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Managing remotely: Put relationships FIRST

Recently we've all been plunged into a world where remote communication is the norm. It's likely to remain so far into the future.

Managers are being asked to lead teams in a context that's radically different and unfamiliar. And while being a good manager in a remote environment has a lot in common with being a good manager in a face-to-face other ways it's completely different. In many ways your emphasis as a manager needs to be reversed.

Good managers in the remote environment develop a new set of skills—your emphasis as a team leader needs to be turned upside down.

We can all agree that great managers in any environment show that they really care about the people reporting to them. They take the time to develop trust-based relationships. This, of course, is the foundation of all great leadership—while its opposite, self-interest, destroys trust.


Craig Laviano on how to cultivate relationships in a virtual environment [Video: 03:27]


So how does a trust-based relationship get built in practice? If we look at the habits of great managers and leaders, we notice that they find time for frequent informal touch-points: quick check-ins and impromptu conversations. This might be over lunch, or coffee, at the water-cooler or just a "fly-by" to someone's desk.

In the remote environment all these opportunities are stripped away.

Great managers build trust by checking in frequently with their team members—over coffee or at the water-cooler. In a remote environment these opportunities are stripped away.

So what can we do about this? At Learn Interactive we generally frame the work that a team does in terms of three interwoven and equally critical components.

  1. Task: The work that needs to be done

  2. Process: How the work will get done

  3. Relationship: The human interactions that will drive success

In the face-to-face world we tend to focus on task as the priority. Meetings focus on what needs to be done first, the process second and relationships third. This can work pretty well. Much gets done. Why? Because in a face-face-environment relationships can develop on their own.

In the remote environment, the human side of our work relationships can be allowed to dry up. As a manager you can't let this happen!

In the remote environment meetings are far more transactional. If we're not careful, they tend to become highly task- and process-oriented, to the exclusion of the all-important relationship component.

In short, the human side of our work relationships, if we're not careful, can be allowed to dry up.

Here's how you you can stop this from happening.

  1. Take time to check-in: A good conversation-starter can be "On a scale of 0-10 how are you feeling about things right now?" And remember, you're there to listen. This can be three to five minutes: don't rush it, but also don't allow your agenda to be de-railed (if something important comes up you can schedule a follow-up).

  2. Be consistent with your process: Do this check-in every time you have a remote one-on-one meeting with a direct report. Over time you'll (both) notice patterns emerging. You'll be able to have a conversation like "You just said you were at a 6...but it seems to me you're more of a 4 right now." It's amazing how this can build intimacy and the all-important trust: it creates a shared experience and shows your direct report that you're interested in getting to know them as a human being.

  3. Have a timed agenda and stick to it: Once sufficient time has been given to the relationship side (but not more!), make sure you move on to a timed agenda, ideally shared in advance. Agendas are always important, for all meetings, remote or otherwise. But in the remote environment they're absolutely critical: since direct eye-contact is difficult (because you're both either looking at the camera or the screen) it's hard to read engagement levels; an agenda will fix this and help to keep things on track.

  4. Always end 5 minutes early: The back-to-back nature of remote scheduling is punishing; while this is true in the face-to-face world too, let's be honest, there's always the chance to grab a coffee and be a couple of minutes late. In the remote world being late is less acceptable. However people need their "walk time" or "stretch time"—so offer it to them!

In summary, in the remote environment, the conventional framework needs to be reversed. Our recommended order of priority is:

  1. Relationship

  2. Process

  3. Task

No one is suggesting that "task" is not important—simply that if you don't take the time to build trust-based relationships, your execution will suffer.

The quality of your managers will determine your success as an organization. If they're being asked to manage teams remotely, it pays to invest in training them how to do it properly.

Please explore this website to find out more about how we at Learn Interactive approach developing managers to be successful in a virtual environment. Don't hesitate to get in touch using the contact form below.


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