How to Be a Great Remote Leader: Overcome Challenges and Inspire Your Team
It's hard enough to motivate and inspire a team – especially in tough times.
But it can seem almost impossible when you have to do it from behind a computer screen, many miles away from everyone involved.
Maintaining the same high-performance standard as an in-person leader is a challenge. Still, it's crucial for the success and morale of your team.
So, how do you become a remote leader that people actually listen to? The answer lies in having a multi-faceted approach to connection and communication.
Let's look at how to create a culture of trust, stay connected with your team, and fire up the passions of your followers – nearby or far away.
💼 What is remote leadership?
Remote leadership means leading a team that's spread over different physical locations. It's the process of managing employees and teams remotely – both in the administrative sense and the inspirational sense.
Leadership is about guiding people toward a common goal and inspiring them with the motivation to achieve it.
Can you do that remotely? Absolutely.
Leadership isn't constrained to a particular office or workspace. It just takes a few tweaks to your standard in-person approach.
Remote leadership is the same as any other leadership: it's enabled by technology but not defined by it. And to make it work, you need an even stronger focus on people and culture than usual.
Since 2020's massive shift to remote work – followed by the emergence of a hybrid work model – the role of people managers has evolved. They have to build closer connections with their employees than before to make up for the lack of face time.
💡 We've spotted more patterns you can discover in our hybrid and remote work trends article.
🤯 8 Specific remote leadership challenges
Leading from a distance isn't easy.
Here are some hurdles remote leaders often run into (with hints on how to overcome them).
Rethinking systems and implementing new tools & processes
It's essential to have systems and tools that help keep your team connected, organized, and productive.
But implementing new tools and processes can be particularly challenging for managers new to remote work. So you should research well about the tools and processes you will use for your business.
For instance, imagine you're overseeing a team of remote accountants. General project management tools might cover the basics, but they're not tailored for the nuances of an accounting firm's workflow. That's where accounting project management software comes into play. These specialized tools are designed with the exact features needed to streamline and enhance the way remote accounting teams work on their projects. So, it pays off to invest time in researching the right tool specifically crafted for your accounting needs.
Tip: Finding the right tools and processes may require trial and error, but once you find what works for your team, stick with it.
Building relationships between team members
Building a defined, strong team culture is always a business priority, but it's even more critical in remote work.
The lack of physical proximity can make it harder for your team to feel connected, so it's crucial to plan regular check-ins and team-building activities.
Assessing employee performance
It can be harder to accurately assess their work without the ability to see firsthand how your employees are performing.
Tip: Focus on setting clear expectations and goals and ongoing performance check-ins to ensure everyone is on track and receiving the support they need.
💡 Get inspired by 35 examples of SMART goals for employees.
Preventing burnout and overwhelm
Remote work can blur the boundaries between work and personal life, making it easier for employees to feel burnt out or overwhelmed.
Tip: As a remote leader, check in regularly with your team and ensure they have everything they need to succeed – including breaks and time off.
Dealing with employees' social isolation
Remote work can also lead to feelings of social isolation, especially for introverted employees.
So remote leaders need to make an effort to connect with their team on a personal level and create opportunities for team bonding. Even if it's just virtual happy hours or fun activities.
Tip: Zavvy's "Conversations that Matter" is a great program to help employees and their leaders connect. You can check it out for yourself for free.
Without the ability to easily collaborate and communicate face-to-face, remote work can lead to silos and a lack of cross-team communication. As a remote leader, you need to proactively encourage collaboration and communication between team members and other departments.
Overcoming the lack of face-to-face supervision and involvement
As a remote leader, it can be harder to stay on top of day-to-day tasks and have as much oversight as you do in an office setting.
It's essential to communicate expectations, set up regular check-ins, and trust that your team can manage their work autonomously.
Dealing with a lack of access to information or resources
In a remote work setting, it may be harder for employees to access the necessary information and resources.
As a remote leader, you need systems in place for employees to easily access what they need and provide support and guidance when needed.
💪 4 Effective remote leadership styles for virtual leaders
Unique personality types bring a variety of traits to leadership roles.
