One basic problem for supervisors is related to distance. They should be close and distant at the same time.

Being close means supporting the subordinates, being aware of what their work involves, and monitoring their performance. On the other hand, being at a distance means giving space, focusing on the big picture, and protecting your own use of time from too closely interfering with subordinates' work. Almost everyone faces situations where keeping an appropriate distance is difficult.

The situation is many times more complex if the subordinates are physically distant – in another town or even another country. It is the reality of increasing numbers of work teams, that some of them are talking heads on screens in videoconferences.

Trust and equality elements of functioning remote management

The most important thing in managing dispersed teams is to generate an atmosphere of sufficient trust and equality. Even during the current era of diminishing travel budgets, supervisors need the opportunity to visit their subordinates at least once in a while. Some have resolved this issue, for example, by always holding face-to-face performance reviews – preferably by the supervisor. Subordinates will not feel at a disadvantage if the supervisor makes the effort to come to them or if the meeting is organized at a neutral site.

By visiting the workplace, supervisors not only demonstrate respect for their subordinates, but can also see their working conditions and get to know their immediate networks.  

It is worthwhile cultivating the sense of togetherness in a virtual team

In addition to supervisory work, physical distance can take its toll on relationships. As a rule, a new virtual team should organize a face-to-face meeting first to create basic trust and agree on working models. Even if this is not possible, many normal team-building exercises can be implemented using online groupware. For example, the team may use Google's presentation graphics tool to draw pictures of each other, and the other members of the team can guess who the picture represents. Other exercises, including more serious ones, can be found in John Chen's diverse book 50 Digital Team-Building Games.

Virtual substitutes for normal management practices need to be found for dispersed teams. When there is a limited amount of shared time, it is worthwhile agreeing on what kind of support each person in the team requires and how it is given.

Everyday interaction that normally happens at the coffee machine or in corridor encounters may be replaced by, for example, scheduling regular phone calls.

Good leaders can also lead remotely

In the end, it's all about the ability to empathize. Physical distance in itself is no problem. After all, teams working in the same office do not see each other all the time. Problems arise if feelings of inequality surface due to the location, or a lack of knowledge causes breakdowns in communication or misunderstandings. These factors can be controlled, and the best remote leadership can be the same as a close presence.