Working from home is something that most people and organisations are pretty comfortable with now – at least for mid-level workers and above. But, due to the unpleasant turn of events with Coronavirus, increasing numbers of staff at all levels are being asked to work from home for weeks on end. No longer is working from home a privilege, and a weekly opportunity to catch up on admin tasks; or turn off your email for a couple of hours to read a report; or make a Zoom call which needs a level of privacy you don’t get in the office. Instead, it’s likely to become the obligation for many of you, for at least a few weeks. But where does that leave you, as a leader? If you haven’t had to do it before, the thought of motivating, setting direction, inspiring, and looking after your people from afar may be pretty daunting. I’ve already heard from a number of you who say you’re terrified of the prospect!
So, how can you make sure that you lead effectively, from afar, if you face a period of prolonged physical isolation from your team? And how can you make sure that they know, and remember, who you are as a leader: what you expect, what makes you tick, and where they should be focusing their energy? Help is at hand! I’ve been trawling the literature to compile key learnings on how to lead from afar, and to keep it easy, I’ve boiled it down into five things to remember.
1 – Show Your Face
The Pyramid of Communication Fidelity (below) shows that you get closer to knowing and understanding a person if you communicate in person. But where that’s not possible, the next best thing is video chat. The ability to see someone’s face, their reactions, their body language, makes up for some of the distance. It can be tempting, when you are at home, not to want to turn the video on (And yes, I write this at home in my pyjamas so I know the feeling!) but if you’re a leader, you really need to make the effort. The more people see your face and your reactions, the more they see you as a human being, rather than a job title.
Video communication can also be much more effective for checking on your team members’ wellbeing, which may be suffering as a result of being more isolated than usual. You can read their body language, and expressions, and reach out to them on a more human level than might be possible if you are just using audio, or written communication.
2 – Establish and Maintain Team Norms
If your team isn’t used to being out of the office, and instead all working from their own homes, then you may need new ways of operating. Google’s Project Aristotle was concerned with what made a team excellent. The good news is that all markers of team excellence are just as possible remotely as they are for a face-to-face team. As a leader, it’s important that you create situations where people feel psychologically safe; where they feel able to rely on one another; in which they can find impact and meaning in their work; and where they have clarity and structure.
Even if you usually have all of these in your normal operating structure, when you’re all working from home, it’s worth sharing this model with your team, and checking in with them as to any gaps, so that they can be addressed as soon as possible.
For example, it can be really hard to see what impact your work is having on the team if you are distanced from them. If a team member mentioned this as a problem, you could build into your online team meetings an agenda point in which members thank each other and name the benefits of one another’s work. Whilst this may not feel as natural and spontaneous as just having these conversations in person, without such systems, it can be very easy to fall into a goal-driven way of engaging with one another when it’s just through online meetings and emails.
Diagram: Google’s Project Atistotle.
One caveat, however: if you’re establishing totally new norms, for example around regular online team meetings, make sure that those norms don’t benefit one part of your team over another. For example, if you have those doing flexi-work or part-time work, respect that they are still on those contracts. It can be incredibly demotivating and frustrating when a leader forgets these rules just because they are not in the same space. And don’t expect people to be available outside of their working hours (the company doesn’t own that time they used to use to commute – the individual does. A 7.30a.m. meeting may still be seen to be very anti-social by many members of your team!)
3 – Focus on the End, Not the Means:
As a leader, it’s much harder to check up on what your team are precisely doing when they are working remotely. You can’t just glide by their desk and see. So answering the question, ‘are they working?’ is very difficult. You need to become more focused on their output, rather than their input. Are they producing high quality work, to deadline? Are they using the same level of skill and creativity as you are used to seeing? Can you provide guidance and help to continue their personal development, even though you are both remote? If you can answer yes to the above, then things are going well.
If you can’t, then you know where to focus your leadership efforts in the next few days.
Also worth remembering is that, whilst spontaneity in the workplace can be nice – dropping by someone’s desk for a chat – dropping a phone call on someone working from home that isn’t planned (particularly around lunchtime or the end of the day) can feel stressful, and suspiciously like checking up on them. Which, unless they are underperforming, you should not need to do. Make sure if you’re being spontaneous, your team knows that it’s because you care about them, not because they need to justify why they are not sitting at their desk at precisely that moment.
4 – Seek Feedback; Reflect; Go Again:
As with any leadership task, you will not consistently get it right. If you are coming from a work setting where you are usually present, then you are going to have to work on honing your approach to fit the online setting. Your team will not expect you to get it all right, first time. But you will likely get them on side if you are honest with them about this, and seek feedback. Where is it working for them, feeling on a par with working in the same space? Where is it not? And, in particular where you have very tech-savvy staff members, ask for their input on how things could be improved. According to Valerie Moore at www.fastcompany.com, “If you’re managing a team you should continually build your interpersonal skills. Being able to ask questions and really listen to the answers are essential. You will find that by focusing on tone and pitch you can better “read between the lines” from afar, and spot potential problems more readily.”
Your self-reflection will also be an extremely helpful tool in your arsenal when you are leading from afar. If you want to harness your learnings, then put aside 5 – 10 minutes a day (think of all the time you are saving which once would have been taken up with chat before you quibble about this!) and reflect on what is working, and what is not. Seek help to make changes if you need to. (Your L&D department, if your company has one, is likely to be twiddling its thumbs as they will have likely had to postpone all their training so tap up their experience and any resources they can share with you).
5 – Be Ready for the Known Challenges of Working From Home:
One of the biggest challenges of leading remotely is dealing with how hard others find it, too. A 2017 study of over 1000 employees found that working from home created feelings of being talked about; left out of decision making; and ganged up against. These can have knock-on impacts on productivity, costs, deadlines, morale, stress, and retention. Being aware that this might happen, and looking for signs of it is part of the battle. But what will be critical, as a leader, is to keep talking to staff about how they are feeling; helping them to deal with their concerns; and doubling down on creating those conditions that make for team excellence (impact; structure and clarity; dependability; meaning; and psychological safety).
So, whilst remote leadership is far from new, its significance to companies and their leaders over the coming months is likely to be incredibly large. If you, as a leader, can get a handle on how to successfully lead from afar, and build your skill set, you will reap the rewards.
There are some pundits suggesting that this could be the start of more widespread working from home. They’ve pointed to the way that the cloud of pollution has cleared over Wuhan Province (and China more widely) as evidence that staying at home can reduce our carbon footprint and help to improve our natural environment. And so becoming an accomplished remote leader may pay dividends in the future world of work, too.
If you need any support with any of the issues that this article has raised, contact me to discuss options for online coaching that I can offer in the coming weeks and months – either for you individually, or your employer.
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