Leading a remote team is hard, but leaders can keep employees happy and engaged.

Smiling employee in headphones watching team meeting on laptop in modern office.

Leading a Remote Team from Behind the Screens

The pandemic dramatically changed the way most of us do business…at least for now. I bet few of us ever received the leadership training we needed to be successful at leading a team in the first place, and I bet no one reading this had a class called “Leading a Remote Team” prior to COVID19. Unfortunately, training strong individual contributors to be great leaders isn’t a strength for most companies.

So what do we do? Most of us want to do well, but there aren’t a lot of ways for us to learn this new skill on the fly.

Enter my friend and former coworker, Krista Johnson. Krista is a dynamic leader, bold creative, and owner of Dallas-based creative and marketing agency Luminary 2. She helps businesses and individuals tell stories that captivate the attention of their target audience and inspire action. No only did she co-create Luminary 2 with her business partners, she hired, trained, and is currently leading her team 100% remotely. (And doing it well!)

I had a few questions about leading a remote team, and Krista had a few answers! Want to “listen in” on our interview? Read on!

Courtney (CR): We met back at JCPenney when we worked together in the Sephora division. I’ve always known you’re brilliant, but you took it to another level when you created your own business. How did you know where to begin?

Krista (KJ): I read something once that said, “You learn how to be an entrepreneur while you’re an entrepreneur,” and for me… that is so true. I say this experience is like a “master class” in starting your own business. Luckily, I’ve never been afraid to take on new challenges because I know the resources are out there to figure it out. I’m also blessed to have great business partners. We all bring something unique to the table. Our collective strengths outweigh our areas of opportunity.

CR: I know you managed teams before, and even managed them remotely back at JCP. Your current team is different though. They’re 100% remote and you only see them a few times a year in person. They also all report directly to you.

KJ: Yes! I was a department leader for JCP, and then I was a Field Leader for the Dallas and Austin Districts for the Sephora division. Leading a remote team can seem drastically different than leading a team in an office, but truthfully, your employees still need the same things from you. The method or the “how” might look a little different, but the “what” and “why” stay the same.

CR: Tell me more! What are some of your methods?

KJ: First off, you have to realize that your team still needs a high level of interaction with you. That’s why I schedule informal connection with my team.

We all know it’s important to schedule formal connect points with our teams, like one-on-ones, personal development meetings, etc. But what about those informal conversations that have nothing to do with work and everything to do with building rapport, trust, and bringing company values to life? At L2, one of our values is: “Our team is our heartbeat.” If that’s true, then I have to demonstrate that to my team each day.

It’s so easy to become a task manager and give our attention to “fighting fires.” Sometimes we focus on what’s urgent, but not what’s important. To me, urgent means that a task requires immediate attention. These are the to-do’s that shout “now!” Urgent tasks put us in a reactive mode and often, a defensive/negative/hurried mindset. Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals. Sometimes important tasks are also urgent, but most often…they’re not. When we focus on important activities we operate in a proactive mode, which helps us remain calm/rational/focused.

The only way I have found to keep myself focused on the extremely important task of connecting with my team is to schedule it. I can’t let the urgent distract me or prevent me from making the important happen. If you peek into my calendar right now, you’d see a different employee’s name assigned to each day of the week. I have my calendar set to pop up with a reminder and their name at 11 AM. This prompts me to send message and check in with them. I might ask how they are, how their family is doing, or what’s going on in their world.

Sometimes I share a book, an article, or something else that reminded me of them, but sometimes I don’t have anything to share at all. Sometimes it’s just about leaving room in my day for an organic connection with the most important people in my work world… my team. You can do this with anyone, like your peers, mentors and leaders. Utilize your calendar to help you remember the importance of checking in! 

CR: I LOVE that. I get really task-focused, so checking in “just because” doesn’t come naturally to me. I think putting it on my calendar would really help. What else works for you when it comes to leading a remote team?

KJ: When I started working remotely full-time, I noticed that some things I took for granted in the corporate world are missing from remote work. There’s that peer or teammate that stops by your office to say hi giving you a welcomed break. Maybe there’s that fortuitous crossing of paths and the rapport that’s built during informal walks to grab a coffee. As leaders, we have to work even harder to keep culture and humanity alive in remote work. 

One thing that works for me is to create a “digital smile.” As humans we are programmed to read a person’s eyes, facial expressions, voice inflection, and hundreds of other interpersonal indicators. When our communication is mostly digital, and we type a message of pure fact, the human on the receiving end gets exactly zero social context. Some of the most successful remote leaders I’ve met overflow with personality, and it’s not because it just comes naturally. It’s strategic! Create your own “digital smile” to give your email communication context. That might mean using a few emojis if it makes sense and is appropriate for your work culture. Remember… even over the phone, a person can hear a smile, but it’s harder in emails!

If most of your communication is done via text or email, work even harder to add your personality, give more context for your message, and be really clear. Always reread your messages and add more details so what you’re asking or saying is crystal clear.

It’s also important to maintain balanced communication. We’re taught that if we are “too nice” we won’t be taken seriously by our team or respected as an authority figure. On the other hand, if all we ever give to our team is cold communication and a drive for results, we don’t build rapport or establish trust. Just like with in-person work, remote work requires balanced communication. A yin and yang. Get past your own ego and worry less about being seen a certain way. If you’re real with your team, even letting them see your flaws and your “off” days, it really helps keep things balanced.

CR: Yes. I can see how it could be hard to find balance. It’s true that so much changes when you’re not in the same office. So much less in-person conversations, which makes miscommunication more likely.

How do you know what each person needs from you?

KJ: Sometimes you have to ASK. You can find out a lot about a person by observation and working with them, but really, it’s easier to just ask. Once you know what each person prefers, you can Individualize your communication, recognition, etc. to the employee’s needs.

This is the key to optimizing their performance and keeping them engaged. Especially during a time like this. There are so many new challenges and roadblocks.

Remember to be flexible. Face-to-face time is important, and schedule Zoom or Webex video calls to maintain that team culture. I love seeing everyone’s face, but that said, I have to respect those who prefer audio only. They might be listening to the call while trying to take care of kids, pets, and who knows what else! Stay aware of their individual experience and be flexible.

I also try to anticipate their needs. Quieter individuals who are usually engaged will most likely want to participate on video chat, but they might hesitate to speak. These individuals usually prefer to use the chat box. Let your team know that’s okay, and if you have a larger team., assign someone to monitor the chat conversation during the call to ensure their comments or questions are acknowledged.

CR: Thank you! These are great tips! I know you had to learn by experimenting on your team, so your experiences will help the rest of us shorten our learning curve!

KJ: You’re welcome! Leading a remote team was a challenge, but I’ve found that staying flexible is key.

Are you ready to learn even more about leading a remote team? Let’s talk! Click here to contact Courtney.