In this COVID era, remote work has become the norm for nearly everyone. But virtual management is a new task for first-time leaders, and also for many “old-school” executives too. What’s the best way to build, lead, and – most importantly – mentor remote teams? In this leader’s guide to remote management and mentoring, we’ll show how to use live video meetings to ask the right questions, so your virtual team will perform better.
Here’s what we’ll cover in this guide:
Communications are the key to remote leadership success
These days, if you’re managing workers remotely, it probably means you rarely or never meet them in-person. But in order to manage workers’ performance and productivity sight-unseen, you’ll need super-clear communications through robust channels.
That means using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or any other reliable video conferencing platform daily. Emails and texts aren’t enough. For the best insight into what’s really going on with workers, spend most of your time interacting through live video instead of written messages.
You can manage a team’s workflow and basic communications on platforms like Asana, Trello, and Slack. But when priorities or deadlines suddenly change intraday, you’ll need “live” real-time video for individual check-ins or group meetings.
As we’ll show with examples below, live video is the quickest way to get everyone on the same page. Even when priorities change quickly, you can use the insights from each successive meeting to keep an offshore “night shift” working while your day team sleeps.
Communication tips for virtual leadership
The simplest way to boost performance is to establish a mandatory daily check-in time for each team member. If you’re already having a live group meeting in the form of a daily huddle as described below, then the individual check-in can be kept short and simple through email or text.
Winning teams have a huddle
Another team-building, performance-boosting tip is the “daily huddle.” For example, business development guru Verne Harnish and others recommend establishing a 5- to 15-minute daily “pre-game huddle” with all available team members, according to their time zones.
If your team is spread out globally, it’s best to schedule two meetings twelve hours apart, but still compatible with your own workday. Focus your huddle strictly on opportunities and issues. Stick to the same format, such as answering the same simple questions in less than five minutes:
- What opportunities will become available within the next 24 hours?
- What are the most urgent problems to be overcome?
- What are the metrics for today? (For example, sales quotas, marketplace stats, trading volumes, or other operational data to measure performance)
If you enforce a strict agenda with concrete time limits for this daily huddle, your team will certainly perform better. But that’s strictly a top-down management approach. What about using multi-level leadership methods?
Worker-to-worker direct communication
Unlike their leaders, ordinary workers often waste valuable time waiting for instructions because they don’t understand project requirements. Worse, they may be afraid to ask managers for clarification.
To save resources, don’t be an “information-gatekeeper.” Instead, encourage your team to communicate freely among themselves in parallel with your communications, sharing their own insights and issues.
That’s always the quickest (and cheapest) way to find and resolve problems previously overlooked. But how can you get “free solutions” for your management problems?
First an audition call, then the beauty contest
Ordinary workers and specialized contractors can both learn from managers in a top-down way. Or, they can learn directly from each other. But they can also teach their managers by suggesting bottom-up solutions that nobody has considered before.
Good team leaders use incentives to boost productivity, especially for salespeople. Yet, the same question-based methods work across service industries too.
For example, you can fuel a feeding frenzy among software-coding team members simply by contacting them with an “audition call” like this:
Manager: Our client has tightened the deadline for Project ABC. We’ll need to complete it within 5 weeks instead of the 8 weeks originally planned. But here’s the good news: If we can reduce our turnaround by at least 30%, then the client has agreed to double the size of the project. I’m looking for good ideas from everyone, then I’ll choose the best ways to speed up this project. Based on your experience, how do you recommend that we reduce the turnaround time?
Employee: Well, on a similar project I changed $#% to !%# and had much faster results. That’s how I recommend we could cut our turnaround down by about half.
After your audition call, the next step is to independently test the suggestions before judging the winners in your “beauty contest.” Encourage your crew to communicate directly among themselves, and you’ll harvest big improvements in productivity and performance at the lowest cost.
Your entire team wins the game, along with other stakeholders.
For remote leadership and mentoring, questions are the answer
Good questioning techniques, body language, and listening skills are your best tools for managing and mentoring remotely. During a video meeting, you’ll get plenty of valuable information from a person’s appearance, tone, and delivery, as well as their texts.
Look for visual clues to make sure the team understands your instructions and expectations. Use side-chats and text messages for private questions and comments during your video meetings.
As we’ve shown above, and for reasons explained below, good questioning is the best way to figure out what’s really happening, and fix problems from afar.
Here’s a good technique for assessing someone’s attitude and readiness: In private meetings or chats, ask well-focused questions that take workers outside their comfort zones.