It'd be rather dull if everyone were the same, but different leadership styles are appropriate for different business types.
Here's how some of them can play out in a remote environment.
A participative leadership style means involving your team in decision-making, creating a sense of ownership and responsibility.
In a remote setting, managers can enable participation with online tools such as polls or surveys to gather input from team members or by regularly checking in with them for feedback on ongoing projects.
Transformational leadership is all about inspiring and motivating your team by setting a clear vision and motivating them to work towards it.
As a remote leader, you can inspire and motivate via video conferencing or virtual meetings to communicate your vision.
You'll need to talk frankly to ensure everyone shares your common goal.
Tip: Transformative leaders should pay close attention to onboarding new hires so they can understand the organization's vision early.
A servant leader focuses on putting the needs of their team above all else.
In a remote setting, a servant leader would regularly check in with their team to see if they have all the resources and support they need and address any issues that may arise.
As the name suggests, a situational style relies on tailoring your approach to fit the unique needs and abilities of each individual on your team.
In a remote setting, a situational leader would adjust communication methods for introverts or extroverts and provide different levels of guidance and support depending on each employee's capabilities.
🌟 12 Essential qualities for an effective remote leader
In addition to having a strongly defined leadership style, certain behaviors and traits can make a remote leader stand out.
Without physical proximity, remote leaders can find it harder to earn their team's trust. They should be open and transparent and follow up on promises to make this happen.
Without the hints given by body language or tone, remote communication can easily be misunderstood. Therefore, remote leaders should provide clear instructions and expectations and allow team members to ask questions or clarify any confusion.
Learns and observes
Remote leaders have less direct observation of their team's progress and performance than in-office managers. So they'll have to check in a bit more than usual and encourage employees to self-reflect.
Getting people to join in more with collaborative projects to see how they do things is also useful.
Organizes and plans carefully
Without the structure of an office setting, remote leaders need to have strong organizational skills and project-planning abilities. Plus, they must create systems and structures for remote team collaboration and set goals and deadlines.
Sets specific goals and outcomes
As in a traditional office setting, remote leaders need to set clear expectations and goals. This means defining what success looks like and providing the necessary support and resources for team members to reach those goals.
💡 But how about setting goals for the leaders? Check out our leadership SMART goal examples to see how to set goals for your leaders.
Remote leaders need to be adaptable and able to problem-solve in the face of difficulties. Leaders could have to:
- Troubleshoot tech issues.
- Find new ways to keep team morale high during company restructuring.
- Or even give emotional support during tough times.
Keeps meetings on track
Without the usual in-person body language and tone clues, remote meetings can easily stray off-topic or become unproductive. As a remote leader, it's important to keep meetings organized, stay on track with agenda items, and ensure that each meeting has a clear purpose and desired outcome.
Whether through virtual team-building activities or personal check-ins, remote leaders need to keep their teams motivated and engaged in their work.
One key ingredient to this is having fun. Letting your team's personality shine through a screen and sharing a laugh can build unity while working through challenges.
Brings people together
Remote leaders need to bring employees together and make them feel like a cohesive team, even when scattered across different time zones.
Here are some examples of activities for bringing people together:
- Creating virtual spaces for team bonding and communication.
- Making sure everyone feels included and valued, despite not being physically present in the room.
- Or even implementing mentorship programs to build relationships across hierarchy levels.
Respects cultural sensitivities
Remote teams may have diverse backgrounds and cultures, and remote leaders need to be respectful and sensitive to these differences. They should put the effort in to adjust communication styles and be open to feedback on improving inclusivity.
Promotes open feedback
Without the opportunity for casual office conversations, remote leaders need to actively promote an environment where team members feel comfortable giving and receiving constructive feedback. This involves soliciting opinions from throughout the company (360-degree assessments are great for this) and being receptive and willing to make changes based on that feedback.
Remote leaders need to show empathy toward the unique challenges that come with remote work, such as feeling isolated or struggling with technical difficulties. Showing a bit of understanding towards those struggling with work or even difficult life events can go a long way in relationship-building.
