I’ve been leading a remote team for the last 2+ years. I’ll be honest: It isn’t easy, and I’ve made many mistakes. But, through trial and error and learning from entrepreneurs/mentors, I’ve built a team that functions (and exceeds expectations) without constant micromanaging.
Today, I’ll share the five leadership principles you can use to lead virtual teams to get your desired output:
1. Clarify work expectations and updates upfront
Align your team members on their roles, responsibilities, and goals. Hold 1-on-1 to let everyone know what’s expected of them in the first 30/60/90 days. Brief about what good work looks like—so employees know how they should approach work and what they should achieve.
Plus, be clear about how you’ll evaluate work. One way is to ask for weekly updates. Tell your employees to send an email every Friday answering these two questions:
1) What did I do this week?
2) What will I do next week?
(Ask only for bullet points. No need to write long paragraphs).
This does three things:
a) The employee's self-introspects.
b) You’re updated on their progress.
c) It encourages deep work.
Employees aren’t distracted by the constant email notifications. They can decide their productive slot and focus their attention on work.
Pro Tip: Track employees’ progress on productivity, not based on work hours. Allow them to choose their work hours. Judge them on tasks completed and goals achieved. As long as they are doing this, it doesn’t matter when they work.
2. Provide Psychological safety
No one thrives in a work environment that ridicules the exchange of ideas, mistakes, and asking questions. Your employees will feel unsafe working and hence won’t work to their full potential. So, if you want workplace stability, business growth, and A+ employees, you should create psychological safety.
It’s, as per Wikipedia, “the ability to show and employ oneself without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career. It can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.”
Here are a few ways to promote psychological safety:
a) Avoid micromanaging. Trust your employees to do their tasks (else, why did you hire them?). Employees will reciprocate this behavior with great work completed on time.
b) No one is immune to making mistakes. But, instead of insulting employees for making them, ask them to learn from them and move forward. Your employees will be more likely to report mistakes and solve them, as against not revealing them (due to fear) and letting them blow.
c) Give your employees the freedom to experiment with new ideas, pitch product features, etc. I encourage my employees to test out any ideas they might have. They’re free to assemble an internal team and ship an MVP.
d) Hold feedback sessions to ensure your employees don’t have any problems inhibiting their work potential. If there are, mutually decide the best solution to help them reach their full potential.
e) Be open to feedback. Entertain constructive criticism of your management and ask for ways to improve your shortcomings.
3. Ensure effective communication
Communication is key to leading virtual teams. So, ensure there are no barriers to communicating and engaging with team members.
Here are some ways to do that:
a) Choose your default communication stack that everyone should use across the company. For example, you can select Slack for team collaboration, Zoom for team meetings, and email to communicate with you.
b) Make it easy for your employees to communicate with you. Share with them when and how they can contact you.
c) There’s no such thing as too much communication. It’s better to over-communicate than to seed misunderstandings. Over time, you’ll know what to say and what to not. But, early on, you should over-communicate.
d) Hold regular one-on-ones for performance updates and employee feedback (where they can suggest how you can improve their work-life balance and help them grow). It makes your people seen and heard and builds trust. Act on the suggestions without much delay.
e) Hold meetings only when necessary.
And when you do that, follow the meeting etiquette: invite only the necessary members, share the meeting agenda one week in advance (so attendees can prepare), be brief in the meeting, ensure everyone gets a chance to speak, and that everyone knows their share of responsibilities after the meeting gets done.
4. Ensure team bonding
Unlike an in-office environment, the virtual environment doesn't offer much chance for team bonding. There’s little room for water-cooler conversations, social gatherings, and more. So, the onus is on you to strengthen team bonding for better collaboration and building a group with shared values.
Here’s how you can get started:
a) Fred Wilson, a VC, recommends celebrating more (birthdays, anniversaries, accomplishments, ship dates, etc.)
b) Ask employees to cross-communicate to get to know each other. They can talk about anything to kick-start their relationship.
c) Schedule mandatory FUN days. Employees can play games, read books, or indulge in any activity.
d) Host offline annual/biannual team retreats. That way, employees will know each other better both professionally and personally. And you can reiterate your company’s goals/mission/values for everyone to remember and practice. Win-Win!
5. Encourage positive mental health
Remote workers have reported a negative impact on their mental health due to isolation, less rest, and work overload. As a leader, you should be intentional about promoting positive mental health for your employees’ well-being:
a) Ask employees to create work boundaries and stick to them. Don’t promote working overtime, instant response, and being available 24/7.
b) Permit your employees to rest when they feel exhausted. You can even offer paid holidays annually.
c) Remember that not all remote work is created equal. Some parents are handling both their work and families. There maybe even single mothers balancing childcare and work. So, don’t demean someone when you hear a child crying during meetings or receive late submission (once in a while). A little empathy goes a long way.
d) Offer free mental health sessions.
Finally, remember that leading a team isn’t a one-day event. It’s a continuous process that takes time and consistent effort to get right. So, use these five principles to hone your leadership and get started with building a capable team.