5 rules for remote leaders

Good leaders usually share common traits whether they lead from up close or afar. They are agents of change within their organizations and they motive and inspire others. However, those who lead remotely face a number of challenges that make their job a bit more difficult.

Some of the most critical challenges are building trust, creating relationships and sense of team and providing the right support, according to Adriane Willig, a principal in Witt/ Kieffer's Healthcare practice.

Historically, healthcare has been viewed as local. But as hospitals and health systems expand into multiple states, they are providing more flexibility as to where and when work is being done, Ms. Willig says. Technology allows workers to be "virtual" and meet the demands of the job from a number of locations. This flexibility often allows organizations to retain good people, who may otherwise have left due to travel demands. This includes executives, who may lead teams remotely from a central office or even do most of their work from a remote site.

With the move to a full or part-time virtual team, comes the need for managers to learn to "trust without seeing," Ms. Willig says. That is not always easy for leaders who have historically managed in person, but it is critical to the success of managing a virtual team, she says.

It is also challenging to create relationships and a sense of team when the leader is in another city or state. With so much of our communication being done over the phone or electronically, colleagues do not often meet as a team in one location. Executives have to work much harder to develop relationships from a distance.

These issues are just some of what a remote leader must deal with.

Here, Ms. Willig provides the following pieces of advice on how to overcome the challenges of being a remote leader.

1. Set clear goals and expectations and then trust the team to meet expectations.  For "hands-on" executives, this can be extremely challenging. "Not everyone is cut out to lead remote or dispersed teams. Delegating and trusting are critical — if there is mutual trust between a leader and his or her team, then things will get done," Ms. Willig says. Remote leaders need to hold their teams accountable and then trust that the work is getting done. Strong team members want to feel empowered to do their jobs. Trust that they are as long as goals and expectations are being met. "With a good team additional oversight is most likely not warranted, and could be detrimental," Ms. Willig says.

2. Travel to get to know employees face to face and use Skype or video conferencing as often as possible. That face-to-face connection can make a big difference from just being the "voice on the phone," according to Ms. Willig. In addition, whether from a distance or face to face, communication shouldn't just be about work — it should be about people, work/life balance, family concerns and fun as well. Ms. Willig advises trying things such as instant messaging and texting to keep communications more routine and casual. It just isn't possible to see everyone on a team or service line on a regular basis. However, leaders need to look for ways to build relationships and connections.

3. Make sure all team members feel included. If a major milestone is achieved (e.g., high quality or safety ratings), Ms. Willig suggests finding a way to bring everybody together if possible, or traveling to different locations to acknowledge the accomplishment in person. "Relationships are built when leaders show they care about individuals and give ample and relatively equal time to all team members," she says. "In a single-office setting that often happens naturally. However, [remote leaders] need to make a special effort to do so." 

4. Take special care to create an environment of work equality despite varied locations. "When selecting individuals for key committees or task forces, coaching and mentorships, and certainly when considering raises and promotions, be sure to take location out of the equation as much as possible," Ms. Willig says. Remote leaders may have team members that are office-based as well as others working in clinics, assisted-living communities, homes and other forms of virtual offices. It is often easier to ask a team member who is on-site to get involved in a project, or help out with an issue. Make sure, though, that convenience does not get in the way with actively involving other team members.    

5. Devote time to training and onboarding. When one or more workers join the team, engage them in proper orientations and training, Ms. Willig says. Have an onboarding plan that includes time to meet you and colleagues in person and develop relationships. "Some workers can hit the ground running without much help from their supervisor," Ms. Willig says, "but most need some time and one-on-one training to know what they’re supposed to do."


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