4 Ways to Coach Remote Teams From a Distance

Last Updated May 21, 2010 7:15 AM EDT

One of the most important jobs a leader has is to coach their team members -- both for performance and to develop their skills and careers. Many of us have managed to figure out how to manage tasks across distances, but often at the expense of the coaching component that separates great managers from the merely functional.

A good coach has to motivate, delegate, empower and correct course while maintaining a positive relationship. Given how tools like email can cause more drama than production (has anyone besides me ever spent two days apologizing for an email it only took 10 seconds to write?) how can you be an effective coach when the people you work with are elsewhere?

  1. Develop a communication schedule and keep to it. Effective coaching begins and ends with good communication. Schedule them for times when both of you can really concentrate and take the time to talk. Given time zones, you want to make sure it's a time when both of you can really focus.
  2. You can't always be there. Use recording and written records. When you're trying to develop the skill of your employees, you'll often assign them tasks that you can't personally observe. How well do they run team meetings? If you can't pop in and observe, have them record the call or webmeeting. By using file sharing and team websites you can follow discussion threads without being cc:ed on a lot of emails. Make sure you're above board and clear in how you'll use these tools, there's a line between holding people accountable and just being a sneaky weasel.
  3. Use the richest tools at your disposal. Coaching requires at least as much listening as speaking, and listening includes body language and "unspoken messages". Try to use the tools that will give you the most information. Simple webcam tools like Skype or Yahoo chat will often help create an environment that creates real connections. if you can't use video ( or the quality is so jerky and awful it's a distraction) then make sure you're on a phone where you both have the quiet you need to concentrate on the task at hand.
  4. Delegate and trust them. The biggest mental leap many managers have to make is that it is impossible to micromanage and so you have to learn to trust. Set guidelines for checking in, expectations around performance and let them know you're available when they need you. Also, because you might be in bed when trouble arises, where else on the team can they look for help. You might find yourself less indispensable than you think.
The role of coach is not an easy one, but with some conscious effort you can create a structured environment where they know you're there for them, and you can focus on what you know deep down you need to do.

photo by flickr user MNHSphotos CC 2.0