Managing Remote Teams: Challenges and Best Practices

October 19, 2020 24 Min Read

Building a frictionless, perfectly-aligned distributed team is every leader’s dream. The good news is you can get pretty darn close to that goal by preaching—and practicing—a holistic approach to remote leadership.

In this article, you’ll find answers to the following questions:

  • 🧩 What are the common challenges of remote teams?
  • 👤 How do they affect individual employees?
  • 🧘‍♀️ What’s a holistic approach to remote leadership?
  • 🔧 How do you roll it out across your team?

💡 Before you begin… This article is part of our series on remote leadership. Be sure to read our other stories for more practical tips:

  1. 📘 Remote Mentoring and Team Onboarding
  2. 💣 Diffusing Conflict in Distributed Teams
  3. 🎵 Remote Collaboration and Autonomous Squads
  4. 🤝 How to Foster Remote Team Camaraderie

When Your Remote Team Needs A Leg-Up

“When people talk, listen completely.” 

Ernest Hemingway

It’s not exactly easy to keep tabs on your teammates’ well-being when your entire team is 100% remote. Time-zone differences, irregular communication, cultural barriers…

No wonder many team leaders miss the early signs of a team snafu.

1. Remote Work Burnout

“Remember to take care of yourself. You can’t pour from an empty cup.”


Fully remote, hybrid, or co-located, teams start and end their lives with individuals. And that means the well-being of an employee affects the entire organizational structure.

So, how are those individuals doing?

The latest FlexJobs/Mental Health America survey of 1,500 workers (76% remote) found that 40% experienced burnout during the pandemic.(1)

The culprits? Mounting work obligations, poor time management, no work-life balance, and prolonged isolation are more than enough to cause damage:

  • ✋ Withdrawal from team activities
  • ❌ Communication only for work-related matters
  • ⏰ Absenteeism and frequent sick leaves 
  • 🤷‍♀️ Missed deadlines and lower work quality
  • 🙅‍♂️ Complaining and naysaying

In many cases, you can help alleviate burnout by giving your team more flexibility in setting their schedules. If everything else fails, a longer vacation—away from the home office—may be in order once COVID-19 is out of the picture.

2. Weak Team Spirit

Getting work done across several time zones and thousands of miles? The global 180 to remote work has proved that high-performing distributed teams aren’t unicorns.

With proper onboarding and virtual mentoring, even rookie telecommuters find their way around remote workplaces. That is as long as the team spirit is there.

  • 🙈 Nobody owns up to their mistakes.
  • 👎 Making decisions takes longer than usual.
  • 💁‍♂️ Diffused responsibility becomes a trend.
  • 🔥 Problems become more important than solutions.
  • 🤷‍♀️ The entire team notoriously misses deadlines.

Well-aligned distributed teams (usually) don’t fall apart overnight. It often happens that a waning team spirit is a sequel to trifles you missed or have been ignoring for too long.

3. Remote Workplace Conflict

“The aim of argument and of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.”

Joseph Joubert

Strong team camaraderie doesn’t make workplace conflict disappear completely. After all, you don’t want your team to nod to every idea, even if it’s a really bad one. Instead, it helps diffuse unproductive disagreements before they escalate.

Benign problems left unattended aren’t only detrimental to your team’s performance. They also affect how people interact with each other on a daily basis.

Next thing you know, friendly vibes give way to a finger-pointing contest, with people taking it out on each other for no apparent reason.

Here are a handful of red flags you should look out for:

  • ✋ Team members are notoriously left out of conversations.
  • 👉 Finger-pointing becomes a standard practice.
  • 🚧 The team breaks down into small, siloed groups.
  • 🙊 People self-censor because of unconstructive criticism.
  • 🤦‍♀️ Critical work feedback turns into personal attacks.

As the tension builds up, you’ll see crippled communication and quality/quantity of work spiraling down, nowhere near where it used to be.

🧘‍♀️ 5-Steps to Holistic Remote Leadership

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”

Phil Jackson

Do you think of your team as a uniform collective or rather a bunch of individuals that just happen to work toward a shared goal? Well, you should be doing both.

A holistic approach to remote leadership means that:

  1. 🏋️ You recognize the professional contribution of each team member.
  2. 🤝 You perceive the social interactions that happen behind the scenes.
  3. 🛠️ You consistently put in time and effort to fine-tune these elements.

Here is a set of big and small tips that’ll help you do all that:

1. Loneliness? Who’s Got Time for That?

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you”

Dale Carnegie

Going 100% remote is great, right?

You dodge the commute, set your own schedule, skip on restaurant queues, and have an entire office (or closet) all to yourself. But doesn’t that feel… lonely?

The thing is, humans are social animals. Even if some of your remote employees send some lone-wolf vibes, they still need spontaneous interactions once in a while.

As one Reddit user observes:

“I get to walk my dog, wear sweatpants, and don’t have the office interruptions that are productivity’s worst nightmare. I can really knock out some writing assignments with long, uninterrupted stretches of silence. But lately, I’ve been feeling really lonely. And I think this is something remote workers need to talk about more than we do.”(3)

Here’s what you can do to keep your team out of the loneliness loop.

