The barriers to working from home are usually human, according to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who presents remote working as a solution for “business growth, working families, and a green future.” Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor, cites leadership as an important factor in successful remote working, saying, “People need clear goals, deadlines and performance metrics. Team members need trust and the ability to rely on and fill in for one another.”
This got me thinking about the leadership and teams I’ve worked with remotely. Most of my remote working experience has been in small teams or solo — there has been little of what I think of as traditional leadership.
Of course, the dislocation that exists when you have multiple team members working in different locations has the potential to create disaster if you have a team of people who don’t know each other, or poor leadership. When your team is spread across different locations or timezones, the usual pitfalls — miscommunication being the primary issue — can quickly conspire against us humble team members. And, yes, mayhem can ensue.
There’s No “I” in Team
Most of the times I’ve worked remotely or worked with a remote team member, we’ve comprised a team with other colleagues, but without a defined team leader. In my experience, two key factors saved these situations from becoming directionless wastes of time:
A close team. An established team whose members work well together has usually developed a working dynamic that all the players know. So the players already have “roles” as such — they know when they need to speak up, or take on a responsibility, and how others are likely to perform at particular tasks.
Fostering close team work is a good way to get things done when some or all members of the team are remote. Creating or providing opportunities for free, uninhibited group (not just one-on-one) interaction — teleconferences, group chat, and so on — is crucial.
Proactive collaboration. If you’re working in a team with no clear leadership, being proactive about teamwork, and doing what you can as an individual to support the team, can go a long way to keeping your project on time, on budget and on the rails.
Perhaps you’ll volunteer to minute your daily work-in-progress meetings or send around detailed agendas for each weekly catch up to ensure that everyone’s up to speed and aware of any issues before you meet. Maybe you’ll invite a team member to maintain the project plan. Perhaps you’ll offer to meet regularly with a third party and report back to the group so that everyone’s in the loop about the third party’s activities. Possibly you’ll be the one to recommend solutions that allow team members to contribute easily to jobs like brainstorming, task list management, and so on.
In short, the emergent team culture is what matters in a leaderless team. And as individuals within that team, we can readily affect that culture.
Following a Leader
On the few occasions when I’ve worked remotely with a leader, the situation has been different to the all-in team scenario in two key ways.
Division of labor. When I’ve worked with a leader, even when that person performed team work tasks like the rest of us, they spent a large portion of their time administering the team: managing timelines, writing agendas and scheduling meetings. They also checked in with team members to remind us of deadlines and deliverables, ascertain our progress or solve problems.
I’ve found that the best leaders in a remote scenario are extremely thorough and methodical, and they love documenting (however simply) the decisions that are reached over email, chat, voice calls, text messages — whatever.
Cherishing contact. In some cases, the presence of a leader in a team can actually reduce the frequency or depth of contact between other team members, especially if that leader divides up and farms out the work among the team members. In these situations, regular work-in-progress meetings can become your only get-togethers. Obviously this creates a very different dynamic from that which can evolve in the proactive leaderless team. A good leader will still put in place all those tools and techniques that allow spontaneous collaboration between team members, so that the team doesn’t miss out on the value that this kind of collaboration can deliver.
I hope that the more I work remotely, the more experiences I’ll have with good remote leadership. But I’m interested to hear your thoughts on whether remote teams need designated leaders, what makes for a good remote leader, and how you can support a leaderless team to be as successful as possible.