Lessons in leadership: what my remote team taught me

  • Written by Dr. Warren Harmer Chief Business Planner

Being a leader is an interesting, sometimes challenging role. Maintaining, building and leveraging relationships is the primary purpose, but it takes on a whole new dimension when you spread your team over the state or the nation. During the last 4 years, my 2 distinct teams have been very close and widely spread at the same time. The local team is close; only a half dozen of us, working in the same space every day. We know each other’s movements, overhear phone calls, have coffees together and know when there’s been a fight with a partner. We can sense moods, know days sick and celebrate birthdays. I can oversee pretty much all of their work. At the other end of the spectrum are my remote team: they join us in the office once in a while ranging from every 2-3 weeks ranging up to once per year. The whole company is together but one day per year.

Having a direct comparison between close-knit and the distant teams has taught me lessons in leadership and building effectiveness in the team. Without doubt, it’s much harder work to build closeness from 200km, but the principles are essentially the same for both teams. Going from near to far has shone an intense spotlight on those leadership principles, that need to work a lot harder with a lot less.

Focusing in from close to far, with the triumphs and failures, here are the principles that stand up to the tyranny of distance. If you can apply these lessons to your local team they will stand you in good stead.

Strength of the relationship

The foundations of any working relationship are based on strengths of the bond between the 2 people. It’s easy to take for granted when you are in the same space every day but it needs a lot more work when stretched over time and space. Really getting to know each other to build something beyond work creates loyalty and engagement. The effort to make it happen needs to be personal and very intensive at the start, meaning you need to spend more face:face time with the remote team at the start, so you have the connection to fall back on when they are working remotely..

Your leader behaviour

Team members build a profile and opinions of you as a leader through your behaviour and interactions. For the close-knit team, hundreds of small interactions contribute to that picture, both good and bad. Joining the dots is easy for them because there are many dots. The distant team have fewer dots, so the effect of every interaction is magnified. Negative interactions distort their image and can linger in their minds, with less opportunity for correction. The pressure is higher for flawless leader behaviour to keep their view positive and prompt follow up when things go off course.


Most of us assume that because we make noise and message regularly that we are communicating, but this is not always effective. For a close team, it’s easier to manage communication even if you are just fumbling through, since there are many more opportunities to watch, reinforce and listen. Remote teams means a lot fewer opportunities for communication, so each message carries a lot more weight; it’s more difficult to check whether the messages got through and gauge responses to them. On top of that, there is a lot more electronic communications, where nonverbal messages are very prone to misreading. To overcome these challenges, keep it dedicated, frequent and routine. Get as much face:face time as you can and speak wherever possible.

Watch for signs

A subtle mood change in a close team member is easy to pick; issues between team members, boredom, illness or personal issues can be quickly attended to, in order to keep your team on track. Remote teams are a different story, and you need to become the business equivalent of a sniffer dog. Sensitivity to behavioural cues must be heightened, taking note of changes to voice tone, emails, lateness for meetings, crankiness, tiredness and feedback from other team members or clients. Remote team members can veer off course without you even know it, souring relationships and even leaving your business vulnerable.

Imagine If you can apply the same attention and act like a remote leader to a local team; you would excel as a leader. The principles are the same, but with distance they require a diligence of application with little room for slips ups. Applied consistently they are a formula for success.

Dr. Warren Harmer

Business planner and small business consultant

I am a cultivator of great small businesses. I have a Ph.D in science but fell into the world of small business by accident and discovered my passion. My experience owning and consulting to small businesses now spans over 17 years. I like to solve problems using a scientific approach; looking objectively at businesses to see what is happening and applying first principles. In small business, outcomes reign over theory.

Practical, hands-on advice for small business owners is sorely lacking, since most ‘experts’ have never owned one. Most business information is targeted to big business and their employees.

My objective is to offer instructive, ‘how to’ information to make business ownership easier, less stressful and more enjoyable.

Warren Harmer
Chief Business Planner
0414 609 719

Dr. Warren Harmer
Chief Business Planner
0414 609 719