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If I Can't See Them, How Can I Lead Them?

In today's global world, remote workers are very common in organizations.  Whether in a different city or country or just on another floor or working at home, there are more remote workers in organizations today than ever before.  For many managers, managing these remote employees is more challenging than managing co-located employees.

Take the time to plan for your child's future.

All of these and many more are legitimate issues.  And, they are issues that aren't going to get resolved without some focus.

There are many keys to be successful as a remote leader of individuals and teams.  Three that are foundational are:

  1. Building and Maintaining Relationships
  2. Communicating Appropriately
  3. Focusing on Team Performance


Good leadership requires these same things.  However, when remote, these basics can be a bit more challenging.

Building and Maintaining Relationships
The first key to focus on is building and maintaining relationships.  Relationships need to be built and maintained between you, the leader and each team member as well as among team members.  When you worked side-by-side with colleagues, you got to know each other almost without realizing it.  You would have a cup of coffee or lunch together.  Or, you would notice a picture of someone's children on their desk and ask about them.  You didn't think about building relationships -- you just did it.

In the remote environment, those casual encounters are gone and so are the body language and facial clues we’ve depended on to help us get to know and understand each other.  So, now you have to be deliberate about remote relationship building.   This has to be a daily priority because it's keeping you and your employees from being as productive as you all need to be.

Here are a few ideas on how to build relationships with remote colleagues:

  1. If you can have a face-to-face meeting to get to know one another, do it.
    • Make relationship building the majority of the agenda.  All of the current literature on remote work speaks of the pay off of face-to-face meetings -- particularly early in the relationship.
  2. Use conference calls to build relationships. 
    • Use the first 10 minutes of the agenda for relationship building.  Have each person share things like:  what they did this weekend, what challenges they have for the week, something they are proud of, a thank you to someone on the call, etc.  Use your creativity.
  3. Schedule regular one-on-one phone calls. 
    • Include time to talk about something other than the work.
  4. Remember special occasions. 
    • Remembering an employee's business anniversary date or their birthday demonstrated that you care.  Just be careful -- if you recognize something special for one employee, you need to do it for all.  Set up a system so you don't forget!
  5. Meet each commitment you make to an employee.
    • If you promise to provide some information or do something by a particular date, do it.  It's very easy to break trust by missing a commitment with any of your employees.  Trust is very difficult to build when you don't interact regularly with your employee, so each opportunity to build trust is critical.

To be successful working remotely, put relationship building and maintenance on your ToDo list and check-in with yourself weekly.  Ask yourself if you are building the relationships you need and seeing the results you want.  If you are, congratulate yourself.  If you aren't, refocus and make it happen!

Communicating Appropriately
Another key strategy for building relationships and teamwork is to know each individual's communication preferences. Ask:

  1. What's the best way to contact you? (e-mail, phone, instant messaging)
  2. What's your preferred telephone for phone calls?  (cell, land line)
  3. Where do you like to receive voice mail messages?  (cell, land line)
  4. How should I contact you when an issue or situation is urgent?

You may have other questions as well.  If you have a team, have everyone share this information with each other.  It will speed up communication for everyone.

All of these strategies require communication.  As you decide how to communicate with your remote employees, consider the following pros and cons as .


It's quick.

You have documentation.


There is no opportunity for input from the employee.

Unclear writing can confuse issues.

People are inundated with e-mail and they may not

See your note.


It's quick.

They can hear the tone of your voice.


There is no opportunity for input from the employee.

It must be short.

There is no documentation.

You can participate in full two-way communication.
It may require money to travel.

Team Development
Many people are familiar with the four stages of team development, first put forth by Bruce Tuckman and modified and reinforced over the years by many others.  This model provides an excellent structure for looking at the process of developing teams and teamwork.  When a team is remote, many aspects of the stages are amplified or diminished. 

The Forming Stage
The Forming stage builds a foundation for the team. Teams that spend productive time in this stage find they can come back to it when they get stuck or are faced with a major change. Investing time in this stage helps teams move forward.

For remote teams, if they discuss the key getting started questions (who are we, why are we here, what are our roles, etc.), they can increase their odds of moving quickly through the stages to high performance.  When remote teams don't meet, they also frequently skip discussing these important issues, and doom themselves to frustration and miscommunication by making assumptions.

The Storming Stage
The Storming stage is where teams spend most of their energy.  Conflicts around the work as well as relationships cause teams to struggle.

When conflict goes undetected or isn't dealt with, it often gets worse.  It can be easy for remote teams to not deal with conflict.  Assessing the situation can be difficult due to infrequent conversation and a lack of clues from body language.  So, in remote teams, often by time the conflict is identified, it has often escalated into a much bigger issue than it was originally.  Regular communication helps you identify when conflict may be brewing.

The Norming Stage
Norming is a stage of productivity. It also is a stage where a team can propel forward into high performance or, if not tended to, can slide back into conflict and frustration. 

It's easy for remote teams to make assumptions that everything is all right and stop communicating as frequently as they did in the previous stages.  As new situations arise, new conflict can emerge and drag the team back into storming.

The Performing Stage
Performing is the stage of high performance and high satisfaction.  Synergistic results are common.  Performing teams generally don't find remoteness to be a concern or limiting factor.  Their teamwork transcends the concerns of distance and time.

The leader's role is critical for remote teams.  He or she needs to have a relationship with each member.  The remote leader also needs to shift his or her role as the team moves through the stages.  The need for "hands on" and direction is much stronger in the first two stages just as it is for co-located teams.  And for the later stages, the leader needs to focus on empowering the team and getting out of the way.

So, to increase your effectiveness and success as a remote leader, be deliberate about building relationships, identify people's communication preferences and use available vehicles appropriately, and lead your team deliberately through the stages of development.  Once you are successful in these areas, you will find it easier to take on delegation, measuring performance and the other areas you are currently frustrated.  Take the time -- it will pay off in increased morale and improved performance.

© Susan K. Gerke. All Rights Reserved. Susan K. Gerke is the president of Gerke Consulting & Development.  You can visit her web site at

 Susan Gerke
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