KeyboardBy Wayne Turmel,  founder and president of and co-founder of Remote Leadership Institute.

We asked Wayne, “What do you think is the single biggest challenge remote leaders face, and how can they overcome it?” Keep reading to learn his valuable insight.

It’s tempting to say that we have made too much out of working remotely and that remote leaders face the same challenges leaders and managers have always faced: engaging, informing, motivating and coaching their people. However, there is one major difference when working remotely: You have to do all those things using technology.

Whether it’s email, the telephone, video conferencing or shared content sites like SharePoint, you must do your job without the benefit of being face to face, in real time, with your employees and coworkers. That is difficult for several reasons:

We rely on our experience for most communication

Since the day we’re born, we’re communicating in ways that we literally don’t think about—that communication has been an unconscious skill. Think about your ability to read body language and tone of voice and how those things can indicate if someone is telling the truth or if that person is afraid or confident. Now imagine having similar conversations without being able to look people in the eye or see employees panic when you assign work they don’t think they can do. You can’t tailor your communication to ease their concerns or confirm their understanding.

When you lack the input you need to accurately process person-to-person communication, you can draw false conclusions (e.g., “No news is good news” or “They told me everything was fine, why would I doubt them?”) that can get you in trouble.

The tools at our disposal tend to do only one thing well 

Think of all the communication tools you have access to: email, instant messaging, webcams, webmeeting tools and more. It’s a pretty lengthy list. Now think about what each of those tools does well. Email is good for transferring information to lots of people at the same time, but it doesn’t offer real-time communication. Instant messaging allows for quick back-and-forth communication, but you can’t accurately read tone of voice or confirm the recipients’ comprehension of your message. Webcams allow for more rich communication, but you can only have a few people on at a time. Each tool has it’s pros and cons.

Your challenge is knowing which tool to use and when. For example, when do you send an email and when should you get on a plane to meet in person? When will a simple phone call get the job done and when would a webmeeting with video make more sense?

Most people don’t know how to get the most from their technology

A recent study showed that 80% of managers think tools like Lync, WebEx, email, video conferencing and the like are “mission-critical,” yet only 10% say they are confident and competent using those tools. That’s a recipe for frustration, inefficiency and potential disaster.

So what is a virtual leader to do? Before you communicate with an employee, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. “How do I want to communicate this particular message to my team?”
  2. “What technology is the best method for the circumstances?”
  3. “Do I know how to use the tool for greatest impact?”

Regardless of the technology you use, take the time to confirm each team members’ understanding of your message. Open, regular communication is the key to building relationships with employees, and strong relationships can allow you to more easily overcome the inevitable challenges technology and working remotely will bring.

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