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Rise of Remote
12 minute read

Making Remote Work, Part 2: The Secret to Success Is to Act as a Mentor

Remote teams require a different type of leadership. A study of culturally diverse, fully remote, global teams offers insight into how to manage remote teams.

Sara is a Toptal design leader who researches remote leadership and has worked with more than 100 multinational corporations.

For more articles like this one, please visit our Special Report: Rise of Remote. This initiative leverages Toptal’s expertise, providing tools and resources in this time of unprecedented change.

• • •

  • Why remote leadership of blended teams is challenging and complex
  • What makes a remote leader effective
  • Why mentorship is the most critical leadership style when leading remotely
  • How to keep remote employees engaged and effective

This article was originally published prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in a massive shift to remote work. Its insights remain helpful for companies and individuals adapting to this way of working.

In Part 1: Blended Teams Fail Because of Poor Management, I analyzed how some high-visibility blended team initiatives failed. Cultural issues can arise, remote workers may feel left out, communication can suffer, and ultimately, the manager might be responsible for less-than-optimal team efficiency.

In this second part, I examine a study on culturally diverse, fully remote, global teams to discover what leadership styles and qualities blended team managers should strive for in order to drive an effective blended team. I’ll also include my recommendations based on years of experience working with over 100 multinational companies where I’ve led onsite teams, partially remote teams, as well as fully distributed teams.

To jump straight to the key learnings from the research, click here.

About the Research

The Leadership Effectiveness in Global Virtual Teams study was run by two professors at Baylor University and involved 13 culturally diverse, global teams from Europe, Mexico, and the US, which were assigned a leader and a task to complete. The study was created under the hypothesis that managing or leading a distributed team is more difficult than having everyone in the same office. The authors started by breaking down the specific challenges for remote members which include communication, culture, logistics, and technology.

Remote work

They hypothesized that these challenges require a different type of leadership when a team is distributed. In particular, following the latest leadership theories, remote leaders need to switch between different styles to be perceived as effective. Since the remote environment has nuanced challenges, the behavioral complexity for leaders should increase, too.

To prove this, Kayworth and Leidner assigned a task to each of the 13 remote teams so they could compare global effectiveness. At the end of the project, each team member had to fill in a survey about the leader assessing the different roles that they may have used throughout the task: innovator, broker, producer, director, coordinator, monitor, facilitator, and mentor. They were also asked about the effectiveness and communication of the team as well as their personal satisfaction. They sent a different survey to leaders with questions about their team performance and communication.

The results were surprising and offer key information to managers hoping to find success with their blended teams. Here’s what they learned:

1. Leading Remote Teams Can Be Easier Than Leading in Person

The first interesting finding was that remote leadership might actually be (slightly) easier than leading face to face. This seems to be due to the limitations of the remote environment. Even though those were considered reasons to be more complex, it might just make things easier. Remote teams communicate mostly through writing and asynchronous communication (Slack, Zoom, Asana, and Trello, for example), which actually leads to fewer communication problems: fewer unnecessary meetings, more clarity in the messaging. It’s harder to say or write the “wrong thing.”

If you’re a leader, imagine if every problem that arises can only be solved by either writing to someone on your preferred messaging tool (like Microsoft Teams or Slack) or calling them (audio or video). You can’t take them out for a casual coffee to dive into the issue. You can’t have a conversation in the middle of the office that anyone around could overhear.

That might seem limiting at first but think twice. When you just have two routes to solve a problem, solving it becomes more effective. You don’t have to overthink what the best approach to the problem might be, what the person’s preferences are, or worry about others overhearing the conversation.

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2. The Most Effective Remote Leaders Are Mentors

The second finding is that the most effective remote teams classified their leader primarily as a mentor—showing empathy and concern on one-on-ones and treating each member in a sensitive and caring way. The team members were guided, encouraged, challenged, and motivated by their leader.

That’s not to say that this leader was only a mentor. As they hypothesized according to the modern behavioral theories, an effective leader has to be able to switch frequently between styles. However, their mentorship qualities were valued the most by their high-performing teams.

Remote work

This makes sense when tied back to those failing cases where unsupportive management was largely to blame like Yahoo, Best Buy, HP, IBM, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Traditional managers are praised for their broker, producer, and director roles: their charisma, influence, and ability to deliver. The first two, however, happen naturally and spontaneously in a face-to-face setting but don’t translate that naturally to remote teams. Additionally, these managers—Gen X and prior—come from years of traditional structure and are generally slow to embrace remote technologies and drive cultural shifts within their organizations.

