Tactics for leading a distributed workforce

It was as if an explosion had happened under our feet. We all had a “wake-up” moment in early 2020, more than 1,000 days ago. The quarantine announcements rolled across our organizational landscape, and how we led our teams instantly changed forever.

As an advisor and thought leader on how people are managed, I noted a distribution curve of how leaders handled the “new abnormal” thrust upon us. A classic distribution curve divides a population into three segments, and I observed leadership changes falling into three traditional categories.

  • A small component quickly adapted to the “new game, new rules.”
  • A majority segment moved forward with only a few changes in their leadership style.
  • A third smaller group chose to leave leadership altogether, either stepping into a new role as an entrepreneur or individual contributor, or selecting retirement and leaving the formal workforce.

6 tactics to maintain a distributed workforce while building a cohesive culture

The first group that adapted quickly offers some basic tactics for success as you face the challenge of leading a distributed workforce while maintaining or building a cohesive culture. I also share more tactics that I have noted in the group of “new world” leaders achieving success.

1. Establish clear communication channels

Communication is essential when working with a distributed workforce. Leaders should ensure that all team members have access to the necessary communication tools and understand how to use them effectively.

I saw an excellent example of this in an accounting department—they were not an extroverted group. The leader saw that she had to build a new set of communication channels to resolve conflicts and provide for conversations on innovation.

Difficult People D

The leader, a soccer fan, noted that referees used yellow and red cards to communicate the severity of penalties. So she went back to basics. She issued each employee a yellow and red card, with the instruction to use these cards to get her attention any time an issue needed to be discussed. The employee could either show a card at the leader’s doorway or, if they were working remotely, mention a red or yellow card in a direct message or email.

Raising the card would get the employee on the leader’s calendar to discuss the issue. It gave a formal method for “raising your hand.” A yellow card meant a medium level of importance, and a discussion would be scheduled at a convenient time. A red card was a “showstopper,” and the leader promised to discuss the issue privately with the employee immediately. The staff appreciated that they now had an easily understood channel to get on the leader’s radar. It helped overcome the distance many were feeling as they were working remotely.

2. Encourage collaboration

Leaders building sustainable cultures encourage team members to work together on projects, share ideas and give feedback to one another.

3. Set clear expectations

This includes deadlines, deliverables, and quality standards which help to ensure everyone is working toward the same goals.

4. Foster a sense of community

This is crucial, mainly if the group is distributed and is in a different physical location. This can be done through teambuilding activities, volunteerism, social events, and other initiatives that help to bring team members together.

5. Motivate by recognizing and rewarding excellence

Leaders should recognize and reward excellence in their distributed workforce, just as they would with an in-person team. This builds a sense of accomplishment among team members.

6. Emphasize company values

Leaders should “walk the talk” and demonstrate by their actions the organization’s values and culture to all team members, regardless of their location. This helps to ensure that everyone is working toward the same vision and mission.

Adapting to the new normal long-term

There are a lot of moving parts in getting this to work. However, getting back to basics and intentionally leading a distributed workforce while maintaining or building a cohesive culture is a competitive advantage in this “new normal” we are working in. Start with clear communication, and remember the issues of collaboration, clear expectations, fostering a sense of community, recognizing and rewarding excellence, and emphasizing company values. By implementing these strategies, you can join the successful leaders building our sustainable future.