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How to Be a Great Leader From a Distance

Lesley Pyle
Lesley Pyle

Here are the best practices leaders can use to manage remote and freelance workers for the best results.

As the world rapidly turns to a telecommuting model that was inconceivable just a few months ago, many leaders are wondering how to best manage their remote and freelance workers. After years (or decades) of managing staff in person, business owners and managers now need to develop new management muscles and learn to flex them with unprecedented speed.  

Whether your team is working from home because of an emergency closure or making its first forays into telework, managing employees from a distance takes practice and know-how – but the results are well worth the effort. Remote and freelance workers are often more productive than their office-based colleagues and report greater levels of happiness with the job. Follow these best practices to adjust your leadership style to your remote workforce. 

1. Understand what remote workers value.  

In most cases, the members of your team are dedicated to their work, intend to do a good job, and want to feel like part of a broader effort.

That said, the most productive and satisfied remote workers generally share a core group of desires:

  • The feeling that management trusts them
  • The flexibility to work at times that allow maximum convenience
  • A clear understanding of leadership's expectations
  • Recognition
  • A connection to leadership and co-workers

Basic principles of good people management remain paramount. However, changed circumstances require new ways of working and managing your best people. 

2. Develop a new management style. 

The process of developing a new management style requires two things:

  1. Immediate changes: See Step 5 and beyond for a roundup of things you can do right away.
  2. Longer-term reflection and planning: This is a perfect opportunity for you to grow as a leader. The growth takes more time and work, but it's important to your long-term success. 

3. Assess your starting point.

Self-reflection and goal setting can give you a firmer grasp on the changes that make sense to you. Try this exercise: 

  1. Consider your greatest strengths as a leader. What do you think are your most effective management techniques? Make a list of your strengths and the ways they play out with your people.
  2. Reflect on the feedback you've gotten from others over the years. Take a fair look at everything you've heard – the good, the bad and the ugly. For example, if your team has consistently said they appreciate the concern you show for career growth, add it to the list. If your team has reported that they sometimes feel micromanaged, note that as well.
  3. List the three areas you’d like to give greatest focus.
  4. Use the lists to decide where you can grow and develop your management skills.
  5. Talk with a confidant who knows you well. Ask for their perspective on your thoughts and focus areas. 

4. Set and share goals. 

Once you've evaluated your strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, set some short-term goals for managing your team. For example, if you decide to focus on remaining connected, set a goal to have more frequent check-ins. Be specific. For instance, rather than simply setting a goal to "check in more often," schedule a 10-minute status call with each team member at the top of each day. 

Share your plans with your team and let them know you'd like feedback on how you are doing. Depending on your team and your relationship with them, tell them if you'd prefer situational feedback or more formal feedback at a future date. Being open about your efforts lets others know how much you care and will help you successfully evolve your management style. 

The following steps are more direct management actions that you can implement immediately.

5. Conduct team check-ins.

Connecting with your team helps ensure productivity. Whenever possible, it's best to conduct team meetings at the start of the day to go over any pressing matters, priority changes and new deadlines. Follow these tips for maximum success: 

  • Include small talk. Workers who are no longer in the office (or never were in the office) still value good working relationships with their colleagues. You may no longer meet at the water cooler for a chat, but that type of informal check-in is still important. Show interest in your employees' lives both in and outside of work. When you host large calls or one-on-one meetings, take the time for a few minutes of personal chitchat. Discussing the weather, weekend plans or family news at the top of the call can help make your meetings more productive. Also, creating this rapport makes it easier to discuss work-related matters, especially when thorny issues arise. 

  • Set the tone. Employees look to managers for cues on how to react in a variety of circumstances. Because your team can't see you in person, make an extra effort to set the tone with your words each day. Acknowledge when people are under stress, and share your faith that the team is up for the challenge at hand and your belief that they will succeed. 

  • Ask open-ended questions. Establish an atmosphere where employees are free to ask open-ended questions by setting the example. 

6. Set clear objectives.

Remote office environments have many benefits, but setbacks can arise from miscommunication. Much of this stems from not setting clear objectives. Because you can't have in-person contact, ensure your objectives are clear, concise and achievable for the members of your remote team. You can start by making a list of tasks that need to be completed, then break down the timelines into smaller steps. Once you've determined the steps, you can assign them to one worker or a team.

7. Monitor and track progress.

Once you have your objectives in place, you will need to track your progress and monitor your team (without micromanaging them) in order to meet deadlines and maintain the quality of your work. Project management software can be highly effective for assigning tasks to your remote team.

8. Communicate effectively.

They say strong communication methods are the driving force behind highly effective teams. In a remote work environment, this can sometimes be hard to achieve, especially if you are dealing with a large number of people. 

Fortunately, there are many communication platforms that allow you to see and hear each other, share screens, and provide comments and feedback on projects as they progress. Some of the most common platforms are Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts.

9. Provide the right tools.

Because you're working with a remote team, it will be extremely important to make sure they have all of the right tools to perform their roles optimally. Basic equipment includes a quality laptop, a cell phone, a printer that can also fax and scan, and software such as Microsoft Office. [Read related article: 

Lead boldly! 

Leading from a distance takes some extra work, but the payoff is worth it. Investing the time to be a great leader from afar will make you a more well-rounded professional and can help your team reach new heights. 

Image Credit: AndreyPopov / Getty Images
Lesley Pyle
Lesley Pyle Member
As both an entrepreneur and a mom of 4, I am passionate about helping entrepreneurs and small businesses take their business to the NEXT level by hiring dependable, talented virtual professionals while also helping Mom Professionals find legitimate, flexible work from home jobs. Unlike the mega career sites, focuses strictly on home-based jobs and projects that work perfectly for savvy entrepreneurs and today’s modern mom. Since launching in 2007, we've helped over 10,000 entrepreneurs and small businesses find the right freelancers or remote employees for their company.