Remote Leadership: When you can't just walk down the hall and see how things are going
Whenever you are in the world, more likely than not, you lead people or teams that are not located in the same office as you. Or if this isn't the case, you may well be dealing with a remote leader or manager. So if you can't walk down the hall and see how things are going, what are some of the keys to successful remote leadership?
In this article, we'll look at three elements:
- What is different about remote and face-to-face leadership?
- What structures support remote leadership?
- What are the actions you should take as a remote leader?
Strong leaders are skilled in establishing a vision, motivation, engagement, goal setting, performance management and continuous improvement, among other things. In principle then, there is no difference between remote and face-to-face leadership skills. In practice, both the leader and team members lose information about the subtle messages. In their article, "Virtual line management: The competitive advantage", Bente Thomassen and Henrik Villumsen of The Danish Leadership Institute argue that the crucial difference is the leader's lack of access to the atmosphere or tone of the workplace. There are more clues when you can see, hear, and feel a person's tone or a group's atmosphere. The messages that surround you as a leader provide information on productivity and morale. Distance makes many of these messages and clues harder to spot and read.
Leadership becomes even more challenging when you have a mix of local and remote team members. It is extraordinarily easy to assume that the remote team members are facing the same challenges and opportunities as the local team; and perhaps more importantly, to assume that the remote team members have the same needs as the local team. In fact, the remote team members work in a different environment, and as with any group of people, have individual needs. Michael Watkins, in a recent Harvard Business Review Online article give s recommendations to remote team members in "Remote Leadership: Meeting the Challenge of Working for a Virtual Boss" by Michael Watkins.
What are the structures supporting good leadership?
All leaders need to establish structures to support goal alignment and the achievement of desired results. A remote leader should look particularly at these areas.
- Do the remote team members have supported technology that will enable communication, collaboration and access to information? Technology solutions can include web-based scheduling software, teleconferences, videoconferencing, groupware, and webconferencing.
- Do your remote team members understand their limits of authority? Build a decision tree with your team members that outlines the kinds of decisions that can be taken independently, the extent of input you need to have, and the level of communication required (approval needed, advice sought, informed, part of regular updates).
- Does the format of your regularly scheduled team meetings enable clear two-way communication and a sense of involvement? Conscious efforts must be made to include remote team members if there is a sizeable local group; jokes, side discussions, visuals are often lost over the conference lines, leading to a sense of disconnection, rather than inclusion.
- Are you choosing the appropriate forms of communication for each message? Formal follow up and discussion can occur over email. Satisfying your curiousity about an issue may best be done over the phone to avoid a sense of micromanagement, and to ensure your team members are chasing your questions, rather than achieving results. Balance your knowledge and control needs against the pitfalls of micromanagement.
- Have you established a pattern of individual interactions tailored to the needs of the individual team member? Some employees relish a brief interaction daily; some do better with a formal weekly update call. Also ensure that your employees know the best way, and the best times to reach you with more urgent updates.
Structures enable communication. Your actions as a remote leader within and outside those structures are the elements that lead to success.
- Your ability to manage the subtle messages from yourself and the work place are correlated with remote leadership success. Quoting Thomassen and Villumsen, "the further away, the clearer, explicit and unambiguous the message" must be. Whether your team members are on opposite coasts of N. America or separated by 12 time zones, context, jargon, and differences in cultural directness can dramatically effective the understanding of your messages. Simplifying your message, frequently repeating key messages and seeking understanding are key steps to establishing a clear direction.
- The effective remote leader watches closely for the unsaid messages to gain keep a firm grasp on the atmosphere. Be aware of the number or frequency of phone calls or emails, length of messages, changes in tone or words employed, breakdown in interactions between team members, and hints of problems. Be sensitive to what your people are telling you, and what they are not disclosing.
- Know who the thought leaders and social leaders are within a remote group. Deputize them to signal you when problems arise and need your intervention or presence.
- Set aside time for social interactions, both face to face and through your normal means of team communication. Employee engagement is strongly linked to a sense that the boss cares. Building a depth of relationship remotely is more challenging, and more necessary.
- Gallup research documented in "The Fourth Element of Great Managing" reminds leaders of the need for frequent recognition. Gallup recommends recognition be given at least every 7 days. Frequent recognition in a remote situation quells the question, "do they even know what we are doing?" The remote leader who consciously reaches out to every employee on a weekly or more frequent basis to acknowledge and support work, will enhance employee engagement and productivity.