Working from home is now the status quo for businesses and organizations worldwide whose employees continue to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic’s social distancing norms. Leaders are figuring out how to keep their teams — the “economic engine” of their organizations — excelling virtually during this prolonged period of uncertainty. Part of this process involves empowering teams to work from home autonomously while not in a face-to-face setting.

Remote leadership requires a significant shift from the traditional command-and-control mindset to a mindset of a coach, facilitator or enabler. The coach approach to leadership involves several key skills, including asking questions, listening, influencing and developing relationships. Remote work requires a shift from dictating how employees complete tasks — micromanaging — to keeping in constant communication and providing constructive feedback — micro-monitoring — so everyone stays focused.

In the remote space, all team members can and must be leaders in their own work. Leaders can leverage coaching competencies and a knowledge of team effectiveness to boost their team’s remote work ability and build virtual capacity, not dependency.

Adopting a coach approach to leadership integrates the International Coaching Federation’s (ICF) core competencies, including establishing and maintaining agreements, embodying a coaching mindset, listening actively, and facilitating growth. A manager or leader using coaching skills in the remote space should also leverage foundational elements of team effectiveness, including planning and goal-setting, while placing a strong emphasis on shared accountability. Here’s how:

Establishing and Maintaining Agreements

Leaders and their teams should be in regular dialogue about the question, “How do we operate as a team?” Trust, safety and connection are at the heart of a great team, and they’re also essential to a great conversation. Without trust, we are not able to influence, which is required when working across a distance. Building a strong team culture and creating shared behavioral agreements are foundational to remote working success.

Our agreements shape our culture and define how we do things, what is important to us, and what is and is not acceptable. Teams should revisit their established agreements and protocols when shifting to a remote landscape. They can also adopt shared images or icons to create their own brand, which can be valuable for employees in matrix relationships to signal membership and differences across multiple teams.

Embodying a Coaching Mindset

As defined in the ICF competencies, a coaching mindset is “open, curious, flexible and client-centered.” In remote work, leaders with a coaching mindset empower team members to take responsibility and be the lead in their areas of work. It may require a shift in the way leaders lead, inviting them to become more comfortable in working in the unknown and to use intuition when details are not always clear. This shift, coupled with clarity around shared vision, goals and concrete measures of success, helps a team align across distance while providing the flexibility to respond to current contextual realities.

Communicating and Listening Actively

Communication is another enabler for exceptional remote team performance. Effective virtual conversations occur across multiple channels — text, streaming, video, email and phone. Knowing how to adjust communication style and reinforce messaging through different channels is integral to a leader’s adopting a coach approach.

Active listening is an important foundation for effective communication. Remote leaders should refine their skills and empower their direct reports to do the same. In building these muscles, they can consider these questions:

    • What are you listening for?
    • What’s being said in the conversation, and what’s not being said?
    • What do you notice about tone, pace and pitch?

The answers to these questions may provide interesting clues to the subtext of a conversation.

Another communications skill embedded in coaching is asking powerful questions. Leaders who exhibit a coach approach use questions that spark curiosity; open up possibilities; and help others identify options, solutions and roadblocks. At a time when leaders cannot physically see the context in which their team members are working, it’s important to shift from being an adviser to empowering team members to troubleshoot and strategize for themselves.

In the remote space, questions are most powerful when they are short — often only five or six words — and asked one at a time. Leaders should pause to let the other person respond and listen for what he or she is saying rather than focusing on how to respond. Questions starting with “what” (What could that look like?) tend to expand the conversation, while questions that start with “why” (Why would you do that?) can put people on the defensive.

Facilitating Growth

In building remote team capacity, leaders should use the spectrum of available resources on virtual platforms to ensure that they are hearing all voices. They should keep things visible by streaming to connect people with each other and leveraging virtual platform tools such as annotation, breakouts and polls to increase engagement.

Returning to the basics of team effectiveness can also support exceptional results in the remote space. They include cocreating a shared vision and stimulating conversation to capture shared goals and define success. Regular virtual meetings create consistency and help teams focus on relationships, results, and “now what?” commitments and accountabilities.

It’s never been more important for leaders to adopt a coach mindset and build capacity within their team. With these coaching competencies in their tool kit, they can help their employees excel.