Today’s business environment is leveraging connectivity at a pace that leaves many of us scrambling to stay fully engaged with colleagues we seldom (or never) see face to face. While simply trying to learn the various technology tools available, we may forget that our ultimate goal remains the same: creating a level of engagement with colleagues that creates the business outcome we need. In most cases the path to engagement is the same as for face to face (FTF), while the “how” to achieving it just changes a bit. Let’s take a look at a few of the better practices for leaders to consider when leading teams without the benefit of frequent FTF.
As with FTF, the path to high engagement of colleagues over a phone or video link is gaining and keeping their attention on what is important and how they can contribute to it. Most of us want to be asked for our ideas and solutions rather than being told what is going to happen. Especially critical over the time zones and cultures we may cross is the ability to bias your leadership to ask-assertiveness. Challenge the team, and call on each individual, for their ideas. This is what you should do in FTF. It just requires more intentionality in remote settings.
Cultural norms can be a barrier to effective engagement FTF and in remote settings, and they too require intention on the leaders’ part to find and navigate. Doing some homework to learn about the cultures you expect to encounter helps, but remember that each person is an individual and may express their cultural norms slightly differently. So, understand backgrounds but don’t create unnecessary biases either. In some cultures, quietly agreeing with someone in a leadership role may be expected even when you really disagree. This is where specifically asking for a viewpoint from that individual is critical. On the contrary, there are cultures in which openly and vigorously challenging is considered appropriate and this may offend or surprise you when there is no offense intended. Being prepared for all the cultures that are represented on your remote teams makes gaining engagement and keeping your composure more likely.
Even within similar cultures, learning how to make dissent productive is a key skill for leaders in FTF and remote settings. It just becomes more challenging remotely because you may not have a well-developed relationship with each colleague and you may not be able to see or read their expression and body language very well. Much of the breakthrough thinking we seek actually comes through dissent, novel (even frightening?) ideas, and sometimes frustrating discussions. Balancing wasted time with the messiness that productive dissent often looks like is difficult. Patience and a resolute fix on the big picture outcome you need are the keys. In virtual settings allowing all the voices (not just the dominant ones including yours!) to be heard is important to both keeping high engagement and getting to breakthrough solutions. Once again your best tool is ask-assertiveness and listening. Drawing out all colleagues requires intention and attention.
Finally, moving thoughts and ideas to concrete action requires a bit more attention to detail than FTF might. Because you will not bump into colleagues in the hall and ask about progress from the meeting, you need to find more structured ways to both agree on and commit to the actions to get your outcome. Many of the virtual tools available provide ways to document actions and commitments and even provide prompts to those accountable. Certainly use those! However, following up with the accountable individuals in a one on one phone call to clarify the action and gain (or regain) their commitment is very helpful. If as the team leader you have even a small doubt about clarity of action and especially about commitment to it, make a direct contact immediately, and not through email, text or other less personal media.
Being a great team leader requires the same skills whether your team is FT or virtual. Remote leadership just requires more intentionality and attention to detail than FTF. Remember your goal is to achieve a business outcome by maximizing the contributions of all the voices around the virtual table. Asking, listening, and then acting on the responses moves your team toward that goal.
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Remote vs. Face-to-Face Teams