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The 5 key components of effective remote leadership


How to best lead a team from your desk at home is becoming an increasingly hot topic in these Covid-affected times. From discussions with coaching clients and other business leaders, I see 5 key components emerging.


Uniting all of these components is the absence of what one might call the “watercooler factor”, essentially shorthand for all the informal communications which happen organically during a day in the office. And don’t happen at all when everyone’s working from home. The no.1 complaint from remote workers is always lack of communication, and it’s this informal (yet critical) component of communication which is most obviously missing. So how do you make up for that?


The first key component is management. As a leader, it’s harder to know exactly what’s going on with your team when you can’t see them, and there’s a consequent danger that you’ll oscillate between frustration and micromanagement. Neither are very productive and your people need to be treated like grown-ups and left to get on with it. In fact, one key advantage of remote working is that people can go about their work in the way that best suits them, and consequently some have experienced huge leaps in productivity since enforced home working kicked in.


What’s needed here are clear goals, deadlines, expectations and responsibilities. Take the time to work these out in advance, then agree and (most critically) record them for each team member. Invest time and money in robust systems to support this (you probably should have been doing this anyway). An online project management tool will tell you exactly where Bob is on Project A without you having to interrupt him. Consider using a RACI matrix for total clarity on accountabilities.


That leaves you more time and energy to focus on motivation. Particularly with the external landscape so static and people having less reason to even leave their homes, it can be hard for them to keep themselves going day after identical day. What they need from you is both the big-picture context for what they’re doing and how they specifically fit into it - you need to map out the vision (and people’s roles within it) and talk about it in an engaging fashion pretty much all the time. When you feel yourself thinking “I can’t believe I’m saying this again”, then you’re probably approaching the right frequency of communication!


You should also pay particular attention to acknowledgement and appreciation. In my experience, this is often overlooked by leaders and it’s particularly essential now. Go the extra mile to tell people how well they’re doing and how much you appreciate their efforts, and make it public when appropriate. Something to avoid is ranting about the overall situation or a particular element of government policy which is harming your business - it’s unsettling for your people and unhealthy for your mindset.


Pay attention to your availability, or rather the perception of it. As the leader, you’re seen to be remote and inaccessible at the best of times, and that perception worsens when people can’t even see you walking around the office. People can become reluctant to reach out across the apparent divide (“I know how busy you are”) and that can lead to isolation, where they forget that they’re part of a supportive team and sit alone with an issue.


Again, repetition is part of the solution. Take every opportunity to tell people a) that you want to hear from them and b) the best way to get hold of you - and then of course be evidently pleased and responsive when they do reach out! Hold a team check-in online at the same time at the beginning of every single day to ground people and remind them that everyone’s out there. Hold regular Zoom surgeries where you’re in your Zoom room for a set period and anyone can drop in (the equivalent of being in your office with the door open). Consider using a team communications platform like Slack to foster collaboration and alleviate loneliness without disruption. Above all, if you do find yourself in the office from time to time, consider that the only reason to be there right now is to be available to others, so don’t spend your time with your head down on something else!


Do everything you can to encourage balance. Work-life balance is harder to maintain in a remote working context (it’s so easy for a working day to drift into an evening without the commute as a natural break and what else is there to do anyway?!), so it’s particularly sacrosanct. Explicitly agree and record boundaries with each team member, and give people permission to call you out if you break an agreement. Bear in mind that people may feel duty bound to respond to an email from you, even if it’s at 11pm or over the weekend, so adopt habits like email scheduling or just taking a note and saving it until the morning!


What many of us miss most is the sense of connection which is such a key feature of a successful team. Zoom-only relationships start to wear thin in the long term and a protracted period without something more intimate is very challenging. Not least, it’s hard to get a sense of how people are really doing.


The pastoral element of a leader’s role has therefore never been more critical. Allow the human element into any and every context. Start every online meeting with at least 5 minutes of banter as a matter of course. Have calls with people dedicated to talking about how they’re feeling (both going for a walk while you do this can make these more expansive). Be OK with any mood anyone turns up in, and be prepared to share your own humanity and the concerns that come with that. And do everything possible to meet face-to-face, even if only occasionally, as this can go a long way.


Finally, don’t forget one of the most important qualities of great leaders, which is the ability and readiness to both solicit and listen to feedback from all quarters. Keep asking “how am I doing on this stuff?” and be prepared to learn from anyone.

©2020 by Nick Thistleton