Leaders of teams who work remotely have to learn new technologies, constantly evaluate how they communicate, and support their employees without compromising efficiency. There’s no established handbook or set of rules proven to keep your team’s energy up when you aren’t meeting each other in person.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, many people were working remotely. During the spring and summer of 2020, the ranks of remote workers rose quickly and dramatically. Now that many of those organizations have seen how well a remote workforce can function, some are shifting to stay remote indefinitely and leaders have to shift to adapt.
The good news is, strong leadership skills can be used in any role where you manage people. Whether you're seated around a meeting room table or hosting a Zoom call, the same basic leadership principles still apply.
Let’s take a look at the benefits and challenges of having a remote workforce, as well as some strategies that leaders of organizations can implement.
What Are the Benefits of a Remote Workforce?
According to McKinsey, finding a working arrangement that includes remote options is one of the top three motivators for US job-seekers. The largest benefit of a remote workplace could be employee satisfaction. People working remotely may feel like they can lean into their own natural rhythms and become more productive.
Employees who work from home have more flexibility to organize their lives. Each day doesn’t begin with the frustration of morning traffic. There is no subway to stress over. There are no long, dark drives home after the sun has gone down. Remote employees also have more options for child care and family life.
Working remotely may also boost health and overall well-being. In 2022, the US Census found that households where at least one person worked from home were twice as likely to describe their health as “excellent.” That means fewer sick days and, presumably, more productivity for employers.
Beyond the individual benefits, companies can save money with a remote workforce. Organizations can skip the hefty rent costs of commercial office space and refocus those resources on new technologies, talent retention, or whatever else they would like.
What Are the Challenges of a Remote Workforce?
It can feel harder to be a hands-on boss when you’re managing a remote workforce. For one thing, you don’t have the opportunity to pass your employees on the way to the break room and see what kind of day they are having. The traditional tools of relationship building can feel strained over digital mediums. A person's emails may come off as unintentionally sharp or passive-aggressive, and they might not even be aware of it.
Since virtual employee management often happens in a video conference call, team leaders need to learn to maximize those interactions. But plenty of people feel uncomfortable and unengaged on apps and in virtual meeting rooms (perhaps yourself included). A documented phenomenon called nonverbal overload can make staring at your coworker’s faces through a computer screen feel like the most exhausting thing you’ve done all day.
Employee accountability also takes on a new shade. And the data tells us that people based outside of their workplace may contribute fewer working hours to their employer. The 2021 estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics state that people who work from home perform fewer hours of work each day. The average worker may clock 8.24 hours of work when they are at their workplace, in comparison to 5.88 when they work from home.
Of course, if the work hours being performed at home are of higher quality and have fewer interruptions, an employee may still be more productive remotely. But without a strong rapport, clear communication, and accountability, it’s really hard to know how efficient your remote workforce is.
Troubleshooting a Remote Workforce
Ethical and effective managers understand that true leadership skills can be applied to a remote workforce the same way they would work for a team that meets in person – although sometimes, it will take a little extra strategic thinking and creativity.
Be a present leader.
Whether it’s a quick email, a phone call or a team meeting, you should be checking in with everyone on your team at least once every work day. Beyond touching base, you can address potential problems before they arise by scheduling regular one-on-ones. You can give employees the option to meet with you over video,via audio-only and even in person, if appropriate.
Ask questions at every opportunity.
During your conversations, ask questions about your employee’s preferred communication style. Do they feel more comfortable firing off short, efficient emails? Do they feel your workplace productivity apps are managing workflow in a way that makes sense? Talk to them about the work they are doing, and ask what would make it easier to do.
Find the tools that will engage your team.
There are a host of collaborative platforms that can make remote work feel more lively and less sterile. Chat-based apps and messaging systems, such as Slack, can motivate team members to communicate in real time. If it’s too hard to keep track of all the new technologies out there yourself on top of your leadership responsibilities, schedule a regular meeting with your IT department (or equivalent) dedicated to discussing new technologies and how they might apply to your workforce.
Have a company culture.
Organizations with a lot of remote employees can be spread out geographically, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a collaborative, collegial environment. Be a leader who offers encouragement, celebrates wins and laughs often. The people that you manage will follow suit.
Share simple, measurable goals.
Performance metrics that are highly visible, frequently communicated, and easy to understand will make hitting your targets feel like more of a team effort. Think about how you can frame even the smaller projects as group successes and offer tangible incentives whenever possible. Always be thinking of how to frame what you do as a collaboration so that your employees feel like they’re winning together.
Remember that people are still people, even behind a screen.
Data collected by McKinsey showed that people with young children are often disrupted at home by family interruptions. Younger employees in that same survey said that their mental health was sometimes a barrier to being as efficient as they could be. As a leader, your job is to know the factors that can impact your employee’s productivity and demonstrate empathy whenever you reasonably can.
Become a Trained Online Workforce Leader
Leading an organization remotely can require learning new skills — many of which you can’t get from a Google search. The Spalding EdD: Leadership program prepares you to tackle modern-day issues, like those that may arise as a remote leader. This terminal degree trains you to identify issues and develop research protocols to solve the root causes of those issues.
Your EdD in Leadership from Spalding University will help you become an exceptional leader, systems thinker and team builder. You’ll learn to embrace and even drive change and innovation in your organization.