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Leadership / Managing Remote Teams

Remote Leaders? Here's How Your Company Can Retain 99 Percent of Them.

Forty-one percent of remote workers in one study said they felt their colleagues talked about them behind their backs. How do you keep these people happy?
Remote Leaders? Here's How Your Company Can Retain 99 Percent of Them.
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5 min read

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Remote work has improved employees’ work-life balance and widened company talent pools. Still, there are some drawbacks.

Related: 5 Essential Keys to Leading a Remote Workforce

David Maxfield and Joseph Grenny, authors of Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability, conducted a study of 1,400 employees. They found that 45 percent of their respondents primarily worked from home or some other remote site and that a significant number reported facing greater tensions with co-workers than on-site employees.

For example, 41 percent of remote workers said they felt their colleagues talked about them behind their backs. Comparatively, only 31 percent of onsite workers said the same. Fifty-two percent of remote workers also said they believed people questioned their decisions, while 66 percent said their co-workers had problems making deadlines.

When it comes to remote leaders, these issues are undoubtedly exacerbated; and that can leave them feeling disrespected and isolated. With the right training, however, remote leaders can overcome these challenges. But organizations need to act now because, chances are, remote leaders who are unhappy are already likely looking to jump ship. 

Here’s how three companies we spoke with are developing and retaining remote leaders:

Related: 3 Qualities Every Remote Manager Needs (Infographic)

There’s no such thing as too much training.

At Belay, an Atlanta-based virtual employment staffing firm, the first few weeks of a new employee’s work schedule -- including a remote employee's -- are packed with training. Their schedule is so jammed that many find things overwhelming at first. “They realize that the demanding schedule isn’t meant to be a trial by fire,” CEO Bryan Miles said via email. “Instead, they begin to see it for what it is -- an immediate and unequivocal affirmation of our commitment to their growth.”

As a result, Belay’s remote employees and leaders seem to be happy and loyal. The company boasts a 99.4 percent retention rate (month-over-month). This proves, Miles said, that, “When the soil is rich, people tend to set their roots.”

Like Belay, you too can commit to your remote leaders' development. Give them one day a month to pursue learning. Provide access to online courses and materials so they can choose which skills will benefit them most.

Let remote leaders know that this day is about their personal growth. The point is to focus on skills that will help them reach the next level in their career. Even if a course doesn’t relate to their current role, they need to know they’re free to explore.

Autonomy means nothing without expectations.

SSPR is a public relations agency with multiple U.S. offices. When the company's HR leader, Loni Freeman, wanted to relocate to Charlotte, N.C., she and CEO Heather Kelly set about creating an action plan. This involved being clear about what the company expected from Freeman, as well as how the company would measure success with these expectations.

For the arrangement to work long-term, Kelly, who is based in Colorado Springs, said she wanted proof that when it came to Freeman's HR duties, there would be regular communication and employee relations wouldn’t suffer. 

She apparently received that proof: “Employees have responded very favorably -- we haven’t missed a beat,” Kelly said an in email.

Freeman also pointed out that, as a remote HR leader herself, she had a more objective eye about what was occurring in the different offices. She said she doesn’t rely on what branch managers see and report to her. Instead, she turns to hard facts and data to assess the work environment.

This was especially important in terms of the CEO: By giving that executive, Freeman, more autonomy to work remotely, Kelly said, SSPR has retained a very valuable member of its workforce.

To do the same at your company, discuss the differences remote leaders will face. Few understand the reality of working outside the office full time until they experience it. Telling them what to expect will keep them from feeling shell-shocked by their new challenges.

One of the biggest challenges remote leaders face is communication. Since they’re not talking to their team face to face, misunderstandings can occur. So, when counseling a remote leader, point out ways to avoid this. For example, employees won't be receiving body language cues from an email. Because of that, remote leaders need to use very clear language when they write messages to their teams.

Feedback, feedback, feedback

In 2014, Rajeev Behera co-founded Reflektive, a performance-management software company based in San Francisco, on the belief that feedback and employee growth are critical for all organizations. As a result, the company implemented mentorship and continuous feedback so all of its employees could develop. “My team and I are fully supportive of mentorship to help grow employees for vertical and horizontal moves within our agile organization,” said Behera in an email.

That dedication is paying off. The company has an attrition rate 50 percent lower than that of the typical tech company.

When it comes to communicating with your remote leaders, maintain a positive approach to feedback. Even if an employee makes a mistake, feedback shouldn’t be a punishment, but a chance to learn. Help him or her develop by breaking down what went wrong. Ask what changes can be made if the remote leader faces a similar situation in the future. This way, this individual can take the next steps indicated as a leader.

Related: 5 Ways to Effectively Lead Remote Teams

Encourage remote leaders to take this same approach when giving feedback to their own team members. Remind them that feedback should be motivational. Their employees should always feel empowered to take the next steps following a check-in with their remote leader.

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