How managers can successfully lead remote teams

With working from home here to stay for the foreseeable future, Jeya Thiruchelvam offers tips on how to be a good leader

Remote working has boomed this year because of coronavirus, and attitudes to flexible working are changing dramatically. However, employers need to be aware of the challenges of managing a remote team to ensure flexible working is a success. 

New research from XpertHR shows that more than half (54.7 per cent) of businesses are planning to increase the amount of permanent home working in their organisation. Also, 35.1 per cent of firms that did not use home working before the pandemic plan to now have at least some permanent home working arrangements.

With government guidance announced on 22 September once again recommending that employees should work from home if they can, many organisations are having to rethink their return to the office plans. For many, home working could continue into the summer 2021 and, in XpertHR’s research, just under a quarter of organisations said that any return to the workplace would be based on employee choice.

A recent study by the CIPD, funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, found that an improved quality of life for employees, along with a boost in productivity, is fuelling an “unprecedented” rise in remote working.

However, the research also highlights the potential pitfalls, with the mental wellbeing of staff singled out as a concern by almost half (47 per cent) of employers, alongside problems with staff interaction (36 per cent) and difficulties managing home workers (33 per cent).

To address these problems and help employers become more confident in managing remote workers, XpertHR has created a guide, Leading a flexible working team. This includes the following key recommendations for managers:

Plan new working arrangements carefully

Any new working arrangements should be carefully planned, with the needs of both the business and employees in mind. For flexible working to be a success, managers need to be supportive, genuinely open to this way of working, and have measures in place to overcome any challenges.  

Make sure managers have the right skills

The skills needed to lead a team of people working flexibly are the same as those needed to lead an office-based team. However, there is an important caveat: managers need to be more skilled at communicating, relationship building, coaching and managing by results.

Teach managers to let go

Often managers find it uncomfortable ‘letting go’, but this is essential. They need to trust their team will work diligently towards their objectives, without controlling every aspect of how they work. Trusting their team to work conscientiously when they cannot see them is fundamental to the success of flexible working.

Ensure good communication and engagement 

Managers must make time for regular catch-ups with employees and know them well enough to recognise if they might be struggling, but reluctant to admit it. This is key to looking after their team’s mental wellbeing and spotting early signs that they may need more support. Managers also need to signpost the support available for mental health such as EAPs or other solutions.

Employees also need to know that it’s OK to take time away from their desks, and managers should encourage communication with their colleagues, such as having a virtual coffee or Friday afternoon drinks, which can help people to engage, maintain friendships and connect with their colleagues.

Set objectives to measure performance 

Managing employee performance when they are working remotely can be a challenge. Measuring an individual's performance by results and not by their presence in the workplace or the number of hours they work is the best way to ensure that flexible working arrangements succeed. To assess an individual's performance by their output, managers must conduct a thorough objective-setting process. 

Give constructive feedback

Finally, managers need to make a point of recognising good progress and outcomes because this is vital to maintaining and boosting motivation. Equally, if there are issues with the progress or outcomes that a particular individual is achieving, managers must feed this back promptly.

The reality is that flexible working is here to stay. Leading a flexible team can be challenging but if managers follow these guidelines and ensure they communicate with staff and put their trust in them, they will not go far wrong. 

Jeya Thiruchelvam is managing editor for employment law at XpertHR