Leading Remote Workers: The Coronavirus’ Impact On Effective Management
Updated: Mar 31
From Twitter to Google and Facebook to Amazon, the rise of COVID-19 has prompted many companies to ask some or all of their employees to work from home.
For leaders whose teams normally share an office, this can present a host of new challenges: How can one lead effectively when employees are greeting each other with instant messages rather than handshakes? When meetings are held via Zoom rather than face-to-face?
Julie Wilson, founder of the Institute for Future Learning, said helming a virtual team simply requires leaders to “double down on the fundamentals of good management, including establishing clear goals, running great meetings, communicating clearly, and leveraging team members' individual and collective strengths.”
While Wilson’s points are true, it can nonetheless be intimidating for leaders to make the switch. Here are three keys to heading a newly virtual workforce — what I call the “3 Cs of remote leadership” — that leaders can implement today, whether their organization’s shift is temporary or long lasting.
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When transitioning to a remote team, leaders should prioritize the development of clear boundaries and guidelines. At its most basic, this involves assisting employees in delineating their availability: when they will be working, how they can be reached for different needs, and how they will address challenges such as childcare. Not only will this set expectations for all team members, but it will help ambitious workers from becoming burnt out. As an article from the Harvard Extension School explained, “Without the clear boundaries that office life provides, the go-getters on your team may have workdays that never end, setting themselves up for exhaustion and resentment.”
Leaders should also share new and measurable metrics of success, since they will no longer be able judge employee effectiveness based on hours spent in the office (which, in my opinion, is a positive change). “It is important to manage expectations and stay focused on goals when embracing a remote workforce,” sales and marketing professional Donald Hatter told Forbes. “Don't worry as much about what is being done. Instead, concentrate on what is being accomplished. If we are meeting our goals, then great. If not, we need to look into the situation further. It is all about accomplishment, not activity.”
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Lastly, leaders should “clarify and re-clarify goals and roles” for their entire teams, Heidi K. Gardner and Ivan Matviak wrote in the Harvard Business Review (HBR). “The move to home-based working is a great opportunity for a team to revisit the basics in order to ensure everyone understands the team objectives, their individual roles, and how each person contributes to the outcome,” they explained. “Clarifying roles among the team helps people understand when they can turn to peers instead of the leader, which prevents the leader from becoming a bottleneck.”
While communication is always essential for leaders, it becomes of paramount importance when working remotely — not only in terms of documenting decisions and meetings, but also in terms of reaching out to team members. According to a study outlined in the HBR, 46% of remote workers said the best managers were those who “checked in frequently and regularly.” As the article’s authors wrote: “The most successful managers are good listeners, communicate trust and respect, inquire about workload and progress without micromanaging, and err on the side of overcommunicating.”
One way to maintain communication without micromanaging, according to John Eades, CEO of LearnLoft, is to ask the following questions every week: What have you done? What are you working on? Where do you need help? “Conventional thinking would have us believe that the leader should be responsible for the content and ideas that happen in team meetings,” he wrote at Inc. “But when that thinking is turned upside down, remote leaders can make major productivity jumps. These three questions allow individuals to take ownership of their habits and behaviors.” (They also allow leaders to demonstrate another vital component of remote leadership: trust.)
It is crucial that leaders recognize their cognitive biases, too. When it comes to sharing challenges and assigning tasks, leaders are more likely to rely on those with whom they share similarities — a phenomenon called homophily that could leave women and people of color behind. To combat this, executive coach Julia Wuench recommends creating a list of team members and their photos. “[K]eep it in front of you while you're working each day,” she wrote at Business Insider. “This will help you make more conscious decisions about allocating information and tasks. You can ask yourself, ‘Did I reach out to Susan today?’ Make sure to have touch points with everyone on your team regularly.”
Last, but certainly not least, remote leaders should place an emphasis on connection. “People suddenly working from home are likely to feel disconnected and lonely, which lowers productivity and engagement,” Gardner and Matviak wrote in the HBR. “Leaders, especially those who are not used to managing virtual teams, may feel stressed about keeping the team on track. Under these circumstances it is tempting to become exclusively task-focused. To address these challenges, making time for personal interaction is more important than ever.”
Luckily, leaders of newly remote teams will not have as much difficulty fostering connection as leaders of companies that have been fully distributed from the outset. Teams that have gone remote because of COVID-19 will already have an in-person foundation upon which to build. It will be up to leaders, therefore, to keep these connections strong even though individuals are not seeing each other face-to-face. According to research from Google, some of the most effective ways to accomplish this are embracing video conferencing and dedicating a few minutes at the beginning of each meeting to open-ended questions, such as “What are your weekend plans?”
Jared Sparato, corporate vice president of Microsoft 365, also advised leaders to maintain their regular cadence for meetings or lunches. “With all the changes that come with moving to remote work,” he said, “it’s important to foster and maintain team morale.” Another way to do this, wrote Marten Mickos, CEO of HackerOne, is creating “a virtual water cooler where employees can run into each other and play out their personal and human sides.” One simple and popular option is a #watercooler Slack channel where employees can trade jokes, gifs, and family photos.
For many companies and leaders, the transition to remote working will be challenging at first. Despite the awful circumstances, however, it may prove to be valuable practice for the future. As Mickos pointed out, “We will have distributed and remote organizations long after the coronavirus outbreak recedes. By not tying work or collaboration to any particular physical location or synchronous moment, we democratize opportunity and open up a world of new possibilities.”
Forbes- Jason Wingard