Leading from a distance

You don’t need the latest technology to successfully lead your team from a distance. The key is: recognising and addressing the basic needs of these team members.

As a manager, you want to book results with your team… that’s why you got hired, right ? To fulfil that mission, you need motivated, engaged people in your team.  I  know this because we often get a knock on our Indra Partners door with the question : how can I motivate a team that I hardly see in person ? Here’s your answer : address those needs that stimulate people to take action.

I admit, we didn’t invent this ourselves.  It is well founded research telling us that satisfying 4 basic needs helps to motivate almost anyone to take action towards getting results.  Here they are :

  • autonomy
  • predictability
  • competence
  • connection

Beyond these 4 needs, there is another one that plays a role : ‘instrumental needs’.  Although instrumental needs might be less important than the other four, they turn out to be the first and only ones that managers take into consideration.

Instrumental needs

When you buy a car, you reasonably expect that the motor starts, that the vehicle doesn’t consume too much fuel and that it adheres to safety standards. These prerequisites are functional and instrumental needs.  But a car is also a status symbol: the type of car that you buy allows you to project an image of yourself to the world at large. Therefore, status is also an instrumental need.

Instrumental needs take different shapes and forms, depending on the individual team member.  But don’t kid yourself : they are less fundamental than the previous 4. No one gets a deep satisfaction out of them. What’s more, organisations that put too much emphasis on them, foster a culture where team members compete with each other and get frustrated.

As a manager you need to make sure that these instrumental needs are met in a fair way without paying excessive attention to it.  The effect of a status symbol (a bonus, a bigger company car …) fades quickly.

Anyway, if you chose to work from a distance, status isn’t likely to be the main drive. So how about the other needs ?


People want to have the feeling that they have an actual choice in what they do or don’t do. It isn’t any different in a professional context.

It is very likely that the team members who aren’t managed up-close, enjoy a certain form of autonomy already.

Two dangers lurk around that corner : the urge to control every detail, or a total lack of follow-up. The first is maddening, the latter leaves your team members with a feeling that they are left to their own device.

Buurtzorg Nederland’ (a district nursing and homecare organisation) is an interesting example of an approach that works well : teams get maximum autonomy to organise their work in a way that suits them best. They also solve problems as much as possible amongst each other instead of escalating to a manager.  At the same time, the manager makes sure that (s)he is in touch with these teams on a regular basis and communicates about their work in an enriching way.

What can you learn from such an example ? It shows that giving autonomy means that you leave some pages unwritten. It also means that you don’t try to lay out an iron-clad structure.  Finally, it shows yet again that when it comes to communication quality trumps quantity : Talk with your team members about their operational goals and give them both the freedom and the support they need to reach them.


Structure and regularity are the foundation for peace of mind.

There are three basic elements with which a manager can bring predictability.

1. Most importantly, make clear agreements and stick to them.

Agreements about tasks : what results do you expect and how will you evaluate them? Agreements about the way you work together : when do you expect team members to be reachable and how do you want them to report to you ? When can you yourself be available for your team ?

With clear agreements, you create a framework in which the team can perform autonomously.  Depending on the function and on the personality of your team members, that framework can vary but it is a fact that each person does need one.

2. Transparency is another key element. Even bad news is better than no news at all.

3. As a manager, you are expected to treat your team with fairness and respect. Few things are more stress-inducing than a manager whose mood jumps all over the place and whose reactions are as unpredictable as the weather. Moody, random reactions don’t make people feel like they get treated in a fair nor respectful way.


Most people are curious and love to learn and improve.  But it’s about more than self-actualisation … they also find it important to be considered competent by their colleagues/managers.  This is one of the reasons why they don’t look forward to feedback and evaluation discussions : it’s all too rare that their competenties get recognised or that they are invited to develop their strengths even further.

Working from a distance offers more opportunities to use your competencies as your job description is bound leave some flexibility. Moreover, you and not your manager will have to deal with the unavoidable unforeseen situations.

On the other hand, it’s not easy to show off your competences… you aren’t exactly touching your manager’s shoulder and only your customers are lucky enough to see you in action on a daily basis.

That is why, as a manager, you really need to know what your team has in store.  That’s not as hard as you think it is. Simply ask them.  What do they enjoy doing ? What do they themselves think they do well ? What would they themselves like to improve ?

We help team leaders to have a meaningful discussion about competencies and personal development.  A simple template with key questions to ask each team member offers a map to see what a team is capable of.

Trust in the competencies of your team members is the starting point of such a dialogue.  You can assume that they know how to their job, else they wouldn’t have been hired in the first place. When team members get the feeling that they really can exercise their profession, they are naturally motivated.


When we guide teams in the transition to the New Way of Working and teams get rid of a pre-defined time and place of work, we always get this question : how will we stay connected ?

The good news is that team members who can chose their time and place of work align more behind the values of their organisation and  enjoy this new way of working.

Is this also a rule for those who work alone most of the time, without much contact with colleagues or manager ?  I think about home nurses or cleaning staff, for instance.

Connection means belonging to’,  it is the opposite of social isolation. This concept is broader than getting along with your colleagues.

As a manager, you are responsible for the connection between your team members and the organisation.  Make sure that your team member knows what he or she contributes to the team, how this contribution helps the organisation and how that relates to the vision and the mission of the organisation.

Don’t do this with cheesy slogans, do it by communicating authentically.

Most people working from a distance find meaning in their work through the relationship that they build with their customers. Give them the chance to share stories about their customers with each other. Give them enough time and room to build a relationship. Trust that they have the competencies to do a good job.  Give them support and autonomy and offer a clear and predictable framework. If you are able to do this, you wil notice that you don’t need to see your team members on a daily basis in order to take up a meaningful role as a manager.  Mission accomplished !


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