Leading Remote Teams in 2021

Two business people in office on a video conference call.

By mid-2020, common words and phrases in meetings changed from “pivot,” “deep dive,” and “move the needle” to “you’re on mute,” “do you see my screen?” and “I have a bad connection” as many organizations transitioned to remote work.

And now in 2021, companies and organizations are changing and adapting to meet the shifting needs of their customers and the economic challenges presented by COVID-19. For many organizations, working from home is still a reality and will either continue indefinitely for several more months or in some hybrid version where some employees are in the office and others remote. The question many leaders are asking is: “How do I foster team effectiveness and build a strong culture without sharing the same physical location?”

Evolving and Adapting Teams

Global organizations and others have faced this challenge for years. However, for some leaders, the transition to working from home is a significant shift in the way they work. One of the keys to successfully leading remote teams is adaptability. Adaptive leadership requires a leader to constantly assess the changing needs of the team, the project, or the organization and evolve to meet those needs.

Leading virtual teams is a topic in the course “Leading Project Teams” that I teach at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies. I firmly believe leaders have the ability to thrive in this new “normal.” Study after study shows that employees who are highly engaged and have opportunities to learn and grow contribute significantly to an organization’s objectives and goals.

There are three key areas of focus for increasing team effectiveness and performance for remote teams:

Focus on the Individual

  • Set up regular one-on-one meetings with each member of your team. If you already do this, you may want to consider increasing the length or frequency while working remotely. Keep in mind that you no longer have opportunities to stop by your team members’ desks to check in or have the informal conversations normally conducted in the workplace.
  • LISTEN – ask open-ended questions during your meetings to determine how they are coping with the changes and how you can best support them.
  • Provide feedback regularly. A simple “thank you” goes a long way, even if by email, to help your team members feel appreciated when they may be feeling isolated.
  • Respond to your teams’ communications, even if a response is not requested, to let them know you have read their message.
  • Be aware of signs of stress from your team. Some employees may not want to share personal challenges they are facing due to the pandemic, such as family members who have suffered job loss or have COVID-19.
  • Be a coach and mentor for each member of your team.

Engage Your Team

  • As with the individual members of your team, you may want to increase the frequency of your team meetings so your team remains up-to-date on key information they need to know and involved in the decision-making process.
  • Increase your communication and keep the team aware of how their work is contributing to the strategic objectives of the work unit and organization. As a leader, provide the compelling direction for the team and the information they need to be successful.
  • As a team, create and document team norms related to video conferencing, timing of communication and response, etc. Be aware of family situations that may impact members of your team and the times of day they may not be available.
  • Provide opportunities for the team to connect and communicate in a fun environment. My team started a weekly themed meeting on Friday afternoons. Some themes included holiday celebrations, favorite movies, college sports, etc. Individuals came to the meeting with a background, prop, accessory, or costume and shared stories based on the theme. This provided a means to connect on topics outside of work and to get to know one another better.
  • Take advantage of any opportunity, when safe, to bring your team together face-to-face.

Support the Team

  • Work with each member of your team on their professional development plans and help them find online opportunities to add to or enhance their skills.
  • If your organization provides tuition reimbursement, now may be a great time for some individuals to pursue a certificate or degree while they are spending less time commuting.
  • Consider starting a mentoring program. This could be a great way to onboard new members of your team while working remotely so they become connected to the team and the overall organization.
  • Set up monthly “Coffee Chats” for members of your team to meet with members of other teams within the same business unit with whom they may not have regular communication.
  • And finally, provide resources for physical and mental health while working at home. Some examples include helpful hints for ergonomics for home workspaces, ways to reduce eye strain, and ways to relieve stress.

Building a sense of community can be challenging when working remotely, but a leader who motivates, inspires, influences, and coaches will serve their team well.

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