5 Mistakes To Avoid When Leading Remote Teams
If you’re an ambitious business leader, chances are, you’ve considered opening a remote location. The technological leaps over the last 20 years have made leading a remote location more manageable now than it has ever been. But don’t mistake that for thinking it’s easy.
For anyone that has attempted this, or is currently doing it, you know exactly what I mean. I’ve lead distributed teams for a long time; some just a few hours drive away, others very long flights away. In the 10 years that I’ve been involved in these types of teams, I’ve learned a few things.
If you avoid these mistakes, you’ll be able to ensure your remote location grows fast and achieves the results you want it to:
1. Don’t mistake Facetime for face time
Video calls are great. It feels way more like you’re there than a regular phone call. People are more engaged and you’ll be able to get a lot more done. They’re so good that my daughter, who’s almost two, tried to play tag with her Grandad who’s in Australia while on a video call. She struggles to understand they’re only on the phone.
That being said, video calls don’t replace the real thing. You miss a lot of body language queues and some tone (here are some details on why this matters). On video calls, you also miss all the informal stuff that happens between meetings, which leads to a stronger bond, like chatting about whatever sport is interesting while you’re typing that boring email. You can get a lot done by video call, but you still need to be there in person. Make time at least once a quarter, but more often is better.
2. Don’t only visit with bad news
I have a friend who only calls me when he needs something. I still like the guy, but I’d like him more if he called me for something other than a favour.
The remote location equivalent of that friend is the leader who only shows up when someone needs to get fired or things aren’t going well. If you need some more convincing, check out this article on bias through association.
Plan enough trips that you’ll be able to go when times are good. It’ll be great for your relationships and it will be good for you. If you can associate some positive emotion with visiting your remote locations, you’ll be far more likely to give it the attention it needs to thrive.
3. Don’t ignore a little smoke
My high school english teacher introduced me to the concept of lenses in literary criticism (learn more about that here). It’s a concept that I often apply in business. When you’re in close proximity to your operations, you catch a lot of little things. Whether it’s a weird conversation you overheard, an unhappy moment for a frontline employee, or any number of other little queues that signal something isn’t quite right in your business, you get them all.
To me, this angle of perceiving your business is a lense. When the location is remote, you’re working with a different lense and you miss most of these.
I always assume that things are either way better or way worse than they appear to be in a remote location. For example, if I hear something is happening, I assume it’s probably happened three other times before. Which means, if I catch wind of something that isn’t quite right (e.g. a manager who isn’t taking great care of their people), I will investigate it more thoroughly and more quickly than I would in a location within close proximity.
4. Don’t hire inexperienced leaders
I’m all for hiring from within, hiring for will not skill, et cetera. However, through personal experience (cycling through three General Managers in my franchise and witnessing this in my clients’ businesses), I can tell you that an inexperienced leader at the head of a remote team is a HUGE risk. I can also tell you the four non-negotiable traits in a GM, if you’re interested.
Leadership is a delicate skill set. There are a lot of small things that make a huge difference to your outcomes as a leader. Important skills like choosing the right words, having quality 1-to-1 meetings, responding to feedback from a team member, how you carry yourself around the office, and understanding the culture and how to get decisions made are all tough to learn on a video call.
I think one of the most important things for a new leader is proximity to quality senior leaders. That way, they can learn from observing the things experienced leaders innately do. In a remote location, this just won’t happen. It’ll be bad for the new leader, bad for the business, and bad for the team.
5. Don’t forget, it’s lonely out there
This is especially true for the person at the top of your remote business. They’re separated both physically and mentally from the culture you have around you everyday. Deliberately building a remote culture that’s similar to your original one is important. The values should stay the same, the vision is the same, and the culture is very similar. Although it will never be a carbon copy of your original business, you want it to be authentic.
To help you achieve this, make sure you over-communicate. Telling your remote team about all the ‘little things’ will help ensure they don’t feel left out. In the absence of information, people generally assume the worst. In this context, that means they’ll assume you either don’t care enough to tell them, don’t trust them, or are hiding things from them. None of which are good for the business.
Successfully leading remote teams
When executing your ambitious vision, it’s inevitable that you’ll have a remote location or remote workers at some point. Don’t let this article scare you off, it can be great. One of my favourite leaders lived in Toronto while I was in Brisbane, Australia; one of my favourite team members lived in Victoria, BC while I was in Vancouver, BC; my best Administrator right now is in the Philippines. You can build great relationships–great remote businesses–and have awesome results. It’s simply different (and a little more difficult) than when you’re in the same building.
My final word of advice: Go in with your eyes wide open and be prepared to make some mistakes that will cost you money.