How to Lead Remote Teams During COVID-19

Now more than ever before, the world is demanding empathetic and compassionate leadership. It is high time that we strike the right balance of ensuring the work gets done in a way that exhibits care, empathy and compassion that we have for our people and their lives.  

As leaders and influencers, we need to recognize and empathize with how others are reacting to the COVID-19 crisis. It has changed our lives and the way we live and work. The old school style of command-control leadership is not going to be welcomed with open arms. Instead, it will alienate people, disempower them and create an emotional disconnect for people and their work.

When you think of the team you lead, it’s easy to picture the faces of the people you interact with in the office on a daily basis. You understand their personalities, their quirks, their communication style and numerous other aspects because you have observed them closely in the past. For the most part, COVID-19 has forced us into a virtual world of work for us to stay safe. Some organizations that are operationally mature have had remote workers for many years. Other companies have been thrust into this overnight and are trying to learn as they go in order to continue to survive and service their respective clients.  

It’s not easy, no matter which side of the desk you usually sit on – whether you’re leading a team or you are a solocontributor. Our lives have changed overnight, and that requires a mindset shift, the development of new work habits, and exceptional leadership to help our people through this change and uncertainty.

There are simple and practical steps you can take to ensure that your team feels like they are valued and cared for while ensuring the work gets done. Consider the fact that more than one-third of workers were already performing their jobs remotely before the COVID-19 crisis. The birth of this terrible virus has forced most organizations to go completely remote and, it’s clear that after the worst is over, the number of companies that will adopt these practices, will start to rise.

Leaders who can work well in the virtual world will experience tremendous benefits of increased engagement, productivity and strengthen employee’s commitment to their job and the organization. Those that sit around and wait for this to pass, so they can return to the traditional bricks and mortar environment, will get left behind.  

Here are some helpful suggestions to ensure you make sure every member of your team—both in the office and elsewhere—feel like they are a valued part of the organization. It is important to note that none of these ideas are revolutionary and are merely common sense. Yet why is it that a good majority of leaders within companies still struggle to get this right?

#1 — Use Technology to Stay Connected

Most organizations have the technology to connect their people virtually i.e. WebEx, Skype, Zoom, etc. We always advocate to use the video feature of the application you are utilizing as it will allow you to connect on a deeper level even though you are not physically together. You will be able to see their expression and look on their faces while you are engaging in your day-to-day discussions. For fast immediate needs, we are used to texting, instant messaging and email, so use those options where appropriate to keep the flow of communication going.

Ask your people how they prefer to engage with you as it will vary from individual to individual. Some might not be comfortable with video, andthat’s okay. But if you lead by example, and make yourself visible, then theywill most likely follow suit. Maintaining that human connection even though it is virtual is so critical right now. Your people need you, so step up and be there for them in a way that makes their life easier to manage. Be flexible in your approach. 

#2 — Ask Them What They Need From You vs. Assuming What They Need

This, by far, is one of the biggest mistakes I see leaders make under normal day-to-day conditions, let alone during times of crisis like we are experiencing. Your people all live very different lives. Some may or may not have children. They may have elderly parents that they care for, or they might live alone. The circumstances will vary, and the way in which they respond, and handle change will also be different. Instead of assuming what they may need and expect from you as their leader, ask them. Create the safe space and airtime for them to share their needs and expectations with you. Your role is to attentively listen with empathy and compassion, no judgement or attempting to adjust their thinking. After they have been open with you, it is your turn to share what you need from them. Clearly lay out the expectations from both perspectives; no guessing or making assumptions. If you want to bring out the best in your people, then make the support you provide personalized to their needs and circumstances.  

#3 — Stop Worrying about How or When Work Gets Done

One of the most beneficial aspects of allowing work to happen remotely is that employees are empowered to get the job done in their own safe space and at their own pace for the most part.  I have witnessed too many managers obsessing over how they are losing control and how productivity will be impacted, as some employees may not be able to accommodate the standard 9-to-5 workday, especially during this crisis. They feel this overwhelming need to control how the work gets done and when it gets done.

Now do not get me wrong on this. If there are clearly established deadlines, expectations are understood, and people have the tools and knowledge to accomplish the task at hand, then the work will get done. Worrying about something you have very little control over will only frustrate your people, and you may be perceived as a micro-manager. No one likes working for a micro-manager.

Instead, ask them what their plan is and how they envision tackling their daily workload while balancing their personal commitments. Essentially, ask them to come up with a plan or schedule that works for them and that satisfies your needs, too. We are under conditions where our work lives and personal lives are being blurred. We cannot afford to be insensitive and come across as a command-control leader who will dictate how and when the work is going to get done. You will shut your people down with that approach, which lacks empathy and compassion for their unique and very personal circumstances.

Stop focusing on the “when” and worry about the “what” gets done, and frankly this holds true for employees working onsite as well. The days of punching a time clock are long gone, and it’s important to measure success and productivity based on what your employees accomplish and contribute to the organization. If those efforts happen outside the confines of the traditional workday schedule, that’s fine if it aligns with the job requirements and both your expectations are being met. Get with the times and work together to come up with a plan that allows some flexibility to satisfy both parties' requirements. When you allow for this type of flexibility, you increase employee engagement and satisfaction at a much deeper level.

#4 — Check in on a Regular Basis

I cannot stress enough the importance of ongoing communication.  Don’t wait for your scheduled one-on-one sessions to check in with your people. Take every opportunity to do so informally on a regular basis to stay connected and show your support as their leader. You should treat coaching, communication and feedback as an ongoing dialogue, which means that you cannot neglect any of your employees due to physical limitations.

I strongly suggest working with your employees to identify pre-determined times when they are available for regular check-ins. It could be early morning before their day kicks off, or perhaps wrapping up at the end of the workday. Come up with a plan that works for you both, but don’t forget to ask them how they are doing and if there is anything they need from you. This should happen at minimum once per week, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

As previously mentioned, use other tools such as texting and company-wide chat tools to stay engaged with your team. Communication doesn't always have to be verbal, although we highly recommend that the personal touch of live conversation goes a long way in building trusting and meaningful relationships, especially during times like these.

How Are You Managing Your Relationship with Your Team Members?

Managing and leading a team that consists of both onsite and remote workers requires you to develop a modern mindset and skills to address the diverse needs of your people. The future of work is here to stay, which means that you must embrace the idea that your team may never be located in the same place. How you show up and engage as their leader will make a world of difference in the overall results and performance of your team.

What are some of the challenges that you are facing in leading remote workers? How are you coping with the new way of working? What additional suggestions or ideas do you have to share?

The LeadersEdge Grounded Leader webinar series continues today and will run monthly until September where we will visit a different Grounded Leader pillar every month. In April, we will be exploring How to Motivate with Your Message. If you are eager to strengthen the way in which you communicate and share your point of view, then you don’t want to miss this one. If you are interested in learning more, visit this page to get more details and to register.

I’m here and available to support your leadership success, so give me a call at 1.855.871.3374 or send me an email at

I'm also offering complimentary coaching sessions to help leaders through this difficult time. Please book your session here

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