Building a team of employees who share a vision and enthusiasm for a project or a business has its challenges. But when that team is spread across the country or around the globe, the task can feel even more difficult.
“The biggest difference between leading a local team and leading a remote team is that you don't have the 'watercooler factor' with remote workers," said Deb Boelkes, an entrepreneur, business development leader and author of "The WOW Factor Workplace: How to Create a Best Place to Work Culture." “When you're not in the same place, informal communication doesn't happen organically."
The global marketplace requires leaders to develop long-distance relationships, said Ngan Nguyen, founder and CEO of Cintamani Group, an executive coaching and consulting firm, and author of "Self-Defined Success: You Have Everything It Takes."
“You need people with expertise in the local culture to build teams on the ground in different markets," said Nguyen. “In some ways, building these relationships with remote teams is like a romantic long-distance relationship. You have to be careful to recognize that you can't always pick up on nonverbal communication the way you do in person."
Globally, the number of remote workers has increased by 115 percent over the past decade, according to a study by human resources advisory firm Future Workplace, and Virgin Pulse, a human resources technology company. The study found that one-third of employees around the world always or often work remotely.
During her years of evaluating employee-client satisfaction, Boelkes found that the No. 1 complaint is always lack of communication.
“That becomes an even bigger issue for remote teams because you never see each other for casual conversations that might help you pick up on if someone is unhappy or doesn't understand something," she said.
Eighty percent of the workers surveyed by Future Workplace who said they would have better relationships if their team communicated with them more often work remotely. The study found that two-thirds of remote workers aren't engaged and over a third never get any face time with their team, yet more than 40 percent said in-person meetings would help build deeper relationships.
“Leaders of remote teams should anticipate spending more time and energy to keep their employees engaged and motivated," said Nguyen.
The most successful leaders, said Nguyen, truly care about their employees and want to include them in the business.
“Leaders who think about their team members often and share updates help their employees feel included in all aspects of the business rather than feeling like they're in a transactional relationship," said Nguyen. “Leaders should be role models for building relationships and start calls with questions about employees' families and personal life. People appreciate that effort, especially if someone remembers a detail about their life."
A study by professors at Boston College and Arizona State University found that virtual workers are more likely to feel isolated from their organization and from their coworkers.
The professors suggested that managers find ways to encourage relationships among their employees even when they are working thousands of miles of apart. Setting aside a few minutes during a conference call so that coworkers can chat and learn about each other can make it easier for them to interact about business.
Some managers in the study said that they set up “office hours" for their employees when they traveled to different offices so that other employees could drop in and meet them in person. Whenever an in-person team meeting is arranged, the professors suggested organizing a structured relationship-building session as well as unstructured time for remote workers and leaders to develop personal relationships.
Nguyen and Boelkes recommend that leaders of remote teams try some of these techniques to build trust, encourage collaboration and motivate their employees:
Hire carefully: During the hiring process, it's important to ask potential employees if they have worked remotely before, said Boelkes.
“Ask them how they will manage the logistics and explain how you plan to hold them accountable for their work," said Boelkes. “This is the time to establish a two-way agreement between the leader and the team member."
Set expectations: Leaders need to clearly explain how often they expect updates and how frequently they expect their employees to communicate with them, said Nguyen. Establishing expected work hours and other details in writing upfront eliminates the need to micromanage with constant check-ins later.
“What's obvious to employers may not be obvious to everyone else," said Nguyen. “Leaders need to be as clear as possible in all of their communications."
Make yourself accessible: Many remote employees and leaders like to have a standing weekly call, said Boelkes.
“In addition, leaders should make sure individuals know they're accessible during specific hours or always by cell phone in an emergency," said Boelkes. “This is really important if workers face time zone challenges for communicating."
Following through and getting back to people quickly builds trust among employees, she said.
“If possible, it's smart to schedule one-on-one calls each week and create a group chat system so that team members can reach you and collaborate with others," said Boelkes.
Arrange an in-person meeting: An annual meeting or at least one in-person meeting to kick off large projects is optimal, said Nguyen. An informal meeting allows people to get to know each other and pick up on cues they may otherwise miss, she said.
“You don't need to fly in just for the sake of meeting someone in person, but an annual group gathering allows everyone a chance to make connections," said Nguyen.
Be respectful of employees: Leaders need to understand that their employees have different schedules, particularly if they are in different time zones.
“Managers need to commit to respect their employees' work hours and not send emails at night and on weekends unless it's critical," said Boelkes.
Ask for feedback: “A leader should ask each team member for an occasional call just to get feedback on how the relationship is working," said Nguyen. “They should ask if they want or more less communication and for specific feedback on projects."
Whether they're communicating by video, phone or email, leaders of remote teams need to flexible.
“Leaders need to learn to read between the lines when they communicate with their employees," said Nguyen. “The more physical separation there is, the more sensitivity is required of the leader."
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