If you’re one of the tens of thousands of managers now leading a fully remote team, many of your people likely felt a sense of excitement with the freedom of going virtual. As the weeks go by, that initial excitement often gives way to anxiety as the pressure of meeting deadlines and goals without being face-to-face sinks in. That isn’t unusual as many people are more comfortable resolving issues or making tough decisions in a conference room or over a coffee.
As you put your tools and processes in place and establish a work rhythm, be prepared to address the anxieties that come with people trying to figure out how to meet their goals across technology, time zones, and perhaps cultures. Dealing with tech issues and coordinating calendars is one thing. Keeping people motivated and relationships healthy at a distance while under stressful conditions can be quite another. The good news is that many organizations have been operating with remote teams for many years, and a lot of the people leading those teams are pretty good at it. I’ve worked with quite a few of them and have learned some essential lessons from what they do when leading their teams, especially under challenging conditions.
Extreme Remote Leadership
Dealing with tech issues and coordinating calendars is one thing. Keeping people motivated and relationships healthy at a distance while under stressful conditions can be quite another.
He knew that he needed to be clear about improving performance but chose to be patient while focusing on shared-leadership and trust-building.
I met Israel in 2013 when he relocated to Singapore to join my group and take on the challenge of fixing a crucial part of our division’s business in Asia. His responsibility spanned all of Asia-Pacific including Japan, China, Korea, India, South East Asia, and Australia/New Zealand. Those are some of the most diverse cultures in the world dispersed across ten countries and eight time zones. Increasing the complexity of the job ahead was a history of relationship issues that came from the country teams’ experiences with previous regional HQ people. That lack of trust was causing a lot of tension and resistance to change. Being new to Asia, and under pressure to quickly improve profitability, within a couple of months, Israel’s stress levels were climbing fast. He was tempted to take a top-down approach and demand immediate changes that would improve margins. We discussed the options and their pros and cons at length, and eventually, he wisely decided to avoid the heavy-handed approach others had taken in the past. He knew that he needed to be clear about improving performance but chose to be patient while focusing on shared-leadership and trust-building.
Israel combined periodic in-country meetings with many hours on video calls with each country leader discussing the purpose of this new team, the goals, and why they were critical to the business. He explained the values – the rules by which they would operate – that he believed were essential for the team to be successful. Most importantly, Israel asked each of them for feedback and for their ideas on reaching those goals and listened intently to their suggestions. In parallel, he helped each leader gather feedback from their own team to understand what people expected versus what they were experiencing – the heart of creating trust. Everyone worked together to identify actions to close the gaps, reviewing progress every other week.
Developing trust is vital for every team, but is especially critical for remote teams. With low trust, people are less committed, the potential for misunderstanding skyrockets, and people adopt their ‘Zoom personalities’ on calls – after the polite wrap-up, they go about their business as though the call never happened.
In Israel’s case, the patience and effort to build trust paid off. As trust developed, people’s stress and concerns rapidly dropped. Innovative ideas to solve some vexing issues flourished, and the speed of implementation increased. In less than 18 months, the business results dramatically improved, and the team leader for each country felt that their teams were continuously getting better.
The Essential Ingredient
- They establish clear team values then inspire people to use those values every day as they work together, ensuring that everyone sees them as an essential part of the team.
- They have the courage to seek feedback by asking team members about their expectations of themselves and their teammates and focus on understanding gaps versus their experience.
- They create trust by coaching their team to take ownership of closing gaps between what people expect and what they experience – and making sure that people follow through on those actions.
It’s what we expect of people versus what we experience that grows or diminishes trust, and a team’s level of trust reflects the confidence and positive expectations that teammates have of each other and their team leader. Remote teams thrive by developing and sustaining trust, which is why it is the essential ingredient in reducing anxiety while improving performance. Begin adopting the behaviors of those experienced remote leaders tomorrow. You’ll not only find it to be the remedy for remote performance anxiety, you’ll ensure that your team is always getting better.