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How to Lead Remote Employees and Not Kill Your Culture

Remote. Distributed. Telecommuting. Virtual. Work from home.

Whatever you want to call it, the remote workplace is widely considered the inevitable future for many businesses. Even before the pandemic knocked down American companies like a wrestler swinging a metal folding chair, the trend toward a distributed workplace was undeniable.

And now? Companies all over the country are seeing the bottom-line benefits and cultural challenges of working at a distance. And it’s a love/hate relationship for a lot of business leaders, for sure. That’s because, while a lot of companies have saved money on office space, utilities and everything that goes into running an office, they’ve run into new issues like communication, accountability and culture. You know—those things that used to come naturally when everyone still had a desk neighbor that wasn’t their dog.

Now it’s clear: How leaders choose to adapt to their new realities will determine what their companies’ futures will look like. So naturally, how to lead remote employees is on a lot of minds today.

Leading From a Distance

Leading remote employees starts with understanding what your team members are going through in their own transitions to working from home. They’re dealing with everything from balancing childcare, to technological difficulties, to back pain from sitting at their dining room table. It’s just different. Here’s how you can help.

  1. Make overcommunication your new norm. You have all kinds of personality types and communication styles working for you—and they’re all going to interpret things differently. So, make a habit of overcommunicating to make sure your team gets it. You’ll also want to set up a communications rhythm so your team hears from you regularly. That helps them not assume the worst or feel out of touch with your vision. Leading remotely requires greater self-awareness and more intentional communication, so you’re not setting up your team for miscommunication and drama.
  2. Talk openly about strategy and create context. As a leader, it’s your job to think strategically. At an office, you might have ongoing conversations about those things, but in a remote setting, those conversations need to be more intentional. Your team can’t read your mind, and you can’t read theirs. When you give conversations like these a platform while remote, it helps your team stay in step with each other and your strategy.
  3. Influence your team with intentionality. When you’re leading a team in person, influencing people and projects comes more naturally. When you’re leading remote employees, that same influence takes more of your effort and time. It’s not that your team will go rogue, but that they don’t see you walking the halls, hosting conversations, and actively leading them on a day-to-day basis. So, it’s important to understand and act on the fact that your team is still looking for your input and influence, even if they can’t see you physically in your office.

Holding Employees Accountable Remotely

When your company makes the switch to remote work, whether on purpose or because of uncontrollable circumstances, accountability can be tough to carry over. Here are a few things you can focus on to help you keep your finger on the pulse.

  1. Be clear about their performance. Performance reviews, one-on-one meetings, weekly reports and expectation setting need to be scheduled and frequent if they aren’t already. And while it might seem over the top to some, your employees will thank you when you’ve given them a clear view of their work and what you expect from them. As their leader, you’re the barometer they use to check how they’re doing.
  2. Troubleshoot problems as a team. Spoiler alert: There will be problems while working from home. Some of them would never happen in an office, and some will be the same (just in a different setting). You might have technological difficulties, missed expectations or any number of issues, but you have to be prepared for them. Put together a team of trusted leaders and call it your “W.I.N. Team” (this stands for What’s Important Now?) specifically for the one-off issues that will inevitably happen. Expect the unexpected.
  3. Collaborate even more than you did before. It’s easy to silo everything out when managing remote employees and have everyone be on their own islands. But that’s just not an effective way to reach your business goals or protect your culture. The technology you use to be able to work remotely really opens up all kinds of opportunities for collaboration. So, be intentional about doing that. Hold “stand-up” meetings, touch base often, and listen. Just be careful those meetings don’t lose their focus and that everyone has an opportunity to be heard.

Communicate Culture on Repeat

The transition to remote work can kill your company culture if you don’t reinforce it. That’s because massive changes like that have a way of agitating the little things employees deal with on a daily basis. Core values can get blurry, communication can get misinterpreted, and people can start to feel stress and frustration that wasn’t there before. It’s all pretty normal, but that doesn’t mean you should just go with the flow. When you’re leading remote employees, you need to work extra hard to maintain and continue to build your culture—or else your transition will translate to turnover. Here are a few things to consider.

  1. Celebrate success often. Simple enough, right? Everybody on your team has a walk-up song, and you’ve got to be the emcee. It’s your job to turn up the volume when they’re doing a good job. Be genuine about it, and they’ll feel the appreciation is real. If it feels contrived, they’ll think you’re just patronizing them. For example, here at SmartDollar, we have a weekly gift card giveaway to celebrate top performers, we make a point of catching people doing a good job, and we shout out individual and team successes in group meetings. We even use virtual happy hours to encourage our team to connect with each other in a more relaxed way than strategy meetings allow. When you lead the way well in celebrating success, you’ll discover that celebration is contagious within your team.
  2. Keep core values front and center. Your company has a set of principles at its core whether you know it or not. You can call it an identity, or core values, or your ethos—just make sure to communicate those values to your team often while working remotely. It can be easy for your team to forget why they do what they do. So, it’s your job to be the compass that continually points them true north.
  3. Set goals and communicate progress. A distributed team is inevitably going to have to work harder to visualize its collective goals than a team in an office would. If you don’t clearly communicate what the goals are, or if those conversations only stay at the stakeholder level, you’re setting your team up to fail. Overcommunicating goals and the team’s progress toward them gives everyone on your team a clear understanding of where they are and what winning looks like.

Again, how you adapt yourself as a leader to your team’s new circumstances will determine whether they sink or swim in their new realities. But you can do this. You can be the catalyst to that success if you prioritize communication, accountability and culture. And once you do that (and keep doing it), you’ll set up your company to go from surviving remote work to thriving in it.


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Brian Hamilton is vice president of SmartDollar, a financial wellness program from Ramsey Solutions.

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