Leading Across Borders: How Thought Leaders can Create Connected Remote Teams

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

Co-authored with Agata Antonow

The words blinked at Gerald from his laptop: "Where is the Nelson report?! Need it ASAP!"

The message was from Tim, a colleague in Minnesota. In his home office in Alabama, Gerald felt a twinge of panic. Was Tim upset? The report wasn’t due for another three hours, and Gerald was working to complete it on time.

An hour later, the report was done and Gerald was on Skype with another member of the remote team, Kristen. Peering past her shoulder, Gerald could make out a living room, with one lone helium balloon floating in the air. Did Kristen have children? Gerald put the thought aside as he focused on the next project they were working on.

As they talked, Gerald thought he had heard a twang in her voice. Was Kristen from the South? He wondered what it would be like to work with Tim and Kristen in an office. Would they get along? Gerald shook his head as he minimized the Skype icon on his desktop. It was time to get to work on project research.

Gerald faces a reality many professionals find themselves in today: an environment where we not only maneuver usual interpersonal communications, but we get to do it without the facial and body cues most of us rely on to effectively connect with others.

According to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, about 3.7 million employees work remotely at least half of the time. While there are myriad benefits to telework arrangements, they do present challenges for team leaders.

So how can you keep your team on target and feeling like a team instead of a scattering of employees?

1. Recognize that the one thing you can control is your internal conversation.

Just as Gerald did, you might assume a flippant comment over electronic channels is criticism, but your assumptions and inner narratives are not reality. You need to be aware of your own triggers and stories so you can become responsible for yourself.

Understanding your own inner dialogue also lets you turn up the volume on the markers you can access. I worked for years as a choreographer, and I got to know my peers by sharing space and sweat with them. In my current career, I cannot rely on postures and non-verbal communication as easily, especially over the phone. I need to turn up the dial and listen to tone of voice, to the length of time it takes someone to reply, and to other markers.

Most of all, I need to make sure I am listening to the right thing. When Gerald automatically worried that Tim was upset with him, Gerald was reacting to his own story about the exchange. He needed to be aware of that and to compensate for his lack of further information by asking Tim to clarify. Something as simple as “I’m working to meet our deadline today. Has something changed (meaning you need the report sooner than the deadline we agreed on)?” can clear things up. It’s something we all know to do, but all too often we don’t voice our questions.

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2. Get serious about inspiration.

When you’re in a room, leading a team meeting, you can play off the energy of the crowd. When you’re behind a screen and half your team is in a different time zone, you may not be responding in real time to allow that same kind of energy. You can still spark new ideas by:

  • Creating a compelling vision.Thought leaders understand that an inspiring and shared vision can create teams out of strangers. Creating a group narrative and mission and then having your team contribute to that can make a difference. Whether it’s a brag board on social media or a virtual vision board for your team, work on being part of the same story.
  • Getting as close to in-person meetings as possible.Each form of communication is limited in some way. With email, you don’t see a person’s face or reactions. With Skype, you get a glimpse of a person (and where they are), but you don’t have eye contact. Try to use video conferencing, phone, email, and a variety of communication styles to overcome some of the challenges of each medium. Meetings in person, if feasible, can also build connection and give you a fuller picture of each person on the team.
  • Working together with a variety of ideas.When trying to brainstorm, and during idea phases of projects, actively encourage all feedback. Allow all ideas to emerge naturally, without labeling them as good or bad. As team leader, set the pace by offering your own thoughts generously, with no judgment.

3. Embrace an understanding of neuroplasticity to encourage creativity and connection.

In very simplified terms, neuroplasticity refers to our brain’s ability to form new neural pathways. When we make fresh connections, we change our brains so they adapt to new processes. The more we do this, the more we shape our brains to be receptive to the creativity so essential for any business venture.

There are a few ways to encourage neuroplasticity on your team:

  • Play games together.Video games can encourage increases in brain volume. They are also a way to blow off steam and to work together for common goals.
  • Encourage reading.Reading can enhance neuroplasticity. Whether you suggest books to your team or exchange articles you’ve found interesting, talking about what you’ve read together encourages creativity and can help you explore common interests.

Gerald and other remote workers have opportunities to create relationships with teams around the world. But leading a remote team means we lose the physical pat on the back even as we gain global perspectives. Respecting the differences of remote work and adapting to them doesn’t just improve our neuroplasticity—it helps us build human connections that improve happiness and even productivity. After all, without our remote teams, we’re just toiling all alone at our computers.