Remote Working Leadership
In 1979, IBM made headlines. It became one of the very first Fortune 500 companies to allow employees to work remotely. This proved to be so successful that by 2009, 40% of its 386,000 employees were enjoying the perks of remote working. However, in 2017, IBM decided to tell its thousands of remote workers to relocate to an IBM office or find a new job. Why did they do this? Because of the belief that bringing teams back to the office would make them more productive, innovative, and agile. Is working from home really less effective than working from a traditional office? Not according to a Gallup report that states remote workers log in longer hours, and are more productive than their non-remote peers. So, why is there still a debate about this topic? Well, mostly because it has a lot to do with the mindset. We’ve been so conditioned to believe that it is only when we’re in the office under the watchful eye of many that we’re “working productively.”
What It Takes to Be a Good Leader
Effective leadership can be nerve-wracking. Being an effective leader to a team of people who are counting on you to inspire them, to steer them in the right direction towards achieving a common goal is an even more overwhelming task. It’s a lot of responsibility, and a leader is one that can effectively manage their team and bring out the best in everyone that is under their guidance. A successful leader is one that can bring out the best in everyone that they work with. They are the ones who know how to spearhead the journey to success. A great leader has a healthy mix of several qualities that contribute to their overall success. American author, speaker John C. Maxwell summed up the concept nicely when he said: “A leader is someone who knows the way, goes the way and shows everyone else the way.” No matter which way you define it though, one thing you can be sure of is that a good leader can mean the difference between victory and failure. A leader needs to be a visionary, among many other things.
A good leader needs to possess the following qualities, especially when managing a remote working team:
- Confidence and Belief in Themselves – An effective leader needs to always display both confidence and assertiveness, a strength that others can take comfort in. You don’t have to be overconfident, but you do need to reflect a certain degree of confidence, which allows your followers to develop trust in you as a leader. Before you can lead others, you need to be confident enough in your own ability to do so. Other people are not going to follow your leadership and commands if you are not sure about the decisions you make yourself. No one is going to believe in a leader who’s always nervous and second-guessing their own decisions.
- Integrity, Honesty, and Trustworthiness – You must demonstrate the ability to stand by your core values and beliefs, and only when your followers see that they can place their trust in you will they become confident in your leadership abilities. Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States: “Leadership’s supreme quality is unquestionably integrity. Without it, real success is not possible”. No matter which leadership position you hold, whether it’s in a company, a sports team, an army, or any scenario in which you’re in charge of a group of people, without integrity and honesty, you will never achieve true success.
- Respect – An effective leader constantly provides encouragement and helps their followers overcome challenges faced without belittling them. Respect is one of the major key principles that absolutely must be present. A leader must respect their subordinates to gain respect in return. Respect, however, needs to be earned, never demanded. When leaders don’t respect their followers and vice versa, things can unravel really quickly, and not in a positive way. The best type of leaders and managers are ones that provide a work environment where employees help each other and value the contributions that everyone makes.
- Inspirational, Passionate, and Committed – As the leader, all eyes will always be on you, looking at how you handle the difficult situations. Being inspirational is probably one of the more difficult leadership tasks you could take on. You need to set a good example yourself if you want others to follow in your lead. As the 6th President of the United States, John Quincy Adams once said: “You’re a leader if your actions inspire others to learn more, dream more, become more and do more.” The ability to stay calm and composed under pressure, remain optimistic when others can’t, to think positively and problem-solve creatively, that’s what constitutes an effective leader. People are going to be looking to you to guide them, and they’re not going to be motivated to do their best if their leader doesn’t display the same passion and commitment towards achieving that goal. When a leader is not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty too, others will follow suit because of the commitment and the passion for getting the job done that is being demonstrated.
- Maintain Consistency – One of the worst things you could do as a leader is to appear disorganized and scattered. As a leader, you need to remember that everyone is looking to you for guidance, and it is you that they take their orders from. To be effective, you must be consistent in the way you do things. Be fair in your treatment and your rewards, be consistent in your methods of leadership, and be consistent in your principles.
