear goals and principles that give your team something to work towards. Long-term goals are often more motivating than the work process itself, as they stop you from getting caught up in minor details.
Note, however, that consistency doesn’t mean always doing things the same way, no matter what.
Things are going to keep changing, and you should be flexible enough to adapt to new circumstances. What if, for example, the higher-ups said to bring everyone back into the office tomorrow?
In the context of leadership skills, consistency is about the attitude you bring to your work and the expectations you hold your team to, rather than micromanaging the day-to-day details of work.
This is an area where the way you manage your team’s projects plays a big role.
Agile project management, for instance, promotes ‘daily scrums’ – brief meetings that happen at the same time every day, and in this case, online.
By themselves, these scrums usually aren’t life-changing. But they’re not meant to be: instead, they serve as a consistent, unchanging part of a workday that might otherwise be hectic and fluid.
Even if you’re not interested in Agile as a project management framework, consider bringing daily scrum-like meetings into the mix. It might just provide your team the stability they need.
2. Active listening
More than ever, effective leadership skills aren’t about going ahead and expecting your team to follow you. It’s about being there with them and hearing their problems.
What are leadership skills good for, after all, if not communicating with your team?
This approach is best summed up by the phrase ‘active listening’.
Active listening means not just waiting for people to come to you with issues. Instead, you actively seek out feedback from your team and return it on a regular basis.
This is one of the most important leadership skills for a few reasons.
When an employee doesn’t get feedback, they won’t know if they’re doing well or on the wrong path entirely. That ambiguity causes stress, which in turn worsens their performance: a vicious cycle.
So, how do you break the cycle? Consider reaching out to your teammates once a week, off the radar, to check on how they’re doing. Don’t make it an iron-clad rule – authenticity is the goal here! – but letting them know you care about their well-being is a great way to keep them motivated.
If you’re not sure how you’d handle that, consider checking out this course on managing remote teams by Shane Kluiter. The fifth lesson has some great insights on how to have productive one-on-ones with your team.
3. Conflict management
Conflict management is a great example of why leadership skills are important when managing remote teams.
In a sense, conflict is inevitable, and even desirable. You want your team to be passionate and to speak up when something’s wrong. Your role, as a leader, is to channel that conflict into creative opportunities for growth and learning.
Finding the right balance between creative stress and actual trouble is the core of conflict management.
When managing remote teams, the hardest part is realising that there is a conflict brewing at all. Almost all of our regular communication is non-verbal, and that just doesn’t come through on a computer screen. It’s far too easy for constructive criticism to flare up into arguments, bickering or long-term grudges.
Being able to channel that energy in a way that’s useful to your team’s projects isn’t easy. In many ways, it requires an expert – so consider checking out training courses on the topic, like this one from eCornell.
It contains a section dedicated to conflict management that will help you settle disputes fairly and with authority – one of the top leadership skills you can possess.
4. Being motivational
You and your team have likely been trapped in your homes for several past months without seeing your friends or family. It’s easy to get caught up in apathy, or even despair.
Your goal as a team leader is to break through those negative emotions and get your team back on the positive treadmill of setting goals, making progress and hitting targets.
There are a few tried-and-true ways to motivate teams that you can use.
One of the best is to empower them. Working from home is appealing for so many people because of the freedom it offers, and you should emphasize that.
Even small things, like letting people take breaks whenever they want, lets them build their own workday. This gets them fully invested in what they’re doing: rather than mindlessly carrying out instructions, they get to be creative and express themselves.
Another easy way to motivate people is to give them opportunities to show off.
People love getting rewarded when they’ve done a good job, but that’s often not there when working remotely. If all you get for pulling an all-nighter on the big report is a tick on a digital checklist, why bother?
You can counter that apathy by setting up material or social acknowledgment for their good work. Even something as small as a celebratory .gif in the group chat can give a big hit of endorphins!
