remote leader connecting with remote team members

by Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel

No matter where your team members are located, good, strong working relationships are critical in order to have a high performing team. Remote team members don’t have to be “best friends.” They don’t even necessarily have to like each other all the time, but there has to be enough of a relationship to serve as a foundation for trust and so communication can happen flawlessly.

There’s a special challenge in that for remote teams, however.  When people aren’t all together, building relationships gets harder. Here are some tactics you can employ as a Long-Distance Leader to make sure this happens.

Compensating for lack of organic social interaction

The biggest challenge for remote teams is replacing behaviors that happen when we’re all together. They just simply cannot happen when people are scattered to the winds. We’re talking about the “chit-chat” around the water cooler, the naturally occurring social interactions in the cube farms. It’s what communication experts call “phatic conversation” “

There’s a wealth of social capital that’s build with simple questions like “How are the kids?” or “Did you see the game yesterday?

All teams try to be respectful of people’s time, but on remote teams that tends to veer toward conversations that start with,”Let me make this as quick as I can so you can get back to work.” That makes  communication purely transactional. It doesn’t allow for that casual relationship building that happens with phatic conversations. As a matter of fact, the transactional attitude actively discourages this important communication. Members of your remote teams aren’t intending it to be this way, but it’s what ends up happening.

Transaction v. Encounter

Instead of thinking about team communication as a transaction, however, we recommend approaching it as an encounter.  At The Kevin Eikenberry Group, we do a few things to promote that attitude.

When we have team meetings, we want to make sure that we open the line a couple minutes early and encourage people to come in and start to visit. By the time Kevin or whoever is leading the meeting arrives, there’s already chatter going on, just like it would be in a conference room.

Think about how this dynamic plays out in a physical office space. People don’t just walk in and wait silently. They visit. We intentionally create that space for our remote team.. The meeting may start a couple of minutes later, but the conversation that happens between team members is critical to building chemistry. That small investment of time will pay big dividends down the road.

Of course there are limits on that time, and some people on your team are going to value that more than others. But when the leader is clear about the purpose of that time, team members buy in.

Another tactic we employ at KEG centers around our instant messaging service. We set up a channel called the “water cooler.” Like the name suggests, it’s designed for the non-work related conversations. If our messages end up being only about work and nothing else, we get back in that transactional mode.

The “water cooler channel” is a place for team members to talk about their kid’s swimming medal, the neat bed and breakfast they found last weekend, or anything else that they want to share with the team. Sometimes, because we live all over the country, we even talk about the weather. By creating a dedicated space for that chatter, we’ve specifically welcomed that kind of team-building conversation.

Make the most of in person time

Many remote teams physically get together occasionally. Large parts of the team meet face to face on a regular basis for annual meetings or other reasons.  During this time it’s critical to schedule time for relationship-building. It doesn’t have to be “kumbaya” and a trust fall, but it’s an opportunity to be together and get to know each other in a way that goes beyond the work itself.

Personalizing technology

One of the basic steps in building a relationship is putting  a face to a name. Research from DePaul University shows that when somebody is just a voice on a conference call, or a signature on an email there’s a great instance of negative behavior. In remote work, that manifests in behaviors like withholding information or exclusion.
Conversely, when we attach a face to a name, when we’re looking at someone on a webcam, if we see a person’s face on their outlook profile, those people become “real” to us and there’s a positive behavioral effect.

Are you having your team fill out their Skype contacts and profiles? Are you encouraging the use of webcams? Are you helping people get to know each other so that they are more encounter than transaction?

If we do these little things, we’re headed in the right direction.  We’re starting to build real teams and not just groups of people who happen to work together.

To learn more about building remote teams and the entire spectrum of leading remotely, get your copy of our book, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.

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Kevin Eikenberry is a recognized world expert on leadership development and learning and is the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group. He has spent over 30 years helping organizations across North America, and leaders from around the world, on leadership, learning, teams and teamwork, communication and more.

Twice he has been named by as one of the Top 100 Leadership and Management Experts in the World and 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference. The American Management Association named him a “Leaders to Watch” and he has been twice named as one of the World's Top 30 Leadership Professionals by Global Gurus. Top Sales World has named him a Top Sales & Marketing Influencer several times, and his blog has been named on many “best of” lists. LeadersHum has named him one of the 200 Biggest Voices in Leadership in 2023.

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