How Leadership Changes When Faced With Remote Employees
A lot changed in 2020 when companies globally had to resort to remote working to stay in business. Companies like Google, Apple, and any other big company you can think of, they’ve adopted remote work policies, all in an effort to keep their employees safe. Small to medium-sized businesses are following suit as well. They’re taking a similar approach, getting their employees to no longer come into the office that they pay so much money for and to keep them safe by working from home. Here’s the problem. Many leaders that are in positions of leadership have never led a remote team before, and leading a remote team can be very challenging. Notice the key phrase being used here is leading, not managing a remote team because those are very different things. A leader is someone whose actions inspire empower and serve in order to elevate others over an extended period of time. That’s what leaders do, and if you’re going inspire someone, breathe life into them, and you’re going to empower them, you need to learn to let them make their own decisions. Yes, it is challenging because you don’t get the day to day interaction that you normally would, in office.
How do we manage remote employees effectively? What steps should you take to build trust and open lines of communication when not everyone is on-site every day? How do you help remote workers feel part of the team when you’re working with teams scattered across the country or the world? As the leader of a remote working team, you need to be a good listener, and not just listen for the sake of doing so either. You need to be able to listen actively and really pay attention to what your team has to say. You are the one they will go to when they feel something needs to be improved, and when your people feel that their leader is taking their every concern seriously, no matter how small it may be, and taking steps to fix it, they will feel appreciated and acknowledged, which will eventually spur them on to work better and perform better. Another quality you need to possess when managing a remote team is to have empathy. A leader can never make the meaningful connections they need to if empathy is not present. A leader that chooses to go with the dictatorial approach to leadership may get things done, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a great leader. Being an effective leader means you need to be able to put yourself in your team’s shoes, to understand their concerns, you’re one step closer to making a difference in their lives and performance. That’s how you become a great leader.
Remote working is very common these days. Finding remote employees and getting them on board is one part of the equation. Then comes the time to start managing them. So, let’s look at ways you can do this effectively.
- Create Ease and Friendliness – When team members feel comfortable with each other, whether you are remote or not, the conversations, automatically become easier, direct, and friendly. Let’s start with a few simple ways to do this in your online meetings. One thing that you can implement is to start your meetings with is to spend a few minutes talking about what’s been happening in your lives, both professionally and personally. It doesn’t have to be in every meeting, but at least a few of them. Truth is, you do this in person when you’re working onsite, so why not virtually? Why is this important? Well, because sharing personal stories helps build empathy, which then paves the way for trust. You could even create meetings and call them virtual coffee or virtual hangout and make it very informal. You also don’t have to be in every meeting, and you can encourage them to have their own meetings and talk about anything they want to.
- Lead by Example – You can’t expect your remote workers to open up, get to know you, or discuss projects and share their opinion if you don’t do that yourself. If you are in a leadership position, sharing your personal stories allows your team to feel comfortable sharing their personal stories as well. Likewise, be transparent with all aspects of the business, share with them the company vision and objectives. Let them resonate with that. Then set clear expectations and ask for input so they can share their ideas and opinions.
- Establish A Chat Room That’s Always Open – Have a chat room open constantly. There are many platforms you can use. You can have chat rooms open for each team where everyone can share information or chat, just remember that while these are good to keep open communications, it’s essential to keep these chats alive but not distracted. Share what you want, but don’t necessarily expect an answer right away. Some employees might need to shut down such communication when they need to focus and don’t want distractions. They will reach out at a later time, and that’s okay. These chat rooms can have different subjects, business or non-business, and will create a similar watercooler ain to an office effect where you can hang out and build that team spirit.
- Document Everything – Document everything in an office so that it’s easy to make decisions for all your employees, both who are in the office and working remotely. If people work remotely and some members of the team are having those conversations that the remote ones don’t have access to, the remote employees will see these decisions being made without understanding why. Leaders need to now make it common practice for all employees to always leave a trail of where you were and what you were thinking about. This allows others to pick up where you left off. That’s great for people in different time zones to interact and not feel like they’ve missed something important or feel left out in any way. It’s also great to think about trying to have as much communication as possible online and documenting your conversations. When everything’s shared, and all documents are made public, it allows new employees and those who work in different time zones to read through and catch up quickly.