When the whole team is distributed, there is no choice but to adapt to the change and find ways to make these different cultural qualities happen.

However, when only part of the team is remote, it’s more difficult. As a manager, you have to do all the usual in-office practices but also be highly engaged in messaging tools and super present on every call. Remember that, on top of all that, your remote employees are expecting you to embody the mentor role. You will have to show empathy and motivate each of them continuously. How can you do that when your time is limited and you can barely interact with them in comparison to those sitting next to you?

See each person as one important piece of the team. Don’t get caught up in where they sit or how much physical time they spend with you. You need to take a holistic approach.

If you have weekly 1:1s with everyone, do it with remote workers too. If you tend to grab a coffee here and there with some of your team members, try to reach out by chat and strike a casual conversation with your remote employee, too. If you like to go for drinks on Friday afternoon, schedule a watercooler call with the entire team. In order to keep everyone in the loop, it’s also critical to work in the open with remote members of your team. Most ideas, action items, plans, and processes need to be captured digitally. Meetings can be recorded, notes can be shared via a central file location. Offering high visibility into the work that’s being accomplished is paramount.

Penn State University scholars didn’t find any evidence whatsoever—across 46 studies—linking remote work directly to substandard collaboration or teammate relationships. So, be creative and find ways to include those remote workers in the day-to-day life of the office—show that you care and value them.

3. Leaders Want Independent Employees, Though (Plus a Personal Anecdote)

Here’s the funny paradigm: While high-performing teams want a mentor, leaders of remote employees want independent employees that don’t need hand-holding.

Boy, I know how that feels.

During my last remote leadership role, I was running a super exciting project with highly talented individuals. We were regularly checking in to make sure the project was progressing and there were no blockers. The rest of the time, I was fully trusting the team to work independently based on past projects with them and their extensive experience.

One month before delivery, I decided to dive deep to review the work in detail and…

Disaster.

Tasks marked as done were not actually finished, and the quality was quite poor compared to previous projects. I couldn’t understand what happened. We had all agreed on a process and workflow, but it clearly wasn’t working.

So, what happened?

I changed my primary leadership role with them. I went from mentor to coordinator. I stepped back and just checked the progress and blockers during standups. That’s when I learned how valuable that mentoring role is when working with remote teams.

I know how it feels to want a team that takes the brief and goes, but when working remotely, your teams need a bit more than that - some more direct attention from you to feel like they belong.

In an office, we do this naturally. Our team is close by, and they will gather feedback and interact with each other constantly. Questions will spontaneously arise, and we’ll tackle problems together.

Working remotely is much more isolated. Some extra effort to connect with each other is necessary in order to cultivate engagement. Beyond just reaching out on Slack or Microsoft Teams or having regular 1:1s, detailed feedback tells your employees that you care about their work and that you’re there for them.

It can feel daunting, though. Sitting down to review things in detail takes a lot of time. Try these tips:

  • Schedule it. Set aside some weekly time to not just quickly check their work but to take the time to dive into it. Making it an item on your agenda will help you make time for it and give it the importance it deserves.

  • Let them know when it will happen. It’s important for them to have some expectations: Will it be weekly? Biweekly? Will you provide written feedback? Where will that feedback live?

  • Provide clear and detailed comments on their work. Use your general feedback strategies. Point out the good as well as the bad, and for the latter, make sure it’s constructive.

  • Collaborate openly. Record meetings, capture notes, ideas, project plans, and processes digitally and keep them in a highly visible location where remote team members can access them. It’s harder to get lost when maps are available.

Finally, and above all:

  • Don’t think about this as time-consuming. I assure you the time you spend just interacting with other employees in the office is more than what it takes you to do this!

  • Don’t underestimate it. Your employees want to know that you care about their work, and providing feedback after looking at it in detail is the best way to get that message across.

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4. Last Caveat: Being a Mentor Is Not Enough

So we’ve learned that being a mentor is what was most highly valued by the 13 studied remote teams. We’ve seen why it’s important and how to make it happen, but here’s the last caveat—mastering the mentor role won’t be enough!

Modern leadership theories talk about complex behavior patterns. That means that effective leaders need to not just switch roles but also excel at many abilities in two main areas: getting things done (communication and role clarity) and relationship building (understanding and leadership attitude).

Remote work

Luckily, all this is very similar to face-to-face management, but it’s important to know that remote workers rank communication as their #1 challenge. As we’ve seen so far, communication issues result in a lack of engagement from remote employees and big communication misunderstandings, ultimately leading to ineffectiveness.

