For a few years, I led a team from my home office, but my team wasn’t remote; they were all located in the corporate office 1,500 miles away.
We had great systems and tools in place, and we communicated regularly, but the bigger challenge was:
How do I keep my finger on the pulse of my team’s context? What pressures or questions were they getting from other colleagues? Were there dynamics at play that I wasn’t aware of?
I’m not going to gloss over this: being the only (or one of the few) remote employees in a mostly co-located company is extremely hard. And if you’re responsible for the leading a team--it’s even harder. A lot of proactivity is required of you. It stinks, but it’s true: in an office setting, out of sight really is out of mind.
You would think, as their boss, your team would think of you a lot! But that’s not necessarily the case. Especially if your team is located with the majority of the company in a single location; there’s a lot that happens that you do not see.
There are things you will miss, yes, but there are ways to keep your finger on the pulse of the team, and minimize missing out on the important nuances while building team cohesion. Here are six ways you can start:
Build trust within the team
Staying in the loop from afar starts with trust and open communication on your team. If your team doesn’t trust you or feel they have a good rapport with you, they’re not going to share the side conversations and information you really need.
Trust and respect can take time to build, but with sincere intentionality, it can come faster than you think. Using tools like weekly one-on-ones and direct messages can help here.
Schedule weekly one-on-ones
When you schedule your weekly touch-bases, use a video bridge, and include time in your agenda to check in with them in a broader sense. For instance:
What is going well from their vantage point?
Do they feel overloaded?
Are there things not getting done that concern them?
Are there things we could be doing better as a team?
Are there hurdles that you as the leader can clear so they can work more efficiently?
Then, as you build rapport, ask them about life:
How did their daughter’s softball game go?
Are they excited for their upcoming vacation?
If you create space to have an authentic, open conversation you will quickly build trust and a good rapport. (Here are more tips for proactive, transparent, and actionable communication.)
Reach out individually over (unscheduled) direct messages
This is a great unobtrusive way to check in (way less intrusive than dropping by an actual desk!). DMs allow the team members to respond as their leisure, but this approach also gives them space to write freely or take a moment to get their thoughts together.
Simply ask them how they’re doing, or ask about an event you know they were a part of, e.g., “How did the meeting go yesterday?”
Using DMs is a nice way to show that you are aware of your team’s day-to-day, and you’re available for them to reach out to as well.
Actively participate in company-wide events
This is extremely critical: make sure you are included in every all-staff or department-wide meeting.
If an audio or video bridge isn’t set up by default, then find someone at the office to be on point to set one up (an audio bridge is OK if video isn’t possible). Pay attention and interact as if you were there in person. Don’t just give this a cursory listen. Dynamics are at play in these meetings, and here’s where you’ll really get a more macro sense of what’s going on in the company.
One company I worked at had staff meetings every morning at 8:40 a.m. Eastern time, which was 6:40 a.m. for me. Given that I also had to work prior to the call in order to have time to get my kids off to school after the call, it was a brutal schedule.
However, I made it a point to be on every single all-staff call, so that I would have my finger on the pulse of what was shared with the staff, what was happening at the company, and then I would engage with my team as if I had been right there.
Debrief with your team after those all-staff events
This is where you’ll get a lot of that cohesion you’re looking for. Get together with your team after the bigger company-wide meetings while their thoughts are still raw, and ask things like:
How did you digest that information?
How did other people respond when this topic was shared?
What questions you have?
What questions to other people have?
Sure, you all saw and heard the same thing, but teasing out these thoughts from your team will help you keep your finger on the pulse of their context as well as build trust and cohesion with the team overall.
Seek out time with leaders outside your department
The above recommendations help you understand what your team is going through and experiencing. But your team doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s a part of a larger organism. Building relationships with leaders outside your department can give you a different perspective of what your team is experiencing. (It can also give you insight into what other departments think of your team!)
When leading the team I mentioned earlier, I regularly met with other directors and managing directors around the company. These relationships led to more intentional collaboration between our teams, helped me understand different perspectives of the corporate culture, and--in some cases--it afforded me the opportunity to diffuse misconceptions others had of my team’s goals and purpose.
Over time, I ended up building not only strong relationships with colleagues, but additional advocates for my team in other areas of the company (which is great to have when you’re not physically there to advocate yourself!).
You can do this by making a list of who else works with your team or has influence on your team outside your department. Think of groups like: Human Resources, ITS, Marketing, or Sales--whatever departments make sense in your context. Schedule a 30-minute video call with each director (or, better yet, meet them in person next time you’re in the office) to learn more about their role, their team’s goals, and their expectations (if any) of your team.
By doing this regularly, over time, you will not only build rapport with other departments, but the other department leads will be more willing to approach of you directly if they have ideas (or even concerns).
Keeping a pulse on what's going on in a co-located office as a remote employee takes intentional work. But it's worth it. You'll find that in the long run, your job is easier and more enjoyable when you know the context for actions and decisions happening at your HQ.