- Keep Your Work Organized – Managing people across time zones without knowing what everyone is working on and having many projects on your hands can easily turn work into chaos. Therefore, you need to make sure you set goals and share them with everyone on the team. Share docs on a virtual drive, and encourage collaboration, then allow a degree of flexible work hours but also keep some consistency. People working from home will want flexibility with their work hours, and it’s important to allow that. Trying to micromanage will be a nightmare. Instead, track their work and see what their output is. Are they delivering on time and as expected? Unless they have to interact with clients or team members on a strict schedule, it doesn’t really matter if they work early mornings or late at night, as long as the work is done. Remember, they don’t have a commute, so they might actually work put more hours in the day that you would put in the office.
- Organize Frequent In-Person Visits – Now, remote workers shouldn’t be only always remote people, you need to make sure that you are going to visit them frequently, and on a predictable schedule. There are no rules about how often you need to see your remote workers in person, but it’s important to do so, especially in the early stages. Invite them to your office during the onboarding period and continue visiting during the year. If your direct reports know there is an in-person visit every four months, it will help them build trust. Remember too, that remote team members often feel somehow invisible and that their actions and efforts are not noticed, so be generous with public praise and acknowledgment of remote employees.
- Source the Right Tools – There are so many apps and services that help with communication these days. Video conferencing, project management, you name it. Test out and experiment with different tools that enable collaboration, see what works. When it comes to conferencing, use screen sharing and video conferencing technologies, as much as possible. Sometimes just phone is great, but seeing each other is even better. If you are feeling uncomfortable with video still join, and you don’t need to turn on your video every time. You’ll have to do it sometimes, but it’s not a forced thing if you’re not comfortable with it, and it’s important to let your employees know its okay for them to do the same.
- Do A Big Meet-Up – Organizations can come together for short, intense bursts twice or three times a year. Do a grand meetup where the entire company comes together for a week, for example, with the primary goal is connecting people. When you leave, you want to make sure that all your employees are aligned and on the same page. That they have a deeper connection with their colleagues.
- Address Their Struggles – If people have never worked from home, they’re probably unaware of some of the hurdles or struggles that they’re going to face when all of a sudden, working from their living room. Part of an effective leader’s responsibility is to make people and team members aware of the typical struggles. Acknowledge their struggles and let them know you understand where they’re coming from, and you’re willing to work with them to find a way to resolve this.
- Allow Flexibility – Give employees the flexibility to make their own work environment. Every remote employee should ideally be provided with a remote working stipend they can put towards setting up a comfortable work environment in their home. This is money they can invest in getting the right chair, the right computer monitors, and the right desk set up so that they can have the most productive environment for them.
- Cultivate A Sense of Security – Your employees need to feel comfortable enough to be able to voice their opinions and concerns, even if they are not on-site to do it. If they are having difficulty working with another member of their team, they need to feel comfortable enough to approach you and bring up those concerns without worrying that there are going to be repercussions for themselves. It’s important to give your remote workers a sense of security, especially when it comes to their job, so they’re always reminded that they are still a valued member of the team. If an employee is constantly worrying about their job security and ability to raise their concerns, they’ll find it difficult to concentrate on their job.
Just because the person is not there, it doesn’t mean they’re not working hard. In fact, employees who have the privilege to work remotely actually want to prove that they are working just as hard as their non-remote colleagues. They value the ability to work remotely more than you know, especially those who treasure the extra time they get to spend with their families and care for their kids. They value the opportunity to work from home so much that they’re not going to do anything to jeopardize that, and employers should allow them the benefit of the doubt. That’s what a good leader would do. You’ll be able to see it in the work that they produce and let the finished product speak for itself.
