From remote colleagues to distributed teams

Author - Thomas Phillipsen. Business Psychologist

Author - Morten Hartvig Berg. Head of Employee Experience & Insights

- how to lead from a distance

When it comes to operating effectively with distributed teams, some organizations were pushed in at the deep end without a life jacket, while others saw an opportunity to accelerate transformations already in the pipeline. Common for all is that they are experiencing the somewhat surprising benefits of distributed teams but also the new set of challenges it poses for leaders.

From remote to distributed

The spread of COVID-19 from early 2020 resulted in a fundamental shift in what work looks like for millions of people across the globe. Working from home was no longer a privilege for the few, or something to apply when you absolutely had to. It was the only option and therefore it became a competitive advantage for organizations who did it well.

But actually, according to Google Trends, the online interest for “distributed working” was already in a steady uptrend before the time when toilet paper became “the white gold”.
But take notice of the word distributed as opposed to remote. This word is a testament to the change from colleagues working remote to distributed teams. So, rather than focusing on “not forgetting the two colleagues who work from home” the trend is pointing towards the physical distance being a default for many teams of the future.

There are countless stories of organizations, who saw their plans to shift towards more flexible working arrangements going into warp speed, as a result of the pandemic. Even if the underlying incentive was one of necessity rather than a controlled transformation. The results for many organizations have been astounding. Not only are teams reporting an increased productivity, but the engagement and motivation of the workforce have in many instances shown a noticeable increase – even in times of unprecedented change and uncertainty.

However, this new reality is posing a whole new set of challenges for the people leaders of the organization.

Distance is more than a physical thing

The most obvious difference between leading a dispersed team and a regular team is of course the physical distance. For people making a transition from the more traditional physical teams, it quickly becomes evident that things are different when we must rely solely on electronic communication.

But whether you feel distanced has two key components beyond the actual miles between us: Communication frequency and mental presence. We often see examples of team members who are feeling distant from their manager despite them sitting only a few feet apart. So, the culprit here is most often a low communication frequency and lack of mental presence.

Being physically close and communicating frequently will not suffice, if a manager is not fully mentally present. There can be many reasons for a manager’s lack of mental presence – some of them being a high working pace, a feeling of being stressed or distractions in the form of screens or mobile phones to name a few.

Distance increases the level of interpretation

Regardless the underlying cause, perceived distance has a very important consequence that leaders with distributed teams must take into account: Every inch of physical or mental distance increases the amount of interpretation taking place. As humans, we are hardwired to make sense of the things we experience. We construct plausible stories based on what we know. We constantly face situations where we do not know it all (like other people’s thoughts, feelings and motives). The way we solve this challenge is by “imagining” the things we don’t know. To put it another way, we fill in the gaps. We are so good at this, that we rarely notice that it is - in fact - what we are doing.

Since leadership is a relational phenomenon this has at least two implications:

  1. Your team are going to be interpreting your actions significantly more than if you were together physically
  2. Likewise, you are bound to apply the same interpretation to the actions of each of your team members and them as a group

The level of trust will decide the interpretation outcome

Whether interpretations will be biased in a positive or negative direction, will to a large degree depend on the level of trust within the team This is true on an individual level as well as on a team level. In practice, this means that when the level of trust in a team is high, team members tend to ascribe positive intentions to the actions of the leader. In other words, they will fill the knowledge gap with a positive interpretation of the leader’s behavior.

If the level of trust is low, the interpretations of the leader’s actions and motives will tend to be negative, leading to more critical questions and comments.

Minding the gap – four key considerations when leading a distributed team

1. Invite the team backstage
The best way to avoid being misinterpreted, is to share one’s own intentions and reasoning. Explain why you are suggesting what you are suggesting and be explicit with your intentions. For example, by stating the underlying “why”. “I have asked you to do… because it is important that we…”.

Depending on the specific situation, it can be valuable to share the dilemmas you are facing as a leader. One very relevant example is the dilemma of wanting to empower your team but also needing to have some sort of control of their output as they work from a decentralized location.
This leadership dilemma can be shared with the team members in order to find a common understanding of how the leader might act in a functional way.

2. Use 'applied curiosity'
When you hear something that you don’t fully understand. Or if you have doubts about something team members say or do, take the time to share your thoughts or concerns and ask questions. This will improve your understanding of the situation, enabling you to respond more effectively. At the same time, you are setting a good example for your team to follow.

3. Be systematic about your relationships
A natural consequence of working as a distributed team, is that informal contacts will decrease. This in turn means missed opportunities for collaboration, (peer) coaching and coordination. From a leadership perspective, this is an issue to take seriously. A low-tech way to mitigate this, is to be systematic with your own contacts by keeping track of how much times passes between contacts with team members. You might even use your calendar and schedule informal connects. By the way, this applies for all directions within organizations, including leadership peers.

4. Talk about it
It is our experience that it is useful to have frequent dialogues about the experiences team members have from working distributed. As a leader you can take initiative to these dialogues based on questions such as: What works well, when we are collaborating remotely and what doesn’t? What might be some steps we can take to improve the way we collaborate? What might I do differently as your leader?

The COVID-19-situation provided many organizations and leaders a crash course in distributed working and leadership. Regardless of how the pandemic evolves, it seems clear that distributed working is here to stay and that it is proving to have many benefits from both an organizational as well as on a personal, individual level. While being an effective leader in a distributed setup has much is common with general effective leadership behavior, being mindful of the specifics of remote leadership will improve a leader’s positive impact on overall team success.

Thomas Phillipsen. Business Psychologist
Author

Thomas Phillipsen. Business Psychologist

Thomas has +10 years of experience facilitating processes in organizations. In 2017 he was involved in starting Ennova’s Leadership & Team Development unit and has since been an advisor for managers and employees at all levels in organizations.