If your budget has a little cash to spare, you can even try something more radical. Tools like Workhuman let your team send cash gifts to each other to show their appreciation for work well done. The giver gets the joy of treating one of their coworkers, and the receiver gets a material reason to give their work 100%. It’s a win-win situation.
Being able to motivate others is a key leadership skill. If you don’t implement any of the other leadership skills in this article, try to at least motivate your team. The rest will come naturally as you and your team develop.
Motivation: The Science of Motivating Yourself and Your Team
Learn the sources of motivation, and how to apply them to create a system of sustained motivation for yourself and your team. Designed by leadership coach Lawrence M. Miller.
5. Staying organized
It’s easy to take for granted how much structure working in an office gives you. Moving online means you don’t have any neat binders to order your documents or whiteboards to sketch out your plans on.
As a leadership skill, keeping your goals and resources organized is an important way to keep your team productive and their morale high. You need to make sure that they have the resources they need ahead of time, which in turn means keeping track of everybody’s goals beyond the current moment.
Entire books have been written about the leadership skills and frameworks available for organizing teams, but a good guideline is to centralize your sources of information as much as possible.
When you have one website that tracks your projects, another website to track your logged hours, an email account to contact suppliers and a dashboard to measure your SEO analytics, it’s inevitable that things are going to get messy.
The gold standard here is to build a ‘single source of truth’: just one place where anyone on your team can go to find the information they need to do their job.
This streamlines the working process and means people aren’t constantly double-checking with you what they need to be doing. A team that can effectively manage themselves because you’ve spent time crafting a single source of truth is one of the best examples of leadership skills possible.
As mentioned before, managing remote teams means you miss out on a lot of the non-verbal cues we rely on in conversation. Without these things, it’s easy to come off as impersonal and cold.
This is bad, because it separates your team from the human element of their work. It feels less like working together to achieve goals, and more like blindly following orders.
In other words, if you don’t feel authentic to your team, they won’t believe in you or the goals you set for them. It’s not easy to bridge the gap technology puts between you and your team, but that’s why leadership skills are important.
So, how do you avoid sounding like a robot, living in a different world to your team?
One important step is to remember that you’re talking to them in their homes. Psychologically, being at home has a big impact on how people think of themselves. Talking to them like you’re both still in the office just isn’t going to work, so the level of formality you might have both been used to will need to change.
In other words? Go ahead and ask them about that cute puppy in the corner of the video-call! Don’t be afraid to wear a shirt with your favorite band’s logo on it, or to chat with someone about how they spent their weekend.
This candor breaks down the alienating effect working online often has on people.
If you act and lead authentically, you can be a positive role model for the rest of the team, helping them to work together in a friendly, more open way.
Training staff for new situations is one of the most important examples of leadership skills out there, and as you transition to remote work, your team is going to need help. Not in actually doing their work – presumably they got hired because they’re good at that! – but in adapting to the new style of work.
How could you improve, not just as a leader, but a trainer?
Here are some useful tips for a smooth transition process:
- Set clear timeframes for when you want everyone to feel settled by
- Use a buddy system so team members don’t feel like they’re figuring it out by themselves
- Studying the ins-and-outs of the digital platforms you’ll be using (Zoom, Slack, etc.)
There is, of course, a lot more that goes into effectively training a team, especially under the rather unique conditions of the current moment.
How to improve your leadership skills
If you’re interested in a structured way to improve your own leadership skills, check out these online leadership courses to learn best practices on induction, socialisation and training.
Once you’ve got the theory down, start practising!
If you don’t already have a weekly meeting in place, set one up and give people an opportunity to connect on a human level. If you think daily scrum meetings would make sense for your team, give it a shot.
Use these meetings as a framework for you to develop the other leadership skills, like consistency, motivation, authenticity, training and organization.
Most importantly, get as much feedback from your team as possible. If all goes well, your team will feel more at ease with remote working within a few months (or even weeks), and everyone will be much happier – trust us on this!