Then watch their body language for clues about whether they understand the instructions and agree with your expectations.
Use open-end questions instead of “parrot” questions
Open-end questioning is another powerful tool for leadership. The easiest way to test someone’s understanding is to ask open-end questions during a video meeting.
Open-end questions are those which can’t be answered by a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ They require a thoughtful answer. Ask open-end questions while looking people straight in the eye, and watch for their unscripted responses.
Avoid simple yes-no or “parrot” questions that allow easy responses. For example:
Parrot question: “You know the deadline, right?”
Here’s an example of a typical open question: “So, what are your thoughts about the upcoming deadline for our project?”
Answer: “Well, I might need your help to resolve a few last-minute issues…”
But let’s slow down for a moment, and consider why good questioning techniques are so important.
How to question your way to success
Throughout this brief guide, we’ve shown several questioning techniques that are useful for boosting your team’s performance and productivity. It’s important to understand how and why questions are so effective when workers are far away from managers.
Questioning is highly effective for virtual management for a couple of reasons: First, according to certain theories of psychology, whoever asks the questions controls the conversation (Jung’s transactional analysis).
Some psychologists say that no idea can be established as truth in a person’s mind until or unless they first take ownership by agreeing with a question, right? (That’s an “assumptive question,” which is a different type described in another guide.)
Stated differently, answering questions helps people make personal disclosures and commitments, confirm understandings, and take ownership of decisions. As a virtual leader, you can’t be there in person to convince them to perform better…… But you can certainly keep asking the right questions until they convince themselves!
OK, so questions are helpful for leading a team from afar. But what’s the best way to build your team from scratch by hiring good talent?
Good virtual workers have skills and work habits which don’t show up on resumes. Hire new people by checking those characteristics in real time before they come aboard.
If you can’t do an in-person interview, do a video interview. Before the COVID pandemic, managers in traditional corporate culture wouldn’t hire staff without first seeing them in person, or at least on video.
It doesn’t matter how stellar a resume appears, there’s no reason not to use live video to look people in the eye before trusting them with your business reputation. During each video interview, ask difficult questions about their history with similar projects.
Here are some good “test questions” to help identify productive distance workers:
- What’s your least-recognized strength as a worker? Why?
- What was the least-satisfying work project you’ve ever completed? Why?
- What is your biggest weakness as a worker?
- Who had the greatest influence on your life? (Ask them to name a parent, religious leader, or someone who has influenced their life.)
- What is your least favorite animal, and why?
- What will you be doing five years from now?
By asking unexpected questions, you’ll briefly take interviewees outside their comfort zones. Watching responses on video in real time, you’ll have an opportunity to see whether they’re flexible enough to work with a diverse team and overcome unforeseen obstacles.
To avoid misfits, insist on a trial or probationary period for all new team members. Don’t make any commitments until you’ve seen a team member’s sustained performance in handling project challenges.
Of course, the standout candidates for virtual work are those who are already skilled in the desired niches and have proven track records. Yet, don’t overlook newbies who might later grow into bigger roles. Remote mentoring is a great way to build a stronger team while also enhancing your own leadership brand.
Coaching and mentoring your team to win the long game
In a virtual work environment, it’s important for people to know when they’re on track. Let workers know how their individual contributions are helping to meet the project’s goals.
Also, being a mentor for a remote mentee is a great way to “play the long game” and build a legacy of success for the future. Teams need a daily dose of praise and positive feedback about performance.
They also need quick guidance if they stray from operating protocols or miss deadlines. To avoid blindsiding team members with negative feedback at the end, ask the right questions, and invite self-evaluation throughout the project. The best solution is to incorporate a two-way feedback routine into each private meeting.
Good questions for feedback
Give team members a short, standard list of questions, then apply their insights to improve your own leadership results.
- Which part of this project do you enjoy the most? Which part do you hate the most?
- What’s your biggest concern about the project?
- What is one thing you would change?
- If you could say something anonymously to the client about this project, what would it be?
- Which other member of the team has been most helpful?
- What would make this project easier for you?
Feedback for workers is great, but what’s the best way for a team leader to mentor people? As always, questions are the answer.
Questions for remote mentoring
- What have you been working on this week?
- What is the highlight of the project so far?
- What was the most surprising outcome of your action?
- If you could learn only one new skill this year, what would it be?
Remote leadership development and mentoring during times of change
Teams thrive on good communications and mentoring. Live video combined with sharp questioning and observation skills can help you become a remote leader that teams will eagerly follow.
Do you have questions about leadership development, remote management, or mentoring? Contact me for answers!
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