Some are already very skilled at leading remotely and have been doing it for many years. Many have suddenly been confronted with it over the past 6 months and what was a temporary dislocation may become a semi-permanent or permanent way of working. So what are some good tips for leading remotely? Maybe also useful as a self-check list for those who are already very experienced to reflect on their current practice.
Start with self – acknowledge and respond to my personal needs
In preparation to leading others it is always important to reflect on self – where am I starting from? Perhaps more important in the present pandemic situation as my normal pattern may have been significantly transformed. Am I meeting my personal needs to maintain my energy, commitment and focus? If I am not feeling aligned myself it will come across to my team and may interfere with my ability to lead or my effectiveness as a leader. Here are two questions to check alignment:
• Am I clear on what is important for me in my career and in my work and is that now being provided to me?
• Am I aware of my behaviour preferences and how they may support or hinder my effectiveness as a leader?
We use a tool such as Harrison Behaviour Inventory to help leaders gain a deeper insight into their behaviour and its implications. It provides easy to understand self-reported data that challenges the leader to reflect on the implications of their behaviour preferences for being effective in the leader role. This together with a professional de-brief provides a foundation for the individual leader to determine what she or he might need to continue doing as well as seek to do differently. It also provides a valuable foundation for then reflecting on what may require being done differently leading on line. Frequency of communication leaps to mind as an example. Leading on line may require more frequent communication to maintain connection and clarity.
Establish team focus
Establishing clear and shared team goals is important in any context of working remote or co-located. It may require more time and energy working remotely as there are less accidental opportunities for gathering feedback and clarifying. It may also become important to break the main goal(s) down into sub goals over shorter time spans that are easier for the team to track and also to follow up on.
We may also need to review how we work as a team if we have recently moved to remote working. Are some members better suited to particular roles or tasks in the remote working context? May we need to have different processes for information sharing and decision making than we used previously? How do we maintain the team interpersonal atmosphere and has the transition changed how team members perceive constructive feedback? More checking reactions and listening may be required to ensure that things we say are received in the right way.
Negotiating expectations and assessing performance
What has changed in remote working recently, whether you are a seasoned remote team member or not, is that competing demands (family and other) have now become an additional element that team members have needed to juggle with. It is important that the leader recognizes this and also makes allowances for this in the appropriate ways depending on the individual team members.
From Gallup research in March 2020 one of the three things that managers have to do perfectly to create the right level of engagement for their people is Individualization – “Managers have to figure out where structure is required (e.g., no crying children during client calls) and where it is flexible -- like shortening meetings by five or 10 minutes to allow people to transition between calls and reset an activity for a child at home.”¹
The big difference in assessing performance remotely is that as leader you may have less opportunities for observing team member behaviour directly than when the team are all in the same location. So you will need to put more effort into developing the right approach for each individual team member while maintaining a common standard and baseline rules for all. The second factor gallup identified as important for the right level of engagement - Accountability – “Managers must create or improve upon their systems for holding their teams accountable when everyone is working remotely. This is based in communication but includes tools for measuring timelines and deliverables, check-ins, and evaluation of submitted work. It's important that everyone understands the quality of work expected from them while working remotely -- and that your managers are prepared to assess and hold team members accountable for their continued performance.”¹
Connection is important. People working remotely require more emphasis on feeling connected as they are not going to the office every day. Empathy is an important factor in supporting and maintaining this connection. Here is an example from Simon Sinek on what empathy looks like.²
How do I show empathy for the complex work environment my team members now operate in. There may be no clear divide between work and home. There are multiple competing interests to accommodate – partner, children, elderly relatives, food shopping more complex, cooking, etc. Acknowledging and connecting with the emotions of people is important. People need to feel understood in order to maintain the necessary connectedness. Given my individual team members what is the best way to do this individually and collectively? What works for some may not work for others. But asking how you feel and listening is normally a good way to start. It is important not only to hear but to acknowledge that you have heard and also choose the right way to express your empathy.
Leadership communication style
Sharing and getting to know how each team member likes to work and especially likes to be communicated to can help ease interpersonal working and avoid the development of conflicts. Having an understanding of their personality style can help to plan the communication in the right way. Using multiple media is also a good way to fit a multiplicity of styles in the team. Gallup’s third factor - Communication – “Managers need to communicate with their teams in multiple ways and through multiple mediums to keep expectations clear, to reinforce priorities, and to help understand and address barriers to maximizing their team's work while they are away from the office.”¹
Some may like to interact with you and ask questions without any preparation while others may prefer to receive something in writing that they can study and reflect on first in order to be prepared to discuss. The rule of thumb is to err on the side of over communication as often leaders assume that when they have said it once it has been heard. On line and remote you may need to regularly check if it has been heard.
The “3C’s” of Jason Wingard³ provide a good summary:
• “Clarity – clear boundaries and guidelines. Concentrate on what is being accomplished and set new metrics if needed. Clarify goals and roles
• Communication – frequent and regular. But avoid micro managing unless the person needs it.
• Connection – making time for personal interaction. Use video as much as possible.”
³ Leading Remote Workers: The Coronavirus’ Impact On Effective Management. Jason Wingard, Dean Emeritus and Professor of Human Capital Management at the School of Professional Studies at Columbia University. Forbes Magazine March 2020.