3 Remote Leadership Skills Needed to Successfully Manage Distributed Teams

UPDATED: October 12, 2023
PUBLISHED: October 8, 2021
Asian woman working at a cafe on her computer showing her remote leadership skills

The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed the way people work. This is changing every aspect of work—not just where and how work gets done, but also workplace design, employee-employer relationships, employee expectations, management styles and more. 

With the shift to remote work, many companies realized that embedded practices within their organizations no longer served a purpose. Leaders found their management style and existing leadership skills were no longer effective with people working remotely. Some employees realized that their priorities had changed. 

As a result of the changes brought forth by the pandemic and the shift to remote work, organizations are changing their policies and employees are not afraid to ask for more from their companies. It’s not business as usual, and managers need to reflect on that and act accordingly. 

The need for remote leadership skills is here to stay.

Companies have increasingly announced plans to embrace hybrid work models. This doesn’t come as much as a surprise, as various surveys have found that workers are ready to quit if forced back into the office full-time. In an already tight labor market, it’s only natural for leaders to accommodate employee demands in the hopes of retaining top talent. 

For managers, this means they will be leading distributed teams most of the time, and their leadership skills will need to adapt to better fit remote work models. For many leaders, this means working more on their soft skills to ensure that employees are engaged, motivated and inspired—whether they’re working in the office, at home or from a third space. 

3 remote leadership skills every manager needs to succeed in the future of work

1. Building trust

Trust is key to the success of distributed teams; without it, nothing would get done. When managers can build trust within their teams, they will drive productivity, collaboration and engagement. 

If employees know that their leaders trust them to do a job well, they are more likely to be enthusiastic about their work. This can, in turn, increase the likelihood of innovation and disruption within an organization. When employees know they are trusted, they are not afraid to go above and beyond, to speak up or to try things that are out of the norm. 

Beyond motivating and engaging employees, trust plays a key role in getting employees to be honest and transparent about the challenges they are facing, which makes them more likely to ask for help and support to meet their goals. 

2. Leading with empathy

For hybrid work models to succeed, leaders must be empathetic. Working remotely—whether from home or a third space—is quite different from working in the office. Empathetic leaders understand this, and they support employees based on their unique needs and circumstances. 

A recent study found that empathy is a key driver of employee outcomes in distributed teams, including innovation, engagement and inclusion. 

In a remote work environment, developing empathy as a leadership skill means respecting both an employee’s work and their personal life. Empathetic leaders support employees based on what matters to each individual employee, whether supporting them as they balance childcare and work or supporting them as they aim to improve their personal well-being. 

3. Practicing the power of gratitude

Various surveys have found that remote workers are more likely to feel disconnected from their teams and their company’s mission compared to their in-office counterparts. It’s easier for people to connect and engage with one another in face-to-face interactions. Although digital tools and platforms have improved the ability to work remotely, they’re not the same at replicating in-person interactions. 

To prevent employees from feeling disconnected—which can drop engagement and productivity levels—managers need to show gratitude for their teams daily. 

A simple thank you can help an employee feel included and feel like their work contributes to a company’s overarching goals and vision. It also sets an expectation for excellence, according to Nadia Tatlow, CEO of Shift. 

“Saying thank you in advance shows the person that you can’t even imagine that they can’t achieve what has been laid out,” Tatlow says.

This not only helps employees feel valued, but it helps them feel more connected to a company, which has become a key driver of employee attraction and retention. 

The future of work is employee focused.

The “great resignation” is here. A competitive salary is no longer enough to retain top talent. Even satisfied employees are open to the idea of searching for a new job. 

In the current market, employees hold the leverage, and they are searching for meaning, purpose and connection at work—not just a paycheck. 

Companies that will outperform competitors in the future of work are bringing back humanity to management. They are prioritizing the employee experience and listening to what they need from the organization (delayed return to office plans, more flexibility and more autonomy at work). 

Trust, gratitude and empathy are the specific leadership skills that can help remote teams thrive. Beyond that, and more importantly, it can help organizations win the war for talent while driving employee happiness and satisfaction. 

This article was updated October 2023. Photo by insta_photos/Shutterstock.com

Cecilia de San Jose is Managing Editor at Allwork.Space. She writes about the future of work, workplace wellness, and flexible workspaces on a regular basis. She is also a host for Allwork.Space’s Future of Work Podcast.