Leading Remotely for the Long Term:

5 key challenges and how to address them

It may have been an unplanned move forced upon many thanks to the current pandemic, but working from home, to some degree or another, is here to stay. Whilst there was lots of advice shared in the early days of lockdown around how to lead remotely, much of it was rather skin deep. The challenge now is to make that move sustainable and positive for your organisation, and your workforce.

If done well, working from home can improve job satisfaction, raise productivity, reduce emissions and get the best talent. But leading a virtual team is, in many ways, more demanding than leading in person. A successful shift will require leaders to be thoughtful and deliberate, creating new policies and ways of working, and rethinking their approach.

We take a quick look at some of the common challenges and share some tips on how to address them.

The Communication Challenge

If 55% of communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice and just 7% is the actual words spoken (an oft-quoted breakdown attributed to Albert Mehrabian), there’s an obvious challenge with working remotely. Colleagues are increasingly reliant on email and instant messages as their primary form of communication.

Even if these stats are taken with a pinch of salt, and even if we factor in phone calls and video calls, the potential for comments to be misinterpreted is undoubtedly greater where there is less real life, face to face contact. This applies whether we’re thinking about individual communication, communication between leaders and their teams, or even wider business communication.

It’s also easy to underestimate the potential benefits of overhearing colleagues’ conversations or casual interactions in an office space. A chance encounter could highlight a potential issue with a project, or someone unexpected might come up with the winning solution simply because they’re in the right place at the right time.

The challenge for leaders then, is how to fill these gaps effectively to ensure their teams continue to feel supported and don’t miss out on the power of collective intelligence.

Tips on how to address it

  • Think carefully about the purpose and objective of every interaction (the “why”). This should drive the “how”, the “what” and the “who” of the resulting communication. This is a good tip for leaders to live by generally but becomes even more significant when working remotely.
  • Document everything. When leading remotely, it becomes even more important to be clear on expectations, roles, responsibilities and process steps. Task processes, for example, need to be explained in greater detail
  • Communicate more, with intention. But make sure it’s two-way communication, rather than a stream of broadcast
  • Schedule weekly 1-2-1s with your team, and never cancel them. Be prepared to increase the length of them if needed. Set up individual development plans for your team – life is not on hold and they need to know that!
  • Provide daily and weekly team updates on the health of the business and the progress of large projects so you’re bringing everyone along with you
  • Encourage your team to spot when an email or text chat exchange becomes prolonged or unproductive and hop on a phone or video call instead
  • Build a culture of adding people on calls. If you think they can add value, get them involved! Technology has made this simple enough to do and it will make individuals feel valued
  • Use visual prompts to help get across the things you can’t say in words. This can help break up the stream of written words and be great for motivation and engagement!
  • Get some individual leadership coaching on how to make the most of each contact with individual team members so you communicate more consciously
  • Agree with your team which technology or platform to use for what sort of communication. For example, Zoom for training, Teams for meetings, file sharing and text chat.

The Engagement Challenge

One of the common problems with remote working is the lack of social and informal interaction between members. It can be very hard to build, or maintain, a sense of company culture when colleagues are at arm’s length. This can manifest itself in a broader lack of engagement. The less engaged an employee, the less productive they’re likely to be and the more likely they are to move on.

According to Laurel Farrer, remote work strategist and advocate:

 “Culture is actually more important in a virtual environment because being part of a very dynamic and engaging culture is how remote workers separate their work from their life in the same environment. So, when they log on, they really feel like they’re part of something and very connected to their teammates. That tells their brain it’s work time.”

It’s up to leaders to find ways to create a culture that brings their team together, even when they’re not in the same place physically.

Tips on how to address it

  • Create opportunities for remote social interactions. How about a virtual happy hour on a Friday afternoon? Or a team quiz one lunchtime?
  • Get your team on a video call to celebrate small victories, birthdays or work anniversaries
  • If possible, mix up remote working with days in the office.

