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Leading Remotely: What Managers Need to Keep Teams Engaged

Leading Remotely: What Managers Need to Keep Teams Engaged

by Sofia Kluch

Story Highlights

  • Remote managers may struggle to engage their teams
  • Communication, accountability and individualization are key
  • Leaders need to individualize how they support their managers

Managing remotely can be complicated. Add a dash of national emergency, and it becomes even more challenging to engage employees. As organizations across the world transition to a partial or fully work-from-home environment in response to COVID-19, understanding what managers need to lead remotely is a must.

Of course, not all managers view remote work the same way, especially when it's driven by circumstance rather than choice. Some managers will embrace a little separation from their teams -- they may even see it as an opportunity to get some uninterrupted work in. Others get energy and focus from their people and will feel isolated and less in a position to help their teams and their organization when they aren't in the office every day. So while some managers are busy decorating their home office and celebrating not having to commute, others will resent forced isolation and feeling disconnected from their people.

And because 70% of an individual's engagement is driven by their manager, it's crucial that leaders individualize to best support them.

Where Remote Managers May Struggle

There are three things that managers have to do perfectly to create the right level of engagement for their people. All managers are likely to struggle in some of these categories at one time or another, even without the added strain of managing through substantial distractions.

  1. Individualization. When people are in the office, it's easier to have one set of rules for everyone. But when many employees are working from home without a dedicated office, when children are not in school or daycare, and when neighborhood broadband connections are stressed to capacity -- individualization is king.

Managers have to figure out where structure is required (e.g., no crying children during client calls) and where it is flexible -- like shortening meetings by five or 10 minutes to allow people to transition between calls and reset an activity for a child at home. There may be a need to accommodate flexibility to hours worked (e.g., shortened schedules), available hours (e.g., schedule all meetings in the afternoon when a child is napping), or the meaning of "close of business" (COB) to mean midnight or even 8:00 a.m. the following day. Managers need everyone to be able to give their best and positively impact the organization, and they need to create a space so their employees can do so.

  1. Communication. While many managers are effective communicators, taking that show on the road -- or more specifically, home -- means that the only method of communication is what your managers are providing. If an email tone is too harsh, there is no facial expression to soften the sting. If your question during a phone conference feels abrupt, there might not be video that shows you literally leaning into the conversation in interest instead of a perceived attack. For this reason, videoconferencing may be ideal and should be encouraged for remote team communication.

Much of our language is nonverbal. When managers are forced to limit the nonverbal cues available to their direct reports, they increase the chance for miscommunication, defensiveness and conflict. Managers need to communicate with their teams in multiple ways and through multiple mediums to keep expectations clear, to reinforce priorities, and to help understand and address barriers to maximizing their team's work while they are away from the office.

Managers need everyone to be able to give their best and positively impact the organization, and they need to create a space so their employees can do so.

Managers should ask how employees prefer to be contacted. Are text messages OK for urgent issues, or is that an invasion of privacy or stressful? Do they have everything they need to videoconference comfortably? Managers should also proactively schedule weekly check-ins with their teams, replacing the informal office conversations that relationships are made of.

  1. Accountability. When everyone is physically present, it tends to be easier to evaluate the level of effort people are putting in and the output your team is generating. The reason most remote employees can work remotely is that they're doing the type of work that may be harder to count or measure productivity against. That is no reason to neglect accountability.

Managers must create or improve upon their systems for holding their teams accountable when everyone is working remotely. This is based in communication but includes tools for measuring timelines and deliverables, check-ins, and evaluation of submitted work. It's important that everyone understands the quality of work expected from them while working remotely -- and that your managers are prepared to assess and hold team members accountable for their continued performance.

For example, managers can use online task or project management tools so that everyone has visibility on what's important now. Managers can also proactively set check-in meetings for certain projects to encourage progress on specific pieces of work. It also doesn't hurt to ask helpful coaching questions such as, "What challenges might you face in getting this done?" Get the invisible gorilla or elephant into the conversation.

Where Remote Managers Thrive

In times of crisis, it's worth remembering the benefits of remote work. Managing remotely allows individuals to get creative, leverage their strengths, and engage with their teams in different and meaningful ways.

Your managers are in the best position to minimize any negative effects of working from home. They are also best positioned to create new methods and processes for getting things done. Here is how you can set your managers up for success:

  1. Trust them. Give them latitude to embrace acceptable risk in trying new things. Managers are going to have to get creative on everything, from creating an engaged work team to meeting clients' needs in a very uncertain time. Managing remote teams will include taking some risks. Whether it is taking a videoconference outside, creating new documentation procedures or sending care packages, let your managers innovate on the best ways to connect their teams and get work done.

  1. Be open to discovery. Be open to finding out things about your business that might surprise you. You may have a team or role that you didn't think could be effective remotely -- or inversely, a team that you were confident in that ends up struggling. Be open to learning lessons from this experience and even having some of your thinking about your work, your organization and your customers turned upside down as a massive field experiment in remote work is currently underway.

Managing remotely allows individuals to get creative, leverage their strengths, and engage with their teams in different and meaningful ways.

Ask your managers what they are finding and learning, and think about how that evidence supports or rejects your perceptions of remote work for your organization.

  1. Evolve your culture. As humans, we tend to empathize best with situations we have personally experienced. There is a huge opportunity for us to experience remote work firsthand that we would otherwise not encounter. This can make our overall work culture more inclusive and more friendly to a variety of workers, including those who will work from home long after COVID-19 subsides. This allows us to think more strategically about when, why and how remote work should be approached in the long run.

What Remote Managers Need

Once your managers are equipped with the tools they need to manage their teams remotely and keep your organization moving forward, what they need next is your support to do all the right things -- perfect communication, accountability and individualization -- which you can provide in three specific ways:

  1. Listen. Ask your managers what they need, and listen to their answers. Each manager will have their own perspective on the situation -- good, bad or otherwise. And depending on their approach, they may need different things from you. It's best not to assume how the situation is affecting them; let them share their experience and needs so you can tailor your approach to supporting them.

  1. Communicate frequently. Strong leadership inspires everyone. Ask your managers to find out what people need to hear from their local managers and what they want to hear from the top. Position your support around areas like accountability and quality, and encourage efforts to keep remote teams engaged and connected.

  1. Expand technology support. Even your most tech-savvy manager will be dealing with a variety of technical difficulties if they are not used to working remotely. Ensure your technology team is ready to assist managers and their teams. Open all available resources to keep work occurring from anywhere and everywhere.

Although many managers are leading remote teams for the first time, they can succeed if they keep the fundamentals of excellent management in mind -- and if they have the support from you, their leader. A positive mindset, a listening ear and greater flexibility can make all the difference in a time of crisis.

Explore other resources for supporting managers and their teams:


Sofia Kluch is the Director of Data Science at Gallup. She has been managing a team remotely and exploring the experiences of remote workers for nearly eight years.

Ryan Pendell contributed to this article.

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