5 Tips for Successful Long Distance Leadership

It makes a big difference when we can sit together in person – have coffee, brainstorm together and share the latest in our lives. What you do gives me signals of what you are thinking – the smile, eye roll, crossed arms or the multi-tasking.

When we also work as a team and rarely see each other, it just got harder.

According to a 2010 survey by RW3, 80 percent of corporate managers work virtually at least part of the time. But a surprising proportion of virtual team members — 40 percent — believe their groups are underperforming. Let’s accept that most managers believe it is harder to manage a virtual team, but the bigger question is if you do – what can you do to make it work.

Here are a few tips for increasing the connection and engagement with a virtual team:

  1. Replace hallway conversation: On virtual teams, you don’t have time for the informal chat at the coffee bar or to pop into someone’s cubicle for a quick question. This is important for a fast work question, but also to ask about the new baby or how Dad is recovering from the surgery. These informals help us feel part of a team. Find ways for fast check-ins through texting or Skype – or a quick phone call just to ask how things are going. Five minutes is fine – but shows you are interested and care. Plus, if they have any issues they will most likely raise them.
  2. Rely on structure as your safety net: Because the informal chats are harder, have standing times for one to one calls and team chats. Plus, build in some time for some personal chatter that helps the team feel connected. This structure helps your team feel there is a rhythm to connecting with the bigger team and they can count on it.
  3. Use creative ways to connect: One challenge for virtual teams is feeling isolated from the center or if working alone, from the rest of the team. This is magnified if workers work from a home office. I have seen leaders have a standing virtual lunch date or ask team members to send in photos to share on team calls.  Get creative. These small things help team members feel connected and important as an individual.
  4. Make technology your friend:  Technology can make a huge difference for virtual teams. Use Join.me as a way to share materials on a call if you don’t have a standard tool already in place. Use Shutterfly to create folders for team members to share a few pictures. Yammer is a great way to create your own internal social media site that can only be accessed by your team. Our team encourages everyone to be on Skype for instant messaging so that it’s easier to have more spontaneous conversation on work or just to ask how things are going. And, of course, use Skype for a video call so you can see each other face to face.  It makes a huge difference (if you aren’t in your pajamas).
  5. Listen better: As a virtual leader, you have to listen for the subtle cues for confusion, disagreement, or conflict. When you can’t see faces or the in person interactions, your listening skills need to be more advanced. Was there silence after you explained the new process? Is the new team member asking questions that her onboarding contact should have addressed? Why is one team member extra quiet? If you listen more, you will know when you need to get more personally involved.

Virtual leadership can work. It is becoming the norm. But, it does take a different set of skills and techniques from leading a team that sits down the hall. With smart technology, good listening skills and remembering the fun – you can make long distance relationships work!

Patti Johnson the CEO and founder of PeopleResults.  Follow her @pattibjohnson or her company @people_results on Twitter.