How to Lead a Team When You Manage From a Different Continent
A 2014 survey found that most business leaders believe half or more of their employees will be working remotely by 2020. I suppose I’m ahead of the curve.
Two years ago, my cofounders and I launched a software company that today is headquartered in New York, about 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) from – and six hours behind – my home in Brussels, Belgium. As the sole member of the management team who is not at the main office, I also oversee a team of engineers in Slovenia and Russia.
As the remote workforce continues to grow, HR teams are adapting to support and engage teams separated by geographic boundaries. Thus far, much of the attention has been on providing support at the employee level, but we should also consider how this trend affects the development of managers, who represent the first order of influence in an engaged and motivated workforce.
Already, most organizations do not provide formal leadership coaching to managers until well into their careers. When managers and employees are remote, this hurdle seems to grow even higher. Here are some best practices I’ve gleaned through my experience as a remote cofounder and manager:
1. Use Your Face Time Wisely
Video calls are the single best way to simulate in-person meetings, even if they only reflect a small slice of the day. Given that your time is limited, leaders should be hyper-aware of the energy they are bringing to such calls. Be positive, upbeat, and engaging. In other words: Strive to make a great first impression, every single day.
We all have bad days and bad moments, but it’s important to keep in mind that how your team sees you on your daily 15-minute check-in will be how they think of you overall. Take two minutes to ask someone what their weekend plans are or how their family is. This will help you avoid transactional calls that can come off as cold or impersonal.
2. When in Doubt, Overcommunicate
Communication is the linchpin of effective remote management. You’d be surprised at how much can get lost in translation when you’re not a desk or two over or a short trip down the hall. Don’t be afraid to repeat key pieces of feedback or action items. Follow up with written meeting notes if needed.
When you manage from a completely different continent like I do, it’s also important to overcommunicate schedules and availability. For example, while I can sometimes use the time difference as an advantage – e.g., to send through feedback ahead of a team member’s workday – it can be a detriment at other times. Clearly communicate your working hours so the team knows when they can expect you to be online and available.
3. Don’t Be a Flake
This one is important. Meetings scheduled as phone calls or Google Hangouts can feel less weighty than in-person meetings, but don’t let the psychology fool you. As a remote team leader, they are all you’ve got.
Make your standing check-ins with team members sacred. (I once dialed into a stand-up video call from my own wedding!) That being said, we all have conflicts from time to time. If you have to move something, suggest a new time in the very same breath.
As another general rule, you should also be as present as possible in your established collaboration channels, whether that be Slack, GitHub, email, or a combination thereof.
Technology has cleared the way for a growing remote workforce, and more and more companies are succeeding despite being composed of teams scattered around the world. In fact, in the case of my company, we see our global footprint as an asset – not a detriment. Other companies, like Buffer, Basecamp, and Upworthy, feel the same.
If the leading driver of employee engagement is effective management, then HR teams preparing to support remote teams should view leadership coaching as a must-have, rather than a nice-to-have.
Marcus Perezi-Tormos is cofounder at Butterfly, an employee intelligence and management training software.