⚒️ 3 Ways to build remote leadership competencies
People in leadership roles need core competencies to perform at their best level and get the best out of their team members.
While your leaders already display critical skills, they can also benefit from competence development.
When distance is involved, it's imperative to upgrade soft skills like communication, coaching ability, strategic planning, and promoting collaboration.
So here are three ways you can enable your leaders to improve their competencies remotely continually.
Onboard your leaders
Leaders need to be able to hit the ground running, especially as it's not immediately easy for them to make introductions to the group.
So onboarding is a big part of building relationships early on and getting them settled into the company's culture and communication style.
Zavvy can help guide new leaders through this process.
Freeletics, Europe's number 1 fitness app, used our platform to automatically enroll new people managers into an onboarding program as soon as receiving a promotion.
Why not ask existing managers to run through the onboarding for new starters, too?
Even if they skip the admin parts, they might benefit from knowing how their colleagues receive training to work alongside them.
Train skills continuously
Whether brand new or ten years into the job, leaders need to upgrade and improve their role-specific skills to perform at their best.
These are often technical skills and industry specialisms rather than competencies. But in leadership, there's usually a crossover between the two.
Remote training has come a long way in the last few years, with e-learning now an effective and enjoyable process when done correctly. Whether it's a five-minute micro-learning session at the start of the day, or a year-long qualification, you can do it all online.
Training should be one part of an overall leadership development plan. It can improve a leader's skills in a wide range of areas.
💡 For more ideas of lessons that'll positively impact your business, browse our leadership training topics.
And if you don't know where to start when sending them on a development journey, check out our leadership training template. You'll get a free, easy-to-use document to help you plan and budget leadership development.
Social learning: Leadership roundtables
Leaders sometimes have to do things alone, and they can feel isolated when leading remotely. They can't wander over to another manager's desk and ask for advice on dealing with an unmotivated worker, for example.
So regular, organized check-ins with other leaders are a must to stay sane, connected, and informed.
This is another part of leadership that Freeletics are particularly good at. Their 'People Manager Roundtables' are regular meetings where managers discuss their leadership challenges and successes.
Sharing tips and discussing strategies with each other is a great way for company leaders to stay at the top of their game. Using Zavvy, they can prepare and run each session to a schedule every six weeks.
🤝 How to craft a culture of proactive connection
One of the major challenges of remote leadership is staying connected. The best way to remedy this is to be proactive.
Despite relying on platforms to organize much of our communication – which sometimes can be a blessing – staying informed requires some good old-fashioned human effort.
Wayne Turmel of the Remote Leadership Institute explains:
"If you accept the benefits of working remotely, you have a responsibility – to your employer, your teammates, and yourself – to be informed, connected, and aware."
In the course of a remote working week, you can be in the dark about all sorts of important developments.
You might not get to hear what's happening in other departments or teams.
While some things might make it into announcements, others you'd typically find out through small talk around the office.
So to avoid this, Wayne says, we need to put in the effort and reach out:
"When we work remotely, we can get very self-satisfied. We choose to 'ignore office politics,' but then we complain that we don't know what's going on in our company, or we didn't hear about this problem that suddenly impacts our work odds are, it was in all those company newsletters that you deleted without reading.
To say 'nobody told me,' may be true, but it's also an excuse."
This doesn't necessarily mean you have to take on a load of extra work. Just be proactive and plan your intra-company outreach.
For example, plan 30 minutes twice a month to send emails, messages, and invites to catch up with others in the company.
Tip: Include also people you don't have a close working relationship with. They can sometimes be your most useful contacts.
➡️ Build an outstanding leadership team with Zavvy
Enabling inspiration from a distance is only possible with the right people in place. The best way to turn your managers into leaders is to give them the tools and opportunities they need to thrive.
Zavvy automates the boring admin from this process, freeing you to empower the next generation of leaders within your company.
Use our manager training platform to help your leaders make the most of the journey to leadership.
With innovative training methods, automated meeting scheduling, and customizable training pathways, it's got everything a forward-facing organization could want.
See it all in action in a free 30 minutes demo.