5 Keys to Successfully Leading a Remote Workforce

Denise Spillane December 16, 2019

Nearly 50 percent of employees perform some type of remote work, with remote work options expected to represent 73 percent of all teams within 10 years. For executives, HR leaders, and people leaders, the growth of remote workers requires different lessons in leading teams across varied settings and styles.

At StayWell, our workforce is nearly 70 percent remote, with many employees working from home or at several regional offices across the country. Having a remote workforce has been part of our organization for many years now, allowing for management and employees to adjust to remote collaboration, multiple communication schedules, and varied working styles.

While leading a remote workforce requires flexibility in communication cadence and interpersonal interaction, some traditional management components are still applicable, regardless of location or office setup. Below are five key management lessons I have learned from leading a remote team that spans multiple disciplines and multiple time zones.

1. Communicate beyond email.

When leading a remote team, email becomes an essential tool to stay connected and keep updated on projects. But email doesn’t always allow for tone and can become an easy (but flawed) way to communicate with team members.

Email is not the only tool in the toolbox. I often turn to messaging tools or video conferencing to just check in with employees, or to talk through an issue. I also use texting to connect with team members in more personal fashion. And while we are prone to use our tech tools, phone calls offer a tried-and-true form of communication that enables greater personal connection.

2. Make mentoring happen.

All employees can benefit from coaching and mentoring, regardless of their years of experience. This holds true for remote employees as well. While the geographical distance can make mentoring a bit more challenging, relying on new communication tools can help connect employees across borders.

Mentoring can be especially beneficial for employees who are new to their role, the organization, or new to working with a remote workforce.  It’s important not to rush mentoring, allowing both the mentor and mentee to build a relationship that serves them both, and then start to discuss opportunities for growth, collaboration, strengths, and weaknesses. By building relationships through mentoring workers, leaders can help employees feel like a valuable part of the team.

3. Be flexible in style, focused on goals.

With remote workers, leaders need to allow for greater flexibility in work styles. Most employees will be working from a home office that allows them to design their own workspace (and work styles) absent of corporate walls. While some employees’ work styles may differ from your own, it’s important to understand they have created a space and style that allows them to perform their best. 

This flexibility also includes awareness of time zones. For my team, I encourage employees to work within their time zones, and I try to avoid holding meetings before 9 am (Pacific) or after 5 pm (Eastern). What’s a priority is that each team member has the support and engagement necessary to accomplish their individual and collective goals. Regardless of style or location, leaders need to ensure their team receives the necessary communication, encouragement, and engagement to perform their job. 

4. Know when to convene in person.

There are times when meeting in person becomes invaluable to the success of the organization. For new employees, we like to bring them to a central location during their first week for orientation with different department members. This in-person connection helps to familiarize them with the organization’s culture and allows them to establish personal relationships from the start.

In-person connections can also be beneficial when starting new mentoring relationships. It helps to build a rapport among the mentor and mentee, and it creates a communication style that can then shift to email or video conferencing when long-distance. We also use annual meetings or quarterly updates to unite small teams for kick-off events, brainstorming, and community outreach programs that help to reinforce company culture and employee relationships.

5. Remote is not a management style.

Whether you have employees (or even an entire team) who work remote, they still need guidance, feedback, coaching, development, and recognition. For leaders who may have weekly team meetings or standing meetings with direct reports, the same cadence and involvement should be extended to remote employees. Managers should make a concentrated effort to engage with remote employees on a consistent and ongoing basis and create a communication-feedback loop to limit any roadblocks. 

While it can be easy to trot down the hall to an employee who shares the same office, overlooking a remote worker could be a disservice to your team and your organization. It’s important for managers to lead by example by making a concentrated effort to incorporate remote workers into the fold and encouraging other team members to follow suit.

Remote work life offers many advantages and can even be a differentiator to help attract top talent. Studies show that employees who spend even three days working offsite are substantially more engaged in their jobs than traditional counterparts who are stuck behind desks all day. But strong employee engagement, unified teams, and strong collaboration among remote workers requires good leadership that can build bridges across boundaries.

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