Leaders should use this one metric to improve the morale of geographically distributed teams

Vy Luu
Vy Luu
Jul 24 · 9 min read
Credit: GDJ/Pixabay

Business leaders today have the increased challenge of managing teams across multiple locations. It may be in-person, across a campus of offices, or strictly over video and instant messaging apps.

I’m one of those leaders. I work with a technology team spread out across Canada. We are called a distributed, virtual, remote team.

A virtual leader is commonly defined as someone who manages toward a common purpose, using technology to communicate to a team in different time zones and locations.

Of our team of 30, a third sit a few feet away from me, in an open environment hidden only by computer monitors. Others share the same floor, separated by a wall or two. One moved to another province last year. The rest of the team is divided by the Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Virtual Leadership Challenge

Why am I suggesting leading teams in different regions is even harder than leading teams within the same location?

Because we already have these six common leadership challenges with managing in-person teams:

  • Purpose: connecting the why of daily work for our teams so they are excited to learn and grow with our businesses.
  • Focus: prioritizing the highest reward work so our organizations and clients will be highly satisfied.
  • Guide: leading teams from any performance state to a higher one, so excellence is a constant goal.
  • Change: developing our ability to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Then lead, execute, and thrive in changing environments.
  • Growth: growing team members to become experts in their craft so they can become leaders in their field, then build more leaders.
  • Relationships: building capacity to work with others so we can influence the adoption of new ideas up, down, and across all levels of the organization.

The added layer of complexity is in operating with teams outside of our physical surroundings, to achieve a purpose, focus, through guiding change, growth, and building relationships.

The indicator of good virtual leadership

A high number of quality messages transacted within a team can be a reliable indicator of an excellent virtual leader. A study analyzed the communication frequency between managers and teams in different locations.

There was one manager who stood out.

The team he managed was noted for their ‘excellent’ morale. The difference between him and other managers was the high quality of interactions he had with his team. Quality, in this case, translated to 32 contacts per week with his employees. An achievement that outshone the others.

Remote coaching in a high-performing team

My partner and I moved away to the west coast from Ontario in 2017. He continued to coach his dragon boat team (remotely) since then.

When Gavin Maxwell contemplated leading the team from afar, he shared his plan with me. I blurted out, ‘you can’t coach a sports team virtually, I’ve never heard of that!’ It was a judgemental reaction I’m not proud of. And, fortunately for the future of his team’s success, he didn’t listen.

Instead, as a world-class dragon boat coach, he talked to his team as much as 77 times in one week.

He only visits two to three times per year for training camps and regattas. He uses Whatsapp religiously to stay connected with his assistant coaches and the team of ~50 paddlers. They talk about practice attendance, performance, team line ups, and personal highs and lows.

They have earned countless gold, silver and bronze medals competing against the German, Chinese and Canadian top teams. Despite his not being on-site physically, their excellence has not diminished; in fact, it has improved!

77 times in a week; that’s 11 times per day. All to make sure that his message remains clear and the team stays focused. They get clarity, support, and encouragement daily.

On July 20, 2019, this team won the Canadian Dragon Boat Championship in an intensely competitive arena. This major win proves remote leadership can work and high communication is the secret weapon.

My communication frequency was too low

Are you doing what I did when I realized the volume of messages both of these high performing leaders had with their teams?

I counted my work instant messages because it was the quickest way to have a baseline measure of my communication frequency. Of course, I could count meetings, emails, and other types of interactions but I was looking for an easy indicator.

For relationship context, I also counted the number of messages with my partner, best friend, and family. Here are the results:

  • With my best friend in another province: 58
  • With my live-in partner: 40
  • With my parents in another province: 15
  • With my direct team members: 5–13

Faced with this terribly low team text messaging count, I immediately tried to defend my position. I reasoned this result was not bad because there were other correspondences that week via face-to-face, video, and group chats.

A nagging doubt challenged me to demand more of myself.

The literature showing a team with high morale performs better moved me to change. I launched a new personal goal to increase my digital interactions. Understanding that work relationships differ from personal, I set a 20/week target.

I set the goal to communicate every day with team members out of my sight. I set aside short time slots each day for chatting. I learned about upcoming weekend plans, last evening’s activities, and their mood of the day.

Throughout the daily conversations, I attempted to address the common leadership challenges through my written messages. My lessons and suggestions follow. For each practice, I’ll relate it back to those original six leadership challenges: purpose, focus, guide, change, growth, and relationships.

1. Communicate Every Day

It was disappointing to learn how little I communicated with team members who were out of my sight. The number of days we went without interaction was significant because we didn’t each other in the office to even say hello. This was especially true when I wasn’t a part of a project or activity that needed daily updates.

When I began to purposely increase contacts with my distributed team, I noticed an inner nagging voice saying that this wasn’t productive work. But it is. The job of a leader is to actively communicate the vision and remove roadblocks so teams can operate at their best. If your leadership style is do-do-do with a bias that work equals action, you may encounter the same issue.