Whether your team is fully distributed or you have just a few members working remotely, the key communication issue is that a lot of it happens asynchronously (i.e., the message is not being delivered and received at the same time). Writing skills are, therefore, essential when leading remote teams. Everything needs to be documented and communicated in writing so that everyone stays on the same page, and you also need to be able to motivate and engage employees in written form. This method of communication needs to be adopted culturally as well—across the team—for it to really take hold. If you lead a remote team via Slack, then the rest of the in-office team shouldn’t be communicating separately via email, for example.

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Some Tips for Communicating with Blended Teams

Here are a few tips to develop excellent communication within and between remote teams:

  • Agree on a wiki or a central source of information. Working in the open is key to keeping everyone aligned. Keep user experience in mind:
    • Don’t have multiple sources of truth or different tools if you don’t want to drive people crazy (and eventually have to deal with misalignment).
    • Don’t expect them to read multiple 135-page documents to find a specific answer. Also, don’t provide just a small description without the possibility to dive deeper into more information to get context when necessary.
    • Do treat the central source of knowledge like an ongoing project, the most important one that you always prioritize. Without it, everyone will pull in a different direction.
    • Use this wiki to provide clarity on all areas such as roles, schedule expectations (when can they reach you?), or project goals.
  • Schedule meetings only when necessary. Since in order to work in the open, we need to keep everything written, having numerous meetings—especially with in-office team members only—works easily and quickly against this new transparent culture. If you don’t invite everyone to the meeting, those not present will feel excluded. If you do invite everyone, the actual work won’t get done. Make sure you schedule meetings only when it’s necessary. Keep the rest online.

  • Treat your 1:1s with remote team members as sacrosanct.
    • Schedule them regularly. Pick a time and a date for 1:1s and make it a recurring event.
    • Do not reschedule or come in late - ever. There’s no worse message to send to your employees than “my time and priorities here are more important than whatever you’re doing there.” On the other hand, sticking to the schedule and coming in on time will always help build that trust and engagement.
  • Don’t be shy with the keyboard. When you say something, the person you are talking to has the chance to ask you a question to understand you better. That’s not possible when communication happens asynchronously. Sometimes, people will be online and answering right away, but most of the time, they won’t. Make sure you deliver the message clearly.
    • Don’t be the monosyllabic type. If you wouldn’t answer a question with just an OK or just a Yes or No in person, don’t do it when writing! Explain your rationale and provide context like you would when talking to keep them engaged.
    • Anticipate the questions you might get. You know your team. You know what someone typically asks or has issues with. Anticipate that. Answer that right away instead of waiting for them to ask while 12 more hours pass by.
    • Be concise but thorough. This might seem contradictory but it really isn’t. Think of it as progressive disclosure. You start with a short, executive summary-type of intro and then continue with some additional information like context or anticipating those questions to deliver a complete message that (hopefully) doesn’t need much back and forth.
  • Use writing to your advantage. Many people find writing to be tedious and even boring. It doesn’t have to be. Writing is just like talking… but with your fingers. Write just like you speak so when people read, they know it’s you (like with your voice). Use it to your advantage. Think about it: When we speak, sometimes, we go around in circles as we make up our minds about something. Other times, our mouth goes faster than our brain, and we say something we were better off not saying. When writing, you can be much more effective. You can synthesize your thoughts instead of going around in circles and you can avoid saying the wrong thing. Plus, writing just like you speak is much more motivating and engaging than reading some formal lines.

Looking Forward

Remote is here to stay, and managerial styles need to adapt to harness this powerful asset as part of a total talent management strategy.

Our world is evolving faster than ever, and organizations need to be able to quickly respond to change and remain competitive. They can’t do that if they’re limited to the talent available within a 100-mile radius or if they have no understanding of remote work. Teams need to take a holistic route, increasing their effectiveness for talent sourcing beyond location, generation, or type of contract. Leaders must proactively drive change in order to attract the right (i.e., the best) talent. This will only prove more critical as digitally native workers enter into and fuse with the traditional workforce.

Remote work allows immense benefits on both individual and organization levels. As a team, you can simply take it as a new leadership challenge for yourself: to ensure that everyone, remote or not, feels included and engaged to keep—and even increase—team effectiveness.

Last but not least, don’t shy away from going remote yourself—as a manager—and enjoy the same benefits. Sure, Louis Mosca’s words hit home: We’re not able to “name one CEO of a Fortune company that came up through the ranks by way of his or her kitchen table.” You know what? No one has done that… yet.