The Productivity Challenge

Opinions on the relative productivity of remote and office workers are divided. There is plenty of research evidence to suggest that remote workers can be more productive thanks to fewer distractions and no stressful commute to contend with. However, there are other reports that long-term remote work is leading to a global dip in productivity.

Many of the productivity challenges are related to simply not having access to the right tools and technologies to make remote working a success. From not being able to access files to poor connectivity, these frustrations can perhaps be tolerated in the short term.

However, there is a risk that some employees may use the technology argument as an excuse for slips in productivity. So, it’s important to look at the whole picture and be clear on whether there are actually behavioural related performance concerns.

But if remote working is part of the “new normal”, leaders need to address these challenges to keep their team on side. Remote teams require more deliberate planning – a step which could easily have been missed in the rush to comply with lockdown measures in 2020.

Tips on how to address it

  • Conduct an audit with each member of your team, including a workstation assessment. Do they have what they need to work effectively? If not, how can you resolve those issues?
  • Review the current tools you have in place – video call apps, text chat functions. Now you’ve been using them for a while, have you made the right choices? If not, test an alternative and gather feedback from the team before deciding on the way forward
  • Use your 1-2-1s to ask your team whether they’re experiencing any other problems which may be affecting their productivity – make it part of the conversation
  • Encourage team members to share any tips they have on how to make their day more productive
  • Encourage your team to proactively educate themselves on what is best practice within your business, industry and the wider business community to ensure continuous improvement.

The Mental Health Challenge

For some, the move to remote working can take its toll emotionally. The blurring of the lines between home and work life can, for the more conscientious, make it hard to know when to stop, leading to exhaustion and burnout.

Feelings of isolation can also creep in with the lack of physical interaction. Prolonged isolation can result in things like anxiety and depression.

The challenge for leaders is to make space in their busy day to switch on their radar for emotional support needs (including their own), put measures in place to prevent the escalation of mental health concerns, and spot them early in team members if they do crop up.

Tips on how to address it

  • Take care of yourself so you can take care of your team. Consider introducing a wind-down ritual to end your “working day” to help switch to “home life”
  • Accept that a remote working day does not need to look the same as an office day. Encourage team members to take regular breaks away from their desk – to go and get a coffee or go for a walk
  • Arrange to meet a co-worker for a walk, or take a call whilst out for a leg stretch. This can be a great time for problem solving and idea generation, as well as having a positive impact on your state of mind
  • Make sure you informally check in with team members to find out how they’re doing, rather than how they’re getting on with their work-related tasks
  • Consider creating support groups within the organisation, or offering access to a telephone counselling service for your team
  • Invest in some leadership learning and development around managing mental health and mindsets.

The Fostering Trust Challenge

In this context, trust is threefold: you, as the leader, trusting your team, your team members trusting you as the leader, and both leader and employees trusting the business – and vice versa. With everyone working at a distance, it can harder to build, and keep, trust. It can feel like things are going on behind the scenes that we’re not aware of. Or, in the case of the more workshy, the issue may be that things just aren’t happening!

Trust is closely linked to communication. Nailing your communication strategy will go a long way to help improve trust. But that’s not the only consideration.

Recent analysis from Gartner found that two-fifths of remote employees want more self-directed work. Working away from the office lends itself to this approach, but it can take some adjustment.

The challenge for leaders is to create a positive culture of ownership and accountability amongst their teams. It will generate big rewards if done well!

Tips on how to address it

  • Understand where the current trust level is. Stephen Covey uses the metaphor of the Emotional Bank Account to describe “the amount of trust that’s been built up in a relationship”. This is a powerful concept that is worth familiarising yourself with – here’s a handy article which explains it in a bit more detail.
  • Resist the temptation to tighten the reins to feel more in control. Your leadership style must focus on trusting your team
  • Empower individuals by shifting from directing your team’s work to coaching them for success. Invest in some individual coaching for yourself to make this transition successfully
  • Consider introducing a mentoring programme, teaming up more junior members of your team with other colleagues who can help inspire them to embrace self-directed working

Ensure conversations are open, transparent and consistent. Create an “I’m here to help, not hurt” culture.

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