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How to Lead Remote Teams Effectively

Leadership

Leaders, managers and coordinators often find challenging to lead remote teams. Why? Patrick Delamaire, Adjunct Professor at HEC Paris, shares his learning gained from HEC Paris where he teaches leadership to hundreds of leaders, with a specific focus on remote management. Some of these takeaways might be useful for you especially during this current pandemic situation.

happy remote team - Girts-AdobeStock

©Girts on Adobe Stock

What are the main challenges for remote teams’ leaders?

The main challenges are to create relationship quality, to keep all team members full of propelling energy, and overcome the leaders' limiting beliefs.

Team performance is highly correlated to close and fruitful connections between its members, including the team leader. As any human being has different interpersonal needs such as inclusion, influence, and recognition, one of the main challenges with geographical distance is the fulfillment of these needs. The leaders can facilitate these processes by creating an appropriate human environment. High quality of relationships is more likely to happen with factors like trust, not judging people's identity and preferences, accepting individuals' differences, benevolence, active listening, empathy, humility, caring, self-awareness and self-acceptance. Such relationship quality cannot be reached only by sending emails, sharing articles and running business conference calls.

Another issue in remote teams is the ability to keep all team members full of propelling energy whereas they are possibly distracted by many local stimuli in their remote workplaces. Emotions are key for this, as well as feelings like desire and sense of purpose. Effective leaders know how to raise team member's motivation from a distance, and frequently create room for their team members to express negative feelings like apprehension, fears, doubts, etc. In a nutshell, emotional agility and intelligence make a real difference to lead remotely.

The leaders' limiting beliefs are also an obstacle for managing with geographical dispersion. I have seen many leaders performing better - month after month - just by transforming their own limiting beliefs into propelling ones like: "A remote team can perform better than a co-located one," or just, "I can change myself to become an excellent leader of remote teams". Same goes for cognitive biases.

What are the tools required to manage a team remotely?

Working on oneself, specific methodologies and technological tools help to lead a remote team.

For ten years, I have been observing from my teaching in executive education at HEC Paris that the leaders of the most performing remote teams mainly use the same and powerful tool: themselves. Working on oneself is probably one of the best ways to improve the ability to lead remotely. Some training programs, such as global executive coaching programs, can give excellent results because they create the conditions to allow powerful self-transformation of participants.

Working on oneself is probably one of the best ways to improve the ability to lead remotely.

Another kind of tools are the methodologies, models, and structured approaches that help to adapt behaviors and competencies, in order to face the different challenges mentioned above. Many of those are experienced in executive education programs, and are also accessible in books. 

And of course, technological tools are essential. We cannot go to the moon on foot or with a horse. Dealing with the challenges mentioned above can be easier with (a)synchronous communication and/or collaborative tools. Usually, the most useful digital systems are reliable, simple, intuitive, customizable, evolutive, secure privacy, and allow users to measure emotional states (such as non-verbal signals through video, or the motivation showed by a click on the « more » links on a text online). The Covid-19 crisis has pushed digital service providers to improve the quality of their offer for better user experience. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that the beauty of a painting does not come from the brush, but from the painter.

To what extent the Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity regarding new ways of working?

A crisis is often both a time of danger and opportunities. With Covid-19 pandemic, many people have discovered - when there are appropriate preconditions - that a dispersed team can work very well, that people can feel close to each other, that communication can be more effective (because more structured, synchronized, organized, written), and that what used to seem impossible is actually possible.

With the Covid-19 crisis, you have a unique opportunity to create new team cohesion, dynamics, engagement and empowerment.

With a significant crisis, leaders must first accept that there is no way to come back to the previous state and to deal with grief processes for themselves and their team members. Afterwards, it is a perfect time to reinvent ways of working - inside and outside the company - and business models. If leaders accept to learn from the Covid-19 lockdown experience, they can decide to include more remote work in their teams and re-organize collective and individual work. Their team members may get many other advantages such as being less tired of commuting (with home-based work), reducing their carbon footprint, improving their pro / private life balance, dropping travelling costs, designing more effective processes, etc. To make all these changes even more powerful, it is important to involve all team members to design them. It is also a unique opportunity to create new team cohesion, dynamics, engagement and empowerment.

What do you recommend to leaders who have discovered teleworking with the Covid-19 lockdown?

Firstly, I would recommend them to explore and work on the aspects mentioned above in the first two questions, and to try and experiment the creation of better relationships with colleagues and partners. People’s relationships first, the rest afterwards. In parallel, I would urge them to work on themselves in order to better understand who they really are, how they transform reality  and the image of others, how they limit themselves - and hence their team - with their beliefs and habits, and how to find their own solutions by themselves. Before re-organizing a company - or a part of it - it is usually better to re-organize ourselves first.

People’s relationships first, the rest afterwards.

Secondly, I would advise them to trust more their team members, the system, the future, and themselves, in order to brainstorm and reinvent collectively the new future - with teleworking when it is relevant. The benefits that they will get by more involving people  - and listening to their intuition - can be higher than securing 100% of event predictability and maintaining their old fears. Learning how to dare is a difficult step of the process of desired change, but is possible and impressively powerful. At HEC Paris, we strongly believe in it.

Thirdly, I would invite them to look at the world and people with optimism, to enjoy life, and to seize the day. A serene and happy leader is often more effective than a stressed and sad one!

HEC Paris Executive Education is organizing a series of free webinars to best deal with the crisis caused by the Covid-19. Professors share their analysis of the situation and give insights on how to recover from it. This article is an outcome of the webinar on leading remote teams by Patrick Delamaire. In French: Série de webinars pour préparer à la reprise post-coronavirus.  

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