If you lead people or projects, you have a big job to do. If those people are located somewhere else in the world—even for a few days a week—it can feel even harder. While most of the job remains the same, the lack of visibility (they can’t see you, and you can’t see them) creates some pitfalls. Here are four of the most common traps Long-Distance Leaders must avoid if they are to help their team succeed.
1. No news is not always good news.
Most managers are trusting souls who don’t suspect their people of slacking off when the boss isn’t around. They also believe their (sometimes metaphorical) doors are always open and their team members are smart enough to ask for help if they need it. If you’ve ever had children playing in another room and suddenly you couldn’t hear anything, you know the dark side of working apart from your team. Sometimes, it’s just too quiet, and that isn’t good.
Certainly, it’s important to set clear goals and let people work towards them without having to be on top of them every day. The reason this is a trap for many managers is that in their efforts not to be seen as micro-managers, they don’t check in often enough or proactively see how things are going. From the employee’s side of things, they may not be as proactive as they should be about recognizing problems, or asking for help that can avoid disaster. Sometimes, not getting the news you need—even if it’s that everything’s on track—can lead to problems being bigger than they have to be. It can also lead to paranoia and mistrust, which is never a good thing.
2. Assuming the people on team can just figure it out.
It’s not that they’re not smart, or that they won’t figure out how to work together and communicate effectively using the tools at their disposal. It’s just that, in general, people don’t. Since remote work depends on technology to help people connect and share information, it’s vital that we use it effectively.
There are two basic human behaviors that get in the way of this happening. The first is that people will, given the chance, use the simplest and fastest tool for a job whether it is the best tool or not. If you’ve seen 27 emails fly back and forth before someone finally picks up the phone, you know what I mean. The second issue is that even if they have the best intentions, 80% of people use 20% of the features of most software applications and tech. If your company rolls out a tool and says, “Okay, here’s your Skype for Business licenses; have at it and try not to hurt anyone,” you will have a wide disparity in both how quickly people adopt it and how well it gets used. Without planning, processes, and a few rules, the work (not to mention people’s nerves and patience) will deteriorate.
3. Treating everyone the same.
Wait. What? How can treating everyone in the same way be a trap? The snare here is that “the same” is about behaving towards one person in the exact manner as you do towards another. That’s different from treating them equally. Treating individuals equally means they get the same level of attention, coaching, and information as everyone else. They may, however, need it in different doses and in different ways. You know that everyone has a unique work style. Some will want frequent and short interactions. Some will want to be left alone unless they need something. Still others would prefer to have your undivided attention most of the time. If you treat everyone the same way, someone isn’t getting what they need from you. If you treat them as individuals, each with unique needs, and meet them equally but adapt your interactions based on the best results, you’ll establish better working relationships and probably annoy them less.
4. Saving time but eroding the relationship.
One of the most common pitfalls of leading remotely is to view unexpected or non-transactional communication as interruptions, rather than a valuable part of team communication. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying, “This will only take a moment” or “I know you’re busy, so let’s get right to it…” you’ve made the decision to have shorter communication for the benefit of the overall work. The reason this is tricky is that long-distance relationships are built on those interactions. The more we get to know people (their work styles, their personalities, their sense of humor, and the like), the stronger our relationships are and the better we’ll work together. By making every minute you spend communicating seem like a bother, an interruption, or something to be avoided, the less time you spend on those little things that will make the relationship stronger. Over time, this can lead to people disengaging from each other.
As we say in The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership, if you are focused on the right outcomes and continually assess how you work with each other, you will avoid these traps. If you just keep running on autopilot and assume the best until something bad happens, it may be too late.
Wayne Turmel is the cofounder of the Remote Leadership Institute and the author of many books, including the Association for Talent Development's 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations. Find out more about his latest book with Kevin Eikenberry The Long-Distance Leader here.