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6 Leadership Skills Needed for Managing Remote Workers

March 30, 2018

This blog was originally published on March 20, 2018 to address the shift towards remote work that many workplaces have been adopting over the last few years. However, we hope that this information will be helpful as many more organizations are now enforcing remote work policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus). 

A common question that comes up when discussing a remote workforce is, "How do managers best lead remote teams? To answer this question, I decided to take a deep dive into the existing I/O literature. There have been a number of studies conducted to determine whether it takes a different set of traits, skills, and abilities to manage a remote workforce than it does to manage employees in a brick and mortar setting. In other words, researchers are trying to determine if good leaders are good at leading employees no matter where they’re located or if it takes something special to successfully manage off-site employees. During my review of the literature, a handful of consistent themes seemed to emerge.

Here's what it takes to effectively manage remote workers:

1. Communication

Overall, it appears that communication is key when managing a remote workforce. It was mentioned in nearly every article I read.  Managers of remote workers need to be in frequent contact with their employees and need to leverage all media sources to do so (e.g., email, video conferencing, audio conferencing, face-to-face when possible). They should also be comfortable reaching out to remote employees for unplanned communication. In other words, these managers must have top-notch communication skills and perhaps even higher levels of extraversion may be beneficial.

2. Trust

Communication is highly related to trust, which is also a top trend observed throughout the literature. It is important not only that managers trust their remote workers to get their work done (and do so effectively and efficiently), but also that remote workers trust that their managers have their best interests at heart so they don’t suffer from feelings of social and professional isolation.

Related: Organizations Thrive When Leaders Trust Their Employees

3. Measuring Performance by Outputs Rather Than Inputs

Managers must be open to the concept of remote work and be okay with giving up some of the control that they often have in brick and mortar environments. As remote workers are not observed on a daily basis to the extent of on-sight employees, a manager who wants to control how work gets done will likely not be a good fit for the role. This leads into the next trend: measuring or assessing performance based on output or goal achievement rather than process measures. Again, how work gets done will primarily fall under the control of the remote employee, so managers must be able to assess performance using other outcome-based criteria (e.g., number of calls made in a day, sales quota attainment, etc.) and will not be able to micromanage how things are achieved.

4. Formalization of Job Structure and Requirements

Related, the more that the job and performance measures can be standardized or formalized, the easier it is to manage both remote and on-sight employees. Everyone will be assessed against the same standards, so poor performance will be more obvious. If organizations utilize systems that allow managers to track their remote employees' work, then they are likely already ahead of the game.

5. Training

Many of the articles mention the importance of training both managers and employees, remote and on-site, on their respective roles to ensure everyone is on the same page regarding what is expected from them. This also allows sharing of best practices for successful performance in their roles.

6. Feedback

Since remote workers are disconnected from the on-site environment, it is important that they stay in the loop. It is critical for managers to reach out to them not only to update them on the goings on in the office, but to also provide feedback on how their performance is impacting the larger organizational goals and strategy, along with how their performance stands up to the established standards. Since managers likely lead multiple remote employees across a range of tenure, they may even be able to shed light on how to be most successful in a remote environment and tie this feedback to specific components of their job.

Related: 3 Tips to Giving Employee Feedback That Employees Want to Receive

Many of the articles also mention the importance of making sure the work that remote workers are doing is sufficiently recognized so they don't adopt the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. It will be important to make sure that their contributions are acknowledged and rewarded accordingly so they don’t lose sight of how their work benefits their team, department, or the organization at large.

In sum, the conclusion drawn from this literature review is that the competencies required for successfully managing remote workers do not differ significantly from those in on-site management roles, but that the levels needed for some competencies may be different. For example, stronger communication skills (and potentially higher levels of extraversion) will be crucial for successful remote management. Also, being comfortable providing feedback and recognition, and fostering an open and collaborative environment are also important characteristics that a good remote manager should possess.

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Alli Besl, Ph.D. Alli Besl, Ph.D. was a Research Consultant based in the Pittsburgh office of PSI. Her areas of expertise include: employee turnover, selection and recruitment.