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Communication Techniques for Leading Remote Teams

How and how much you talk will determine how well you fare in the virtual economy

Talking and smiling a lot was not always natural for me. I have been managing teams across cities and countries for 15 years, and it’s time to change. A masters thesis in virtual work leadership is propelling me to adopt new communication techniques in leading remote teams.


Arguments for and Against Remote Work

As the use of virtual teams grows in today’s work world, so do the resources for how to operate and work in remote teams. You can turn to discussions, articles, and podcasts to hear the arguments for and against remote work.

Arguments for remote work

  • You get work-life balance because you eliminate lengthy commute times.
  • You have a high quality of life because you can walk your dog and get back to your work within minutes.
  • You are more loyal to the company because remote work is offered to you.
  • Companies save money on less need for office space.

Arguments against remote work

  • There’s no work-life balance because you work more hours.
  • Your quality of life drops because your spouse, partner, children can’t spend time with you when you’re often working.
  • You disengage because you have limited people connections with your colleagues.
  • Companies who prioritize cost savings over employee wellness are bad.

My viewpoint is that, whether you’re for or against remote work, you have to understand it and prepare for it.


How To Prepare for a World of Remote Work Teams

Preparation is necessary because remote work has grown 140% from 2005 to 2019.

I compare this to how marketing has entered our social spaces like Facebook and Instagram. For years, social networks were casual places for personal connections. Now, they are a forum for businesses to provide customer support and close sales. My company’s clients frequent our Facebook groups for product answers. Our sales team closes deals via Facebook messenger. All this to say that, if you fight it, you’re missing out on a segment of people whose preferences are to work on Facebook.

More workers will look to work virtually, which will drive more companies to learn how to implement virtual work effectively. Leaders first need to understand their team members to see if they would be successful at working remotely.


Profile of a Remote Worker

To start, let’s look at the profile of the imperfect remote worker. This sets the stage for the skills needed by a leader who manages remote teams. The type of person that should not work remotely may carry these two traits:

  1. Extraversion: Thrives on human connection. Feels comfortable around people, makes friends easily, easy to get to know.
  2. Little Self-Discipline: Decides on impulse. Has little willpower and indulges in behaviours to gain immediate satisfaction.

Why are people who are high on extraversion and low on self-discipline not great candidates for working prolonged periods outside of the physical office?

Because the chance is high of

  • becoming lonely because of zero daily people connections and
  • missing work commitments due to low strength of will.

The CEO of Serendipity Labs, a U.S. co-working service, says:

“It always surprises people that the idea of working from home is better than working from home.” — CEO, Serendipity Labs

The message is that the desire to have work flexibility can be different from the ability to conduct work effectively. Some of us idealize the opportunity to roll out of bed and log in to our work computers. Just as with anything new, the novelty wears off and is replaced with the realization of being disconnected from others.

Once the right team member for remote work is determined, the virtual leader can figure out if they have the skills to manage remotely. As leaders, self-assess your communication style against what’s needed to manage a remote workforce.


What a Remote Leader Needs to Be Successful

I’m a leader with teams in different locations who work together virtually. I have learned that I need to put in the extra efforts to be extraverted and provide discipline. Here’s why:

A virtual team performs well when a leader communicates a lot

A remote leader of a high-performing team has 10+ contacts per day with them. Research and my personal experience have shown a high frequency of communication allows you to answer lingering questions from teams. When teams have clarity on goals and the business landscape, they accomplish some amazing stuff.

The value of a lot of interactions is that the team sees your interest in their development. You get to share and remind the team of their goals. You can adjust and respond to issues faster because you find out about them quickly.

A virtual team performs well when a leader is energetic and personable

High energy and friendliness are associated with extraversion qualities.

The value of an energetic and relatable leader is that the team sees your positivity. This can encourage a mirrored action, and, if anything is mirrored, it should be positive.

It’s hard to communicate frequently and show high energy. I suggest that this requires extra effort if you’re someone like me, who’s naturally introverted and prefers to keep to myself. This makes it a daily move outside of my comfort zone.

In one anxious moment, I confessed my deeply personal and professional fear to my career coach. I was terrified of an upcoming work conference because of the need to talk to many people. I felt just the way I did when I first thought about talking more with my dispersed teams.

She gave me two great suggestions, which I used. First, set a goal of talking to twenty people. Second, script one or two specific pre-questions for each conversation.

She also told me to repeat these words to get me to initiate conversations:

“Be the first to the mic.”

Kerri Brock

It worked.

For the first time in my life, I struck up conversations with people I didn’t know.

For the first time in my life, I opened a conversation in an elevator with five people I had never met.

For the first time in my life, I enjoyed conversations with a new network.

So many firsts mean it’s possible, friends, to get over your fear. It’s possible to adopt behaviours and traits that you may not yet excel in. So if you’re a leader with teams spread out across offices and want them to perform at their best, you have to change.

Though it’s not easy, it’s also not impossible to improve your virtual leadership communication skills. Some methods can be adopted to help your virtual team members be successful.


Communicating Effectively With Remote Teams

Here are some steps I have adopted that work:

Increase the communication frequency

Set a goal to make contact with a member of your team every day. This can be done by initiating individual chats or be sending a single message to a team chat group. Make the goal easy to achieve, and then grow your talking footprint.

Be the first to the mic. Open that chat discussion. Say hello. Have a few go-to questions for each chat, like “What did you do this past weekend?” or “How did you spend last evening?”

Even though I work with a team of 30 across different locations, I dialled up the frequency with my direct team of eight first. The smaller goal helped me to get comfortable with a new way of communicating.

Setting a goal and scripting the chat are both specific tasks that you can take on, starting tomorrow.

Be energetic and personable

Smile at everyone, in person and in a chat. Use smile emoji to personalize your virtual messages.

I used to think smiley faces in messages are unprofessional. Now I see that they enhance the message and alleviate concerns about the message intent.

Think about how you feel when you read a message that has a smiley face, compared to one that doesn’t. Give that good feeling to others.

“They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel. “— Carl W. Buehner

Ask about home life; it’s just as important as work life. This type of personal interaction is also one that I used to think is not appropriate for the workplace. However, it’s in the personal conversations that I learn about my team’s motivation. It’s also where I learn about things team members are doing to further their careers voluntarily.

The value of being personable and positively energetic is seen in my own experiences and those of Fortune 500 leaders. The best leaders leverage intuition and emotion over logic to lead teams.

Appealing to others by using language that touches on their beliefs and emotions is how some of the best leaders influence their teams.

The depiction below shows that communication that tugs at our hearts is the foundation of successful leadership. It’s based on stories, personal triumphs, hardships, and imagery.

Let’s accept that talking to your team often and using emoji to paint a picture are important. In digital communication, showing friendliness and initiating conversations are extraversion skills that can be learned, practiced, and mastered.


Summary: Communication Is the Secret Sauce

The tips are to communicate often and to do it energetically. In several individual conversations with teams and leaders, communication was expressed as the magic solution to several unrelated problems. We all seem to know this and yet still struggle to do it well. With virtual teams and remote work styles on the rise, leaders can look for opportunities to practice the communication tips that academics and their teams are asking for.

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