Get REAL: The further we are, the closer we get (Remote leadership)

Nov 29, 2021
Being a successful/effective leader in a virtual environment requires awareness of the changing dynamics of relationships that affect the work environment and learning how to adapt your behavior to new conditions.

Fun fact: Leadership is a complex task even in the most ideal conditions. Responsibility for business and results, for the right people in the right places, productive teams, managing relationships and conflicts and the right motivation has always been a heavy burden carried (with more or less success) by the leaders worldwide.

In the conditions of "remote" leadership, the basic principles of leadership and management have not changed, but maintaining top performance and employee engagement separated by kilometers, time zones and different cultures proves to be even greater challenge for anyone who manages organizations.

Being a successful/effective leader in a virtual environment requires awareness of the changing dynamics of relationships that affect the work environment and learning how to adapt your behavior to new conditions.

In the years B.C. (before COVID), working remotely was usually considered a special privilege, almost an incentive or benefit designed and offered to a selected groups of positions in selected industries. When the pandemic tsunami hit, the business world went online in a matter of days (literally). For some, it continued to be business as usual. For others, who have never even thought about remote work, it became reality they had to cope from one day to another. They are still learning to understand: What does it mean “going to work” without leaving your house?

The “new normal” struck the employees and leaders simultaneously and brought about a harsh truth: If not handled properly, leading remote teams and being part of a purely remote team can cause significant signs of overwhelm, all the way to stress and burnout.

As in many crucial life changing events, this is also more about common sense than management theories, “how to” books and self-help seminars aimed at explaining to us the facts of life. Using our common sense, we will try to answer some of the headaches and dilemmas of leaders and managers leading virtual teams in virtual world:

  1. Trust vs control: The “lack of control” cliché has been repeated so many times in the past two years that it begins to look as if the most important role managers had in pre-pandemic times was keeping a tab on how much time their teams actually spent in a workplace, regardless of what they actually did. Not strictly true, however, not completely false either… The answer to that should be quite simple: Trust your people. focus on output instead of activity itself. Look for results of their work. Give them clear instructions, timeline, deadlines, communicate openly and regularly and make sure they perform. Be there for them. Help them define their working schedule, clear start and end of the work day, sufficient breaks… Come to think of it, it is not much different to what should have been expected from teams in previous times. It just became more transparent.
  2. Overcoming the feeling of isolation: Remote work is also often associated with social isolation. People feel they are not part of the team anymore, they miss interacting with co-workers and, over time, they start experiencing a strong feeling of loneliness. To avoid this downward spiral, remote leaders have to make sure they touch base with each of their direct reports (also ensure that this practice is cascaded down through the organization) at least once a week; to schedule group chats or have a joint virtual lunch session with some of colleagues at work with cameras on. It improves a sense of belonging and also maintains (or improves) the trust level with team members.
  3. Learn how to “let go”. Another challenge managers and leaders are facing in remote environment is the infamous “letting go”. It is almost as difficult as controlling the desire for control – however, it goes deeper in the structure of our personality: we are not perfect. Not in real, and even less in the virtual world. When two worlds collide (being at home and at work simultaneously) it is to be expected that some unforeseeable things might happen: a child or a pet running into a room during a vital presentation; delivery guy ringing at the door when you are alone in the house and on important call; internet crashing, camera or laptop dying on you in the middle of the meeting… you name it. The good news is that it just shows we are all humans after all. Even more so when we experience this kind of challenges and real-life situations. And in a strange twist of fate, it brings us closer together.
  4. Keep on growing the business. Being a business leader in these drastically different working arrangements, you don’t want to keep things status quo. Especially since we have no idea when (and if) we will be going back to our old ways. It might not happen at all. In the meantime, we all want to continue to grow a successful business, maintain and develop customer relationships while ensuring employees are satisfied.
  5. Lead by example. As a remote leader without the typical face-to-face interaction of the traditional workplace, it may feel like your power rests in the strength of your authority. After all, you have the ability to assign work, to give orders, to set goals for your remote workers, and perhaps even to hire and fire people. However, your influence is based, to a large extent, on how people view you at work. Leading by example can be more effective than using your authority. Do you keep your promises? Do you “practice what you preach” in your virtual leadership? Do you “walk the talk”? Make sure that other can agree with these statements. Ask them.

  1. Communicate and communicate again. Some of the basic leadership milestones haven’t changed in the remote/virtual environment. It is still crucial to communicate vision, exercise influence, show direction and promote development. However, it is not enough anymore to craft a “vision statement” and store it in your company’s knowledge base never to look at it again (it should have never been like that, but reality has proven us wrong many times before). Now, it is becoming one of the most powerful tools for keeping the team together, productive and effective. When you are leading a remote team, the quality of your vision is what helps keep everyone on track. Instead of your employees feeling like separate cogs in a big virtual machine (potentially leading to burnout), they’re pulling together to play an important role in moving the company toward its goals. Their belief in the vision will help keep the company on track and satisfy employees.

A recent global survey showed that 18% of employees (that’s almost 1 in 5) say that their biggest struggle with remote work is “not being able to unplug.” This is an area where you could offer coaching and also lead by example in your remote management: make sure team members know they are only expected to be available during core working hours.
And a word of advice: Make sure you personally stick to that rule. It might be the biggest challenge of all.

Author: Svetlana Mirković Borčić, People and Culture Manager

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