Challenges of Leading a Remote Team

10 min read

The pandemic’s shift to remote work has had lasting effects, with some companies opting to stay fully remote and many others creating hybrid working models that offer the flexibility employees want. These developments require leaders to become more creative with the challenges of leading a remote team.

Remote work is still new territory for many companies. In fact, only 27% of leaders say they have “a strong and thriving remote culture.” Remote culture has its positives, but it can also be a pain point, with leaders facing real challenges in leading and managing productive teams from a distance. 

Isolation, Loneliness and Lack of Communication

Aside from having a job that you enjoy, one of the best things about work is the ability to connect with and learn from colleagues, leaders and clients. For many workers, this means walking in each day, saying good morning, chatting a bit, working on projects face to face and enjoying other social interactions throughout the day. 

Working remotely can also be enjoyable because your office is right there, you’re in the comfort of your own home, and you have a better opportunity to structure for work-life balance. However, in a remote structure, many people find they miss in-person cues and connections, making communication more difficult. Loneliness isn’t limited to remote employees, but leaders of remote teams must be especially aware of feelings of isolation and loneliness within their teams. 

Managing remote teams also requires leaders to be aware of the dangers of miscommunication and too little communication. When everyone is remote and busy doing their work, it’s easy to forget to have real conversations. Standing meetings, chat platforms or email can’t substitute for full conversations.

Meanwhile, miscommunication is a constant threat, whether it’s misinterpreted emails and chat messages, poor sharing of information or lack of task clarity. All of these can cause mistakes or delays in projects, which affects progress toward overall business goals.

How to Overcome the Challenge: Regular Meetings With Your Team

Leaders who have regular team meetings have a better chance of understanding how employees are doing, clarifying tasks and goals, and hearing people’s pain points, ideas and other perspectives. Most importantly, these regular check-ins help your team to stay connected with each other, even if these interactions are over video instead of in person.

Another way to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness is through one-on-ones with your employees. These meetings help you get insight into how each person is doing on a professional and personal level, including their overall well-being. Group meetings and one-on-ones in tandem can build the foundation for open communication no matter where people are working from.

Performance Tracking and Project Management

Another challenge of managing remote teams is ensuring that productivity and performance remain at high levels, just as if your team was hybrid or in person. Doing this with a remote team requires adjusting your strategy. 

Performance tracking and project management tools can help leaders spot trends, recognize obstacles, allocate additional resources and make other adjustments. In-person and hybrid teams also use performance tracking and project management tools, but they are especially important for remote leaders who can’t physically check in on employees and don’t want to micromanage them.    

Leaders using these tools must balance the need for accountability with the need to build trust with employees. According to a study by Terminal, 34% of leaders are using technology to track productivity in remote teams, while 29% make remote employees break down how they’re spending working hours. 

Those aren’t the only ways leaders can track productivity and projects — 41% of leaders say they communicate directly with employees, while 33% establish goals and key performance indicators (KPIs). 

How to Overcome the Challenge: Cultivate a Culture of Support and Growth

Remote work requires a great deal of trust between employees and leaders. Employees need to trust that their leaders will provide them with the right resources and tools. And leaders managing remote teams need to offer the right training, resources and other support. When leaders empower employees to get the job done in their own way, they increase team trust, engagement and productivity.

Remote teams are often working from a variety of locations and time zones, making real-time communication challenging. Technology can help keep everyone aligned in numerous ways. For instance, asynchronous communication tools can keep projects on track even when people don’t work the same hours. Leaders can also track progress through dashboards, goals, KPIs and other tools. Leaders want to pursue performance tracking and project management in pursuit of shared business goals, rather than to micromanage employees or doubt their intentions. 

Tech tools are a powerful way to track performance and manage projects, but their effectiveness depends on how leaders use them. Get to know more about your tools and how they can increase employee engagement, alignment and effectiveness. 

Healthy Boundaries

The average workday before the pandemic for most professionals meant waking up, going to work, working on projects and tasks, clocking out and heading home. Overwork was still possible, but working in person offered clearer boundaries between work and personal time. Establishing such boundaries can be more challenging for your remote employees. 

In a survey conducted by Joblist, 53.1% of respondents said walling off work and personal time has become more difficult while working remotely. Having home and work in the same location also creates potential distractions, such as when people multitask by doing household chores and work simultaneously. Nearly 42% of respondents reported decreased satisfaction with life.

While remote workers have regained time lost to commuting and have new flexibility in terms of work and personal tasks, 59% said their workday is extending beyond regular work hours. For many remote workers, the change in location is less about alleviating problems with work-life balance and more about handling a new set of challenges. 

Leaders managing remote teams can set the tone through their boundaries and work-life practices, such as whether they send emails during nonworking hours, for example. Employees tend to emulate what they see as best practices within the team and organization, and if leaders aren’t setting healthy boundaries, employees are also less likely to. 

How to Overcome the Challenge: Prioritize Work-Life Balance

Many teams are practicing flexible hours these days, but there’s still usually some kind of standard about what “regular” work hours are. Leaders should strive to keep non-urgent communication within those hours. 

Yes, your employees are on flexible schedules, and they might be able to fulfill a request quickly off-hours, but that doesn’t mean that you should send them an email at 9 p.m. and expect an immediate response. 

You might think you’re sending a casual message that’s meant to be read the next day, but most people have their phones on them at all times and are regularly checking work email. They’ll see your email and assume that it requires immediate action, even when they are away from their desks. 

Unless something is truly urgent, that email or message can wait until the next day. Don’t inadvertently add stress to your employees. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey, 79% of U.S. workers experienced work-related stress within one month of being surveyed. That stress had real-life negative effects for almost 60% of those respondents, with 44% reporting physical fatigue.

Another way to reduce stress around communication is to be deliberate about communication best practices. You might designate video for meetings but a chat platform or texting for emergencies. 

As a leader, you have the power and the responsibility to assist your team in creating boundaries and balance. You set the example. Share the best ways for people to reach you — including which communication platforms and what times of day — and empower employees to do the same for each other.

Encourage your team to get their work done within working hours, acknowledge their capacity, and understand their limits. Every person has an upper limit to their productivity, and the same applies to the collective team. Make sure employees feel comfortable with communicating when they are hitting their limit, either on a particular assignment or with burnout in general.

One way leaders can reduce employee stress is in how they schedule work. While some projects have tight turnaround times, not every assignment should be a rush job. Good planning and resource allocation can minimize these instances and give employees a better cadence to their workdays. Distribute projects and tasks accordingly, and be mindful of people’s existing deadlines and other demands. 

Managing remote teams isn’t easy. But when done effectively and with intentionality, the rewards are plentiful for employees, leaders and the business. Thankfully, there are many resources available to guide you through the challenges of leading a remote team — including career coaching and mentorship, which has helped many leaders and their team members navigate the world of remote work. 

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