3 Must-Have Leadership Competencies For Leading Remote Teams

Leadership Competencies For Leading Remote Teams
Summary: If your team is spending more time in online meetings yet feeling more isolated and less productive, you’re not alone. Leaders need new competencies—and extensions of old ones—to lead remote teams effectively.

Bringing Teams Together When We’re Far Apart

Though the majority of today’s work is collaborative and more and more teams are working remotely, most individuals and teams don’t have a great playbook for remote collaboration. When we see each other only on computer screens, we tend to feel isolated. Leaders often struggle with how to create a community for their remote workforce. If you’re leading a remote team, a top priority must be promoting healthy, productive team communication and collaboration in an online setting. Focusing on these 3 competencies will take you far toward successful team dynamics and outcomes.

1. Build Psychological Safety For Maximum Team Performance

Research in both the academic and commercial sectors has repeatedly shown that how team members treat each other is crucial to high team performance [1], as well as to critical metrics like employee satisfaction, wellness, and retention.

Unhealthy team dynamics can be driven by fear of embarrassment, rejection, and other negative social consequences. Fear is a strong motivator for employees to conform, to go along, to not voice disagreement or a different point of view—to not bring everything they have to offer.

For a team to have more honest conversations, to surface and resolve issues quickly and effectively, and to welcome and make use of more diverse perspectives and ideas, team members must feel psychological safety. That means they trust each other to demonstrate mutual respect and support when they are being themselves and being honest. When teams have high psychological safety, team members bring more of themselves to each other and to their work.

Learn more on psychological safety and how to train it into team habits here. You can start by promoting:

  • Healthy group norms such as:
    • Checking assumptions (instead of assuming you know what someone else wants or what underlies their words and actions)
    • Communicating explicitly about tensions and disagreements as well as appreciations
    • Mutual accountability so that all norms apply to all team members, especially to you as a leader
  • Conversational turn-taking practices
     Use structure in meetings to support all team members having equal opportunity to speak.
  • Attunement and empathy skills
    Team members pay attention to each other’s tone of voice, expressions, and other nonverbal cues.

Healthy norms, turn-taking behaviors, and attunement and empathy skills are mutually reinforcing and can be improved with intentional practice and feedback. See an example of an integrated virtual team skill-building program that includes all these elements here.

2. Facilitate Meetings For Connection And Productivity

Online meetings are a highly visible and impactful opportunity for team dynamics to flourish or flop. Making the most of online gatherings requires planning, good habits, and facilitation skills. Here are some basic aspects of facilitation that can boost your meetings to a higher level in terms of connection and engagement and in terms of productivity:

  • Pre-work
    When appropriate, use pre-polling, pre-reads, and questions for people to think about or research in advance. For a new topic or a topic that you want your team members to come to with fresh eyes, start them thinking about it before they show up to the meeting.
  • Use agendas
    Set topics including goals, intentions, and time allotted. Publish this agenda on the meeting invitation and/or in group chat.

Tip: Do not overcrowd the agenda. A short meeting that does one thing well is more useful than a longer meeting that fails to fully accomplish any of its goals.

Tip: Use mechanisms like “thumb polls” to adjust times and priorities as needed on the fly.

  • Focus and re-focus
    When you introduce a topic, provide focus by asking a question or restating the goal and intention. As conversation proceeds, redirect individuals when necessary to align with the topic/goal/intention.

Tip: Use mechanisms like a “parking lot” to “pin” off-topic ideas and questions to revisit later.

  • Keep time
    ...to keep the conversation moving or allow deeper sharing from people with insight or depth on a particular topic. Timekeeping can help the team accomplish the agenda objectives, rather than losing track of time and getting bogged down in one topic.
  • Ask questions
    ...to clarify, challenge, check assumptions, and open perspectives. Asking well-chosen, well-constructed questions is one of the most powerful tools a facilitator can offer their team.
  • Voice the unspoken
    What’s not being said or addressed, including underlying tensions and assumptions?
  • Invite participation
    Invite team members who have been less active to contribute.

Tip: For best results, do this in a way that makes space for quieter team members to speak up without putting pressure on a specific individual to do so. After the meeting, check in with team members who have been quiet lately or who were quiet during a particular meeting.

  • Reflect and recap
    ...what’s been said or agreed. This ensures common understanding, catches things missed or misunderstood, and brings either closure or renewed energy to the topic.

Facilitation skills aren’t just for getting things done, and they’re not just for large meetings. Setting the focus, asking questions, voicing the unspoken, inviting participation, and reflecting and recapping help build connections and relationships at all levels, from one-on-one conversations to leading whole companies.

  • Delegate and rotate facilitation roles
    ...to boost engagement, build team skills, and bake in mutual accountability. Your team will benefit greatly as more people on your team build their facilitation skills.

Meetings can have many purposes. This list offers options for converting different types of activities to a virtual setting.

3. Build Technology Fluency

This competency ensures that technologies like video chat bridge gaps between team members instead of further separating them.

Technical difficulties are a common frustration in online gatherings. You can’t eliminate poor internet connections, but you can make transitions to breakout rooms quick and seamless. Practice until you can quickly and smoothly use breakout rooms, polls, chat, and other features, and make sure your team members have the training they need to get comfortable too.

For all its shortcomings, video chat also offers some substantial advantages over face-to-face meetings, including:

  • Group chat allows team members to post ideas, questions, etc., without verbal interruption. When you lead a topic, ask questions and invite everyone to post their responses to group chat to get all perspectives in the room quickly, with equal visibility.
  • Anonymous polls let people respond to questions that might feel too risky to answer candidly otherwise.
  • Breakout rooms bring small group intimacy, inclusivity, and productivity within the context of full group information sharing.
    • Tackling a topic in multiple small groups is more engaging and allows divergent views to emerge more readily than in a single large-group discussion.
    • People feel energized when they get things done, and small groups are typically more agile and faster than large groups at accomplishing specific tasks.

This article [2] offers additional tips on using technology to aid psychological safety in online meetings.

Get comfortable using these features of your tools, both as a participant and as the meeting host. Experiment with these features on your team until everyone finds them easy to use and the technology disappears from your group awareness. That’s when the tool truly shifts from standing between team members to enabling better interactions and connections among them.


[1] What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team: New research reveals surprising truths about why some work groups thrive and others falter 

[2] How to Foster Psychological Safety in Virtual Meetings 

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