Leading from home: 7 essential skills every manager should know.
It was March 2020, and I had just landed at Sydney airport with my team after completing a workshop in Brisbane for a client. A few people were wearing masks, and there was a sense of anxiety and trepidation in the air. I turned to my senior consultant. “Head into the office and grab what you need. I think we are going to need to work from home for a while,” I said.
I headed to the office myself. Raiding the stationary cabinet and grabbing a few bits and pieces for my laptop. What I wasn’t to know was that it would be my last flight for more than a year, and “a while” meant that almost 15 months later, most of us would still be working from home.
Leading from home
At the outset of the pandemic, most clients did what was necessary. Teams moved remotely where possible, and technology such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams were deployed. By and large, people got on with it – and whilst less than ideal, it was novel and work got done in the short term.
No one predicted how long we would need to be remote. Soon the “virtual drinks” started to wear thin, and teams expected more from their leaders as they settled into the “new normal”.
As a consultant who works with organisations on people strategy, I am fortunate to be exposed to many leaders. Some leaders transitioned to remote working well. However, I saw many leaders struggle to adapt to the new environment – especially those with a “command and control” style.
Worse still, the conversation was often centred on working from home. Could employees be trusted? What would this mean for our productivity? A lot of this conversation was misdirected. Instead of focusing on working from home, the discussion should be directed towards leading from home. How do leaders need to adapt to the virtual environment, and what skills and capabilities should they focus on?
In my experience, those who do well with virtual leadership focus on seven elements;
1. Refresh or create working agreements
I am a massive believer in teams creating working agreements – even in non-remote scenarios. A working agreement (or team charter) is a set of agreed principles that define what you and your team members need from one another to work together successfully. A working agreement is not imposed on a team. In contrast, it is created and committed to by the team. Elements of a working agreement might include;
- What is our team’s purpose/mission?
- What are the roles & responsibilities within our team?
- How will we measure success?
- How will we work together? What tools will we use?
- How will we update and communicate with each other?
- How will disagreements be surfaced and resolved?
- How should team members raise concerns and escalate issues?
It is vital that leaders and teams update their working agreements as the remote environment evolves and new technologies come into play. Working agreements help to provide stability, clarity and a trusting environment – all of which are especially important when your team is working remotely.
2. Be a role model
At the height of the pandemic, I heard about a leader who would dress in a suit and tie every day and head into the office. He would sit on an entirely empty floor doing his video calls while the rest of his team sensibly worked remotely. What kind of message do you think this sent to the team? At worst, it screams, “I expect you to be in the office like me.” At best, there is no “shared experience”. Whilst his team was having to deal with 2 kids and a cat interrupting their Zoom calls and trying to home-school their kids – he was sitting in the air-conditioned office with no real sense of what his team was going through.
The leaders I have seen most successfully manage remote teams have high empathy, vulnerability and authenticity. They lead by example – setting the tone and the team norms. Good leaders are aware of the varying circumstances each team member may be experiencing and adjust accordingly. I also believe a critical characteristic is vulnerability and defaulting to transparency. Nobody on your team expects you to be perfect.
Early in the pandemic, one of the leaders I was working with divulged to her team that her husband had to go for a COVID test. This was at a time when testing was not something that was happening regularly. There was genuine concern from her team members and natural relief when his test came back negative. That vulnerability helped bring a little more humanity into the team.
Lastly, remote leaders who are successful take care of their teams’ well-being, and they also take care of themselves. Having a self-care mindset isn’t something to be guilty about. Numbing out, burning out or checking out isn’t helping you or your team. Don’t neglect your own health and mental well-being.
3. Curated Communications
Zoom fatigue. We have all experienced it. When I first started working from home, my days were back-to-back video calls with barely a break in between. Everything seemed to need a video call – and I was exhausted. It was unsustainable.
I would like to introduce you to the concept of synchronous and asynchronous communications. Synchronous communications occur in real-time – such as video or phone calls. Whilst beneficial, they are expensive in terms of productivity and energy. Asynchronous communication occurs at a different time for each participant – for example posting a status update on Microsoft Teams. It can be posted and read when it is convenient for each party.
It’s essential to have a balance of both types of communications in your remote leadership toolkit. Use synchronous communication for conflict resolution or anything that requires empathetic human interaction. I also believe in varying it up a little. An old fashion phone call goes a long way these days. The usual meeting rules should still apply. Do you really need this meeting? Who really needs to be there, and what is the agenda and defined outcome? Just because video conferences are easy to initiate doesn’t mean that every interaction needs to be one.
Use asynchronous for pretty much everything else. This type of communication is vastly underrated. That Monday morning status meeting where everyone goes around the virtual room and drones on about what they are doing whilst you sneakily do email … replace it with a status update on Microsoft Teams. Perhaps even try pre-recording a Monday morning update video for your team that they can watch at their leisure. This communications model also delivers maximum flexibility. It recognises that when remote, team members may be adjusting their working hours to suit their family or personal situation. By communicating asynchronously, you allow them to consume information at the most appropriate time for them.
I am not advocating that you have less communication with your team – just more thoughtful communication. With great Zoom power comes great Zoom responsibility – use it wisely!
