Leadership is the “action of leading a group of people or an organization” and your journey as a leader comprises a few elements that are part of this action.
Making it as a leader in today’s remote work environment requires you not only to believe in getting things done independently but also passing this knowledge and inspiration to the people on the other side of the screen.
This is called defaulting to action, and it was first introduced by tech company Zapier, one of the first fully-remote companies who were able to consistently grow over the years thanks in part to this internal philosophy.
But what does this mean for you?
Let’s dive a bit deeper.
What Does Remote Leadership Look Like?
Shifting to remote work is a challenge. We’re all accustomed to traditional ways of handling work and leadership is no different.
As a leader, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed or even uncertain about how to get things done properly in today’s environment.
While the topic was historically tackled as an issue that only forward-looking tech companies had to deal with, the current setting tells us a different story…
That any company can go remote.
And that many companies should go remote.
Apart from industries where being physically present is a requirement (think food service, hotel and catering, retail), most other companies can make the switch.
And while working from home was largely covered by many publications, leaders are often left wondering how to define their role in this new setting.
So, what does remote leadership look like?
A Look Into Managing Remote Teams
In his “Remote Leader’s Guide to Managing a Team,” marketing consultant Matthew Barby shares his experience managing a global team for HubSpot, a marketing and sales software company that traditionally mixed office work with remote work.
During Covid-19, the company shifted to an entirely remote workforce. With 3500+ employees distributed across the world, that is no small feat to achieve. As noted by Barby, some of the disadvantages of this remote-first culture are:
- No way for employees to connect on a personal level
- Scheduling issues due to differences in time zones
- Higher costs if you want to meet people in-person
- Hiring bias based on location and cost of living
These are very new issues.
But they’re also extremely relevant.
As an upcoming or established leader, your role is to have people in your organization feel welcome and ready to get the job done.
To do this in a remote setting, you have to consider and reinforce five elements of leadership that can make the difference when working at a distance.
5 Elements of Leadership to Practice in a Remote Culture
As of June 2020, most (if not all) of us didn’t choose to go remote. We were forced to do so due to circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic.
That leaves us vulnerable to change in a period when most of us can’t find the time or mental capacity to educate ourselves on remote culture.
While there are many elements that contribute to a successful shift to remote work, I’ve compiled five leadership traits that you should focus on during this time:
Element 1: Work Ethic
Work ethic sits at the top of the list for a good reason.
Without a foundational belief in the work you’re carrying forward, it’s extremely hard to pass inspiration to the people around you.
As a leader, your team’s output is often a direct result of how much you care about the work itself, and how you portray this passion to those who work with you.
Nothing screams results more than a passionate leader that cares about getting things done. This is especially true in a remote environment where people in a team are often unwantedly left to themselves with no guidance to draw inspiration from. As a leader, you have to address this by communicating more effectively.
Technology has come a long way but we often forget how good it is to hear a voice or see somebody’s face. In remote settings, we tend to resort back to text-based software suites such as Slack or MS Teams when, in reality, we should have many, many more calls: both audio and video. That’s how you should engage in a remote team!
Element 2: Humility & Empathy
Remote work is a new thing, especially if we consider the current circumstances. But humility should not be sacrificed in the process of guiding your team forward during this complex scenario. A great leader is a humble leader—always. In a remote setting, this is particularly relevant as your team will find itself at a loss many times.
When an employee comes to you saying that 2+ months of lockdown have had a serious consequence on the quality of their work, you have to be there for them. Many of us don’t know how to deal with this situation and acknowledging that your team may not react the same way you do requires a great deal of empathy.
Humility and empathy are related in these circumstances.
You have to be humble to put yourself in the shoes of those working with you and, at the same time, you have to be empathetic towards their needs in these difficult times. Listening is also a skill you should hone as it’s a function of empathy.
Be there for your people before they quit out of nowhere.
Element 3: Authority
Authority is a staple in leadership. You can’t effectively get your team to do something if you don’t have the authority to ask them for such a thing.
Much less if there is a filter (the distance in this case) between you and them where they don’t feel like you have some sort of control over the situation.
You cannot let that happen in a remote setting.
Granted that taking control doesn’t mean forcing your team to do something on your behalf. This is a fundamental principle of agile leadership and it doesn’t change the fact that, as a leader, you should work together with your team to find a common ground rather than give orders and wait for things to magically happen.
Displaying authority in remote settings is challenging but possible. Team members may feel detached from management if they don’t hear from them often and they might lose interest in working without a clear mission.
It’s your job as a leader to communicate the company values, mission, and vision often and direct their thinking towards a common goal.
Element 4: Transparency & Trust
Transparency is a topic that isn’t nearly as discussed as it should be, especially when it comes to leading a team. You have to be transparent with your team if you want them to trust you, and you also have to accept the fact that you’re laying some of the risk into their hands when you’re assigning tasks or projects to them.
The nature of leadership is to accept and navigate risk by leading people in your team to follow the exact same path as a shared effort. Whether that path is successful or not lies entirely in your hands (and those who help you in making decisions) but that doesn’t mean you can take your team’s trust and play around with it.
While transparency is key to moving forward in any environment, it is especially damaging to breach your team’s trust in a remote setting where they may be facing other challenges such as productivity issues, family life, and other factors. Be there for your team and they’ll come back to you with amazing work—even in tough times.
Element 5: Resilience
You, your team, and all the people around you.
We’re all human.
We all have different needs based on our experience in life and this means that there’s no silver bullet to solving the remote problem. But there is one element that can lead to results not just in remote settings but as a trait to develop in your entire career…
As a leader, you’ve likely faced many failures in the past.
And if you haven’t, you probably will in the future.
With the economy tumbling down, millions of people losing their jobs, and companies scrambling to figure out remote work, it’s normal to feel down. Yes, even for leaders who are supposed to showcase confidence at all times.
That’s where resilience comes in. External circumstances can bring you down but it’s how you deal with them that matters. Resilience is all about finding that sweet spot between dealing with a crisis and bouncing right back up. It’s not something that’s taught in school but it’s definitely something to be aware of in your journey.
Focusing on these five elements can help you better adapt to a global environment where employees are not only shifting to remote work due to external circumstances but are also requesting and expecting it as a fundamental part of modern hiring.
The pandemic is accelerating a movement that was already strong at its core, clearly highlighting the need for leaders who can eliminate complexity, inspire their teams, and get them focused on the mission of the organization while working remotely.
Leading by Example in Times of Uncertainty
No matter how big or small, leading remote teams was never an easy task. Less so if they are distributed across different time zones.
But it’s a challenge you should take to heart.
It’s hard to think about structure when the world seems to be falling apart. But your role involves so much more than just structuring every part of your business.
Your responsibility is to inspire others, help them see things differently, and guide them all the way through from crisis mode to a renewed organization.
Focusing on the elements of leadership described above helps you reinforce the message that change is more of a mental construct rather than a physical thing.
By displaying work ethic through humility and authority, you are sending out a signal of hope and renewed normalcy, something that all team members will appreciate.
And by keeping the employee’s trust through transparent feedback and a resilient outlook, you’re telling them to push forward without forcing them into work.
Leading by example means believing in your cause. And your cause should be to always put your people first, no matter the circumstances or the environment.
Originally published Jun 10 2020
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