The challenges of remote leadership

As millions of people are impacted in ways that we would never even have considered possible only a couple of weeks ago, we find ourselves in new, different and uncertain times.

Working remotely is a brand-new concept for many of us although, according to Gallup, 43% of U.S. employees work remotely some or all of the time and many studies show remote workers are more productive and profitable than in-house employees.

As companies focus on the health and well-being (both physical and mental) of their people; business continuity; maintaining financial and operational stability whilst continuing to service clients; what support is being provided to those leaders who find themselves leading remotely for the first time?

All leaders will need to lead their people in a new way and adapt fast. Measures need to be put in place to ensure that their people don’t feel lonely and isolated before it damages engagement and performance. Loneliness and isolation are very different. According to Gallup, loneliness is an emotional response to lack of connection. Isolation is structural and related to access, or lack of it. If those who are isolated can’t get the materials or information that they need when they need it, they often feel cut off from the business and that their achievements, or development, are ignored. Therefore, a top priority is having the materials, information and equipment needed for your people to do their work as this is fundamental to engagement. Modern leaders need to understand loneliness when they see it and isolation for what it is.

Leaders need to be aware of and understand individual personality preferences, levels of emotional intelligence and the ideal environment that employees thrive within. Leaders need to individualise their leadership and their approach to those individuals in order to get the best performance. A one-size-fits-all response never fits anyone very well. In these current times, more introverted personalities will likely need additional reassurance and support whilst it will be important to arrange more video conferencing meetings for your more extraverted personalities who get their energy from the people around them.  

Throughout my career, I have had a number of experiences working remotely for extended periods of time. Given my personality type, what was critical to me was inclusion and engagement. What I have witnessed is that it is very easy for people who are working remotely to feel left out, that their opinion does not count or matter, and the work that they do isn’t valuable. When this happens, even the most loyal and engaged employee can become disengaged, disheartened and disconnected. In my experience, this transition can happen very quickly even for the most loyal members of a team.

When leaders can meet the basic needs of engagement and inclusion even casual, friendly conversations turn into innovative discussions that help the team and organisation thrive. The isolated aren’t necessarily unhappy, they’re cut off and leaders can fix that by integrating them deeper into the organisation. Team members who feel left out can really benefit from being brought in. Leaders must make opportunities for meaningful connections.

Finally, your people need to hear from you. In these uncertain times, people crave certainty, they want to feel secure and, as leaders, it is our role maintain that trust with them and in leadership. Bring it back to basics, look at your core values – be authentic, transparent and empathise with your teams. Support them, encourage them and be creative, be agile, innovate. Keep the lines of communication open, honest and broad.

While COVID-19 won’t be an issue forever, remote work will always be a factor and consideration. How your people are treated during these times will reflect on their commitment, loyalty and discretionary effort in the future. What you learn about leading a remote workforce now will likely become best practice for your company later.