How to lead a remote team in the new world of hybrid

The shift to a more flexible working model for many companies has brought a raft of challenges. But it also offers golden opportunities, explains Jo Owen

Every cloud has a silver lining. But the dark clouds of the pandemic have one very bright lining: it is the best thing to have happened to leadership and management in 200 years.

If you have found that leading and managing remotely is far harder than leading in the office, you are not alone. Everything is harder when you cannot see the people you lead. That is very good news. It forces leaders to raise their game and be far more purposeful and deliberate in all that they do. If you can lead a remote team, you can lead any team. Three examples make the point:

  • Motivation: the first person to work out how to motivate by email will make a fortune. It is a fortune which is unlikely to be made. If you cannot motivate your team directly, you have to create the conditions in which your team can discover their own intrinsic motivation. That is harder to do, but has longer-lasting results.
  • Goal setting should be management 101, but turns out to be very hard. It is easy to convey the ‘what’ remotely, but hard to convey the ‘why’ and the all-important context. Managers have to learn to replicate the process of discovery which happens naturally in the office through endless quick conversations which help the team understand the ‘why’ and the context.
  • Communication: working remotely, we communicate more than ever but understand each other as little as ever. Technology helps us communicate more, not better. We now have to learn to tame the communications beast. Uncontrolled, the beast takes over: it not only destroys boundaries between work and life, it also leads to lower productivity when teams spend their whole time communicating and coordinating, not doing.

The office is the ideal breeding ground for mediocre management. If you miscommunicate in the office, you will quickly find out and you can remedy the situation. Remote working is much less forgiving of management. If you miscommunicate to a team member in a meeting, you may not hear about it until the next day. By then, your team member will have had plenty of time to ruminate on what you said. Rumination is rarely positive. You may find that your off-the-cuff remark has led your team member to believe that they are on the slope to the exit door, losing their job, getting behind on the mortgage, losing their house and losing their family… all because of an innocent remark you made. 

In the same way, in the office it is easy to spot mistakes and fix them. You can see who is struggling and who is slacking. You can see who needs help and who can give help. None of this is possible remotely.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that no one knows the rules of the game: how is the team meant to operate? In the office, teams pick up the rules of the game naturally. Each team member knows what annoys or encourages other team members; they know when to be around and when they can go home. Remotely, it is unclear what even the most basic rules are: when should everyone be available for meetings, when should they be available to deal with emails and messaging? 

Long-serving team members have networks of trust and influence which help them succeed both in the office and remotely. New team members are all at sea. They have no networks of trust or influence and they do not even know the basic rules of the game.

To overcome these challenges, leaders have to be more purposeful and deliberate in all that they do. The ad hoc practices of leading an office-based team simply do not work. For instance, to deal with the challenge of establishing your team’s operating rules, rhythms and routines you need to build a team charter where you collectively answer all the questions the team will have:

  • What are core working hours?

  • What technology and communication platforms will we use?

  • How and when will we communicate with each other?

Often, the results are creative. One team decided that core hours would be 10am until 3pm each day: that was the only time they would be available for meetings. And each day started with a quick team call to make sure everyone knew what was going on and meant to happen. This allowed team members with caring responsibilities to complete their personal work uninterrupted between 7am and 8am in the morning, and from 7pm to 9pm at night: they had a full but flexible day with clear boundaries between work and life.

Lean into the challenge of leading remote and hybrid teams. This is your chance to raise your game even further.

Jo Owen is the author of Smart Work: The Ultimate Handbook for Remote and Hybrid Teams