  • ☕ Put video coffee breaks on the calendar.
  • 👥 Run spontaneous 1-on-1s.
  • 🤳 Prioritize video over other channels.
  • ⭐ Lead by example and communicate often.
  • 🧰 Give your team the right tools.
  • 📰 Start a team newsletter.

Show your team that remote work doesn’t equal radio silence. Prioritize dialogue and make yourself available, not because you have to but because you can.

2. Come Together and Drive Change

“If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.”

Betty Reese

Engaging in social initiatives is not only good for the community. It’s also a great way to rekindle team spirit and (re)learn to enjoy getting things done together.

The best thing about giving back? It all starts with the little things. And most of the time your team doesn’t even have to leave their home offices to make a difference.

Here are a couple of ideas:

  • 🌱 Organize a fundraiser for a chosen non-profit.
  • 👩‍🏫 Offer time off for virtual volunteering.
  • 📦 Throw an online garage sale for charity.
  • ➕ Launch a donation matching program.
  • 😷 Make surgical masks or 3D-print face shields.
  • 📚 Transcribe books for Project Gutenberg.
  • 💬 Translate for non-profits with Translators Without Borders.
  • 🤝 Sign up for UN Volunteering projects.

Don’t feel like starting your own thing? There are thousands of charities and non-profits, both local and international, that need your team’s help.

Jump over here for our list of #BlackLivesMatter resources.

3. Set the Boundaries

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” 

Blaise Pascal

Figuring out the recipe for a happy and productive remote team is a heck of a puzzle.

While you can—to some degree—control internal circumstances like team/management dynamic, you can’t bully your remote employees into improving their work-life balance (not that you should).

The good news is you can still lead by example and show them their boundaries:

Sure, we love the “connectedness” of a remote workplace. But tackling work from the confines of a home office is a fine opportunity to catch some “me” moments too.

Deep, focused work thrives in a distraction-free environment. So if you want your team to build up that productive flow, encourage them to go AWOL once in a while.

If you want to learn more about deep work and digital minimalism, be sure to read Seeking Balance and Tranquility and Minimalism in a Digital Remote World.

4. Continue Office-Life Traditions

“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”

Booker T. Washington

Birthdays, employment anniversaries, project milestones, welcome parties… If you want to keep your team integrity high, make sure to put those events on the calendar.

According to Judith E. Glaser at Psychology Today:

“Creating a feeling of celebration helps meet people’s needs for inclusion, innovation, appreciation, and collaboration. Our brains are designed to be social – and the need for human contact is greater than the need for safety.”(2)

So, what are you waiting for?

  • 🎂 Create customized birthday (e)cards.
  • 🎅 Mail Christmas stocking fillers.
  • 🍻 Throw a video party to celebrate.
  • 🎁 Send welcome packages to new hires.
  • 🍕 Order food delivery for employees of the week.
  • 💐 Arrange a flower delivery.

Team celebrations don’t have to turn into a Gatsby-style extravaganza. Even the smallest gestures can become meaningful moments that bring people together.

Oh, and let’s not forget about all those local businesses you’ll help support. After all, somebody has to make and deliver that crispy capricciosa, right?

5. Create Opportunities to Unwind

“If you can laugh together, you can work together.”

Robert Oren

What happens when your team calls it day? Do you all frantically mash the “sign out” button or stick around to chat and have some fun together?

Here’s the thing. Promoting social interactions is one of the best ways to keep your team in harmony. And just in case you’re wondering, shop talk doesn’t count.

Here are a couple of ideas:

  • 📚 Start a virtual book club.
  • 🧘‍♂️ Organize video workout sessions.
  • 🛠 Run an internal “How I Work” FAQ.
  • 🎶 Create a collaborative Spotify playlist.
  • 🏓 Play competitive multiplayer games.
  • 🥗 Share favorite home-office recipes.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what your idea of fun is. All you have to do is show initiative and put social activities high on your remote leadership to-do list.

🐑 Conclusion

Building a well-aligned, fully distributed organization is a complex enterprise. Not only do you have to truly understand what makes each and every team member tick, but you also need to see the intricate connections that bind them all together.

And that’s what true remote leadership is all about.

🤖 Custom AI Agents: Coordinate and manage remote team tasks, schedules, and deadlines with smart agents that run in the background.

🪄 AI Generator: Generate meeting agendas, project updates, or collaborative documents tailored to your team’s workflow.

✏️ AI Assistant: Streamline communication by summarizing discussions, generating project documentation, and editing your writing.

🗂️ AI Prompt Templates Library: Use AI prompts to kick off remote brainstorming sessions, project planning, and team check-ins.

💬 AI Chat: Engage in discussions with AI to amplify team communication, find solutions to problems, and develop ideas.

📄 Media Q&A: Analyze team interactions and project documents to extract insights for team dynamics, collaboration, and productivity.

And much more…

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🔗 Resources


Last Updated on April 24, 2024 by fazrin