4. Prioritise and invest in relationships
Remote working has many upsides – productivity, flexibility, and access to talent – just to name a few. However, being in a remote team also has its downsides. The big one is feeling isolated and disconnected. As a leader, you need to invest in relationship building – more than you usually would.
Your initial focus should be within your team. Create opportunities for peer-to-peer communications rather than everything being centralised around team meetings. Also, make sure you check in with your team members regularly (read: weekly!) to figure out the best ways they want to stay connected and updated.
It is also easy to become insular as a leader and as a team. So also think about how you intend to stay connected to the broader organisation. Broker and encourage connections with other teams. A few months into remote working, I got a phone call from a colleague I hadn’t heard from in ages. This was someone whom I would not normally connect with at work. It made my day. It was good to get a fresh perspective and to break my regular routine. I encourage you to pick up the phone occasionally and call a colleague out of the blue. I am sure they will appreciate it, and it will help form stronger bonds within the organisation.
5. Manage conflict early
Conflicts are natural in any environment but can be especially problematic with remote work. When they do arise in a remote setting, you must be clear about how the team will manage them – and you need to get on top of them early.
This is not the time for asynchronous communications – emails and slack messages are utterly ineffective for resolving conflict. This is the time to “level up” your communications and get all parties on a video call as soon as possible. When team members are remote, there is a risk that conflicts will fester and amplify. Having a mechanism (as part of your working agreement) for resolving disagreements early is critical.
It is also essential to recognise the personal situation that each team member may be experiencing at home – and how that impacts how they show up to work every day. The added pressures of working from home – especially during a pandemic, can add to the potential for conflict. The whole team needs to be a little more empathetic and tolerant of each other.
Lastly, consider how you can predict or anticipate conflicts or engagement issues. You can start to be proactive by using tools such as Microsoft Viva, Microsoft Teams or Culture Amp – which allow you to take the temperature of your team. This will provide you with a little more insight and help you understand if potential issues are bubbling up with remote work. It enables you to address the problems before they become significant for the whole organisation.
6. Establish support infrastructure
One of the most vital elements of establishing a virtual team is to ensure that there is adequate support infrastructure in place. Members of your team will have different levels of suitability and comfortability in working remotely. It is vital to ensure that you are providing the right amount of support for each individual.
Part of doing this well is to turn up your EQ and start listening. The art of managing a remote team is to have a sense of what the emotional baseline looks like for each of your team members – keeping an eye out for indications that they might be struggling. It is also beneficial to provide various interaction methods – from virtual office hours, scheduled 1:1’s, peer support and employee assistance programs. When it comes to providing emotional support to your team, one size does not fit all. So providing different communication and support mechanisms will allow you to tailor your approach.
7. Levelling the playing field
Where we work and how we work have fundamentally changed. Organisations were already moving to more flexible working arrangements – the pandemic just accelerated the inevitable. The new reality will be hybrid teams – with a blend of both remote and onsite working. This presents an entirely new set of challenges.
If managed poorly, hybrid working arrangements can lead to an “us versus them” culture and create inequity in the team – with remote members feeling left out or overlooked. For some, it feels far worse than when everyone is working remotely. Have you ever been the sole remote person on a video conference – with the rest of the team in a meeting room? How does that feel?
The best practices for managing a hybrid team are still evolving; however, there are a few things that you can be mindful of as a leader. Firstly, biasing toward asynchronous communications mechanisms, such as posting information on Teams, levels the playing field. Everyone gets access to the same information at the same time.
As a leader, it is also important that performance measures and promotions emphasise contribution rather than visibility. Lastly, you need to get your team together physically on occasion – even if it is once per quarter. Physical proximity creates stronger bonds within the group, translating to better relationships and fewer misunderstandings when people return to the virtual.
Establishing virtual cultures and capabilities
There are many benefits to working remotely. As the workforce continues to change, so will the way companies lead employees. Companies need to be less concerned about working from home policies and more concerned with enabling their leaders to effectively lead from home.
The leadership skills required for managing remote employees are often different from those used in more traditional office environments. Working from home relies on nuanced communication, blurred lines and – even if remote workers are well managed – long periods of unease and vagueness in task management.
Given these prevalent grey areas, every team member will cope with remote work differently. Therefore, leaders must hone their emotional intelligence capabilities to understand and support their employees as they navigate this new way of working. This supportive management style should also be underpinned by quantifiable performance management, with a team focused on specific goals.
Where to now?
If you need help developing your remote leadership skills or finding ways to incorporate hybrid teams into your company culture, we have a range of short accelerators and advisory offerings that will be just what you need. Whether it’s an implementation plan or advice on how best practices have worked for other organisations like yours, we want to partner with you and make sure that your business is successful no matter where your team works from! If you would like to know more, contact us.
Jamie Pride is a Partner at Humanly Agile, an organisational design and change management consultancy that helps clients discover better ways of working and harness the power of their people. He has over 27 years of experience in business transformation and is highly passionate about the future of work. His areas of expertise include organisational design, enterprise agility, people strategy & employee experience.