PURPOSE: Link individual accomplishments with the business objective

Keeping team members excited about how their work relates to the success of the business is more easily done in person. With teams in locations different from ours, we can look for these ways to connect their work to the strategy:

  • Write congratulatory notes when milestones are accomplished and link them to business objectives — for example, you achieved your sales goal this month and that means we are 50% closer to meeting our annual objective.
  • Celebrate achievements in video conference calls and discuss how happy clients will be — for example, your team had the highest customer satisfaction score; you exhibit our client happiness value.

Great leaders are those who trust their gut. They are those who understand the art before the science. They win hearts before minds. They are the ones who start with WHY. — Simon Sinek

FOCUS: Reserve new ideas until current major projects are done

When we share off-the-cuff ideas in person, it’s much easier to dismiss them as just ideas for a later date. However, for teams relying mostly on communication in chat rooms, a written message could be misinterpreted as the new priority.

  • Create individual memos for each team member in a notebook.
  • Write ideas for that individual as they occur to you.
  • Wait to communicate new activities and goals at an appropriate time.

GUIDE: Demand excellence in providing ongoing specific feedback in writing

It is often easier for managers to congratulate a team member for a job well done in person because it only takes a few words and a pat on the back. The same is true for pulling a team member aside to give constructive feedback.

Managers may delay giving positive and improvement advice to distributed team members because it takes more time to write it out or book a video call. Because of the delay, remote team members have fewer opportunities to talk about improvement. And fewer discussions on improvement can result in sub-par work for a longer period of time.

  • Write positive feedback using the formula You showed [insert attitude] with [insert activity], I appreciated your [insert thinking style] approach!
  • Attitude words: positivity, high energy, flexibility, dedication, reliability
  • Thinking style words: innovative, problem solving, collaborative, adaptable

Example: You showed high energy with the presentation you delivered, I appreciated your collaborative approach!

CHANGE: Practice and follow up on new methods daily

When changes are introduced, the act of not following the change is likely more visible in person. Leaders can be misled thinking that online teams have adopted a new method when in fact they have not.

  • Follow up on a new change every few weeks or days.
  • Ask what is and isn’t working to work through any barriers for change.

GROWTH: Actively discuss professional development opportunities

Discussions about career opportunities can easily be forgotten between employees and leaders in general. But with distributed teams, it can be completely tossed aside with work priorities always taking over. Managers can pay closer attention to project issues that come up as a way to identify development areas in time management, communication, or role-specific skills. Then schedule video conference calls to support online team members with ongoing improvement plans.

  • Schedule a monthly YOU time where the meeting is focused on the team member and their needs only.
  • Set these agendas to be about the individual’s aspirations.

RELATIONSHIPS: Improve relations by chatting about non-work

One of the common leadership challenges is in developing trust through relationship building with our teams. Relationships can take longer to build with distributed team members that we don’t meet every day.

Drown out the voice that says daily chatting is unimportant work. If we see these chats as showing care for our virtual teams, then this is precisely the type of work every leader is responsible for.

  • Repeat to yourself, this is valuable work for a leader.
  • Then open a chat window and say, ‘hi.’
  • Ask something social like ‘What’s the morning beverage you’re having?’ It could lead to ‘How do you take your coffee?’ Or perhaps, ‘Did you watch the NBA finals?’

I had to fight the urge to open with a work-related question. I had to remind myself often that I was setting the foundation for open communication, so talking about work was not mandatory. I felt awkward initiating a personal question in the chat window. I told myself I could wait until I’m with the individual in person. Lyrics from Dean Brody cautions to not take time for granted:

The trouble is you think you have time. You think tomorrow’s always coming down the line. And then one day you wake up and you find. The trouble is you think you had time.

2. Express Feelings With Emojis, Emoticons, or Descriptive Words

Contextual feelings are absent from a plain text message. Test this theory yourself by reviewing recent chats, and insert descriptive words or emojis to see the message transform itself.

I prefer to seek unique emojis to best deliver my message. There are three options to choose from depending on comfort level and available time. A combination of descriptive words, emojis or emoticons can be selected from the list below.

  • Add one from the hundreds of available emojis, like the ones surrounding the border of the list below.
  • Add words that describe a feeling, like one across the four categories of happy, sad, angry, or other.
  • Add emoticons like =D or :) or :} for a low-tech alternative.
Image via http://RewardsCharts4Kids.com.

The Importance of High-Frequency Communication

Any leader with a virtual team should consider perking up their conversations. Creating powerful online interactions between companies and customers is a hot topic. It should be the same for leaders and team members.

The frequency of interactions with my onsite team members is naturally higher. But physical distance doesn’t have to be the barrier. Each chat I initiated were roughly 6 messages in total. I was encouraged. With a five day work week, it is very reasonable to hit ~30 messages per week.

The 30+ contacts made by the manager with a highly motivated team can serve as an aspirational metric. For those of us starting out, sending three to six messages on a daily basis is attainable. And it is my starting goal.

I’m excited to continue stretching my leadership style in managing diversely located teams. From this week’s chats, my colleagues and I exchanged some smiles. I came away genuinely grateful we talked, and each team member brought a smile to my face.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Thanks to Fredric Schwartz and Victor Ha

Vy Luu

Written by

Vy Luu

Some times I lead, other times I follow, most of the time I stumble. Always searching for advice on becoming a better leader, colleague and being

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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