You want to be extra attentive when you’re managing a mixed-office team. When your entire team is remote, you will adjust more easily to work for a virtual environment. However, when half of your team is in office, and the other half remote, it can cause some problems. For example, your office team might decide to all the quick meeting and leave out the remote people who then end up not having their voice heard. So you need to make sure that all of your meetings are remote-friendly. This means that you are logged into whatever technology you are using and chat together through your computer, you must have everyone, the remote and local people all together and have the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings.
Micromanagement Is Not the Solution
A good leader trusts their team, whether onsite on remotely. A good leader measures performance based on the results of the work that is produced, not on how many hours your employee spends chained to their desk in a day. They trust their employees are responsible enough to get the job done, and they certainly don’t resort to micromanagement because they know that is not the answer. The term micromanagement is defined as a person who is controlling and has to have their hands into everything, and they do not allow for others to handle anything without being scrutinized. You may think you are not a micromanager, but the chances are high that you are. At least sometimes, and when managing employees who work remotely, there’s definitely a danger of venturing into micromanagement territory.
While it is a good thing that you want to ensure things are running as smoothly as they should, micromanaging is counterproductive. For all parties involved, but just the employee you’re trying to oversee. If you tell employees exactly what they have to do and if you check everything you check their work down to the very last detail, then they lose the fun at work. The whole point of remote work was so that your employees could enjoy greater flexibility and work-life balance as part of the perks of the job, but when they are being micromanaged, they feel just as stifled at home as they would at work. Here’s where it gets tricky as a leader. It’s okay to control results, and you need to do that because it is your responsibility to make sure work gets done so the business can keep running. But it’s not okay to specify and control every tiny little step towards the results. If you don’t give your employees at least some freedom to find their own way to get the result, then this is highly demotivating. Even worse, it might be so frustrating for them that they lose their desire to do any work at all, and their productivity levels drop, especially when they work remotely. Micromanaging makes it clear to your employees that you don’t trust them and their abilities. Or at least, that’s the message you’re sending. There’s another negative consequence that comes with micromanaging. Over time you train your employees to become dependent; after a while, you wonder why your employees don’t seem to have any ideas of their own. This is not an ideal situation for both you and your employees to find yourself in, especially when more jobs are likely to be done remotely in the future.
Micromanaging managers often find it difficult to set priorities. Everything always seems important, and everything always seems urgent. Your employees are confronted with a flood of tasks that they need to get through. Sometimes, they need more time to work on a task and that’s understandable when you juggle multiple things at a time. When managing remote employees, it’s important to help them stay connected to the company, be part of the culture, and remember what the company’s big picture goals and direction are. They cannot do that if their leader is too busy focusing on the nitty-gritty details of the day to day operations. When you micromanage, you’re not guiding them towards the company’s bigger picture. Micromanaging costs time and energy. Time and energy that could be spent in the leader doing something more productive instead of worrying about whether the remote employee is working as they should be. When you’re a micromanager, you’re the bottleneck of the company. If tasks are not completed on time, you’re probably the reason why everything needs to happen through you.
Changing the Style of Leadership
Let’s get clear on some of the typical challenges that you’re going to face right now as a leader who is in charge of a remote working team. Or if you’re part of a remote working team, and you’re not sure what you should expect from your leader. The first thing is there are real uncertainties and fear that come with working remotely when you’ve never done it before, and you’re not sure what to expect. It’s a natural thing because fear is the mental battle that goes on in all our minds. It’s an emotional battle too and each of us experiences that battle in different ways. If you’re going to go lead a team right now remotely, you have to understand your people are probably experiencing some real uncertainty and some real fear both about meeting the expectations of their job. Part of your responsibility in leading them remotely is to make sure everyone is clear on the fear that they’re facing and how to overcome it.
The second big issue that comes with leading remote teams if you’ve never done it before is the technical issues. If you’ve never led a team via Zoom or only an email or only via Slack, technology can start to cause issues and not be of any help. You need to ensure that you and your team are equipped with the technology that you’re going to use to best lead your team in a remote environment. The third challenge that comes with leading teams and a remote work environment like this is there’s less work. Projects might not be the same; the workload might not be the same. Leaders need to be flexible enough to allow their teams to adapt. Everyone has to embrace flexibility. It’s the only option to make remote working a success. Instead of treating your team like they have to be chained to their remote desk like they would have been in the office, now leaders have to say one of the benefits of leading working at home is that you have the flexibility to pick up your kids take them to school, go work out, go for a walk, eat dinner with your family. Your people will appreciate that. more than you know.
Working in an office is not a guarantee for productivity. For managers and co-workers to develop successful relationships with remote workers, there must be a change in the style of leadership. There must be some amount give and take and understanding from both parties. No one likes to feel like they’re in the dark, and the best approach to managing teams that work remotely is to ensure constant communication is always a priority. Leaders should begin by setting expectations. Clear and honest communication is even more important for remote workers since these employees don’t have the luxury of being able to swing by your desk to ask questions. For leaders to be effective, you need to schedule consistent catch-up sessions that are done other than through email. Pick up the phone or connect over a video call to make the conversation more natural.
Talent and intelligence are equally distributed throughout the world, but opportunity is not. In Silicon Valley, for example, you have the big tech companies fishing from essentially the same small pond. The talent that they acquire is then limited by the location they are fishing from. But remote working could change that. By making the company distributed, businesses can fish from the entire ocean, so to speak. Instead of hiring someone who grew up in Japan, but now lives in California as an example, companies can gain someone who lives, works, wakes up in the morning, and goes to sleep every night, wherever they are in the world. They bring a different understanding of a new culture and a different lived experience day to day, which, in a diverse world like the one we live in right now, is an advantage. As an employer, you can retain top talent if you open up your pool to the possibility of sourcing talent from around the whole world for that specific job you’re looking for. It increases your chances of finding a candidate who is passionate about the job and the company that they work for, and as an employer, these are the kind of people you want on your team.
The other benefits of allowing your employees to work from home are:
- Reduced Overhead Costs – Employers can reduce the cost of the overhead of running an office and all the utility costs that come with having an office full of team members. After the coronavirus forced many companies to send their employees home and adopt a remote working approach, office spaces remained empty and silent, but the high overhead expenses were still putting a dent in the company’s budget. Remote work eliminates the need for an office, and that could equal tremendous monthly savings for a business.
- Working with Talent Around the World – As long as your employee is getting the job done, it doesn’t really matter where they live. As long as the work product happens, it doesn’t really matter where they live, and you can count on them; you can trust them.
- Adjustments in Salaries – When working with remote teams, there is a possibility that employers could be paying less in terms of salary. That could be because of differences in the various economies if you’re working with staff members from different countries. Or it could be that an employee is willing to work for less since they have the flexibility of working from their own home rather than have to spend money commuting to and from an office.
- Talent Retention and Development Is Easier – Recruiting and retaining talent is much easier when the employee has the freedom to work in a way that makes them the happiest. When you are one of the few companies who give the employee the option of working from home and value them, it makes them more likely to want to stay with your company. Flexibility is an attractive quality to many employees, especially with the modern mindset today that is starting to prioritize work-life balance and more quality time with family.
- Increase In An Employee’s Wellness – A remote workforce could potentially equal fewer absences and sick leave for a business, which is also a cost-saving benefit. Research reveals that at least 75% of employees who worked remotely said they could still continue to work even if they had the flu. That same research also revealed that in the United States alone, absences that were unscheduled by the employees cost companies approximately $ 300 billion annually. That translates to about $ 1,800 for a single employee. With your employees working out of their own home and coming into contact less with people given that they no longer need to commute, the chances of them catching a cold or falling sick and passing it on to their coworkers are decreased. Fewer absences mean continuity in operations, and there’s less likelihood that business operations are going to be heavily impacted.
- Less Time Spent on Meetings – With a remote workforce, the necessity for clear communication and distinct guidelines increases. With better communication all around, both the company and the employees will be clear on the goals and deliverables, and therefore, less time is spent on meetings. In fact, if all your employees are clear on what needs to be done, the need to hold frequent meetings is not as urgent anymore. When meetings are held via video conferencing,
they are quick and get straight to the point so all parties involved can go back to working on the tasks they were supposed to.