Let me ask you a question. Prior to March, 2020, how many of your colleagues worked in a location different from your own? Possibly they worked remotely from home, but in your same city. Others might be in offices in other cities or even countries, but there were already many organizations managing a dispersed workforce. Then the pandemic hit, and that number doubled...tripled....maybe quadrupled! I have clients who moved entire businesses - with multiple offices across the globe - from an almost completely "in-office" working culture to 100% remote over the course of a week back in 2020. Guess what...many of them are still primarily working remotely. Remote working is looking like it is here to stay in a big way. Just today I talked to a client who works for a global company of more than 50,000 employees. They are not planning to send people back into offices. Ever. Google, Twitter, many other big companies announced they plan to allow employees to work from home from now on. While things will likely shift back a bit over time, remote teams are the future.
For some, this is a welcome change. Employees have increasingly been asking for more flexibility to work from home over the last years, especially as technology allows for it so easily. I remember being incredibly frustrated about 10 years ago when my employer at the the time was resistant to me having a "work-from-home day" when my young kids were sick and couldn't go to daycare. Instead the policy was that I needed to take a sick day each time even though I had a laptop, cell phone, internet and access to everything I needed to do basically what I did in the office, but at home. I pushed back and ultimately was able to help influence a slightly more open policy. People who want that flexibility, and can stay focused and motivated in a work-from-home environment, are not unhappy about this shift.
That doesn't mean everyone likes it. Extroverts, people who really thrive in environments filled with the energy of people, struggle in the isolated and sometimes lonely environment of their home office. Others just say they don't focus as well.
The biggest challenge though, that I keep hearing over and over from my clients, is how to lead in this environment.
How do they manage teamwork, develop relationships with new employees over a screen, create strong team culture, or know when an employee is struggling or burning out. These are the questions I hear more and more. Many leaders are not comfortable or confident right now as they attempt to lead people they rarely see in person. The easy spontaneity of walking down the hall and having an impromptu conversation is lost. The ability to read non-verbal signals during team meetings is muted through phone or video. Even just building team rapport is harder....no local place to all gather after work that doesn't involve staying online for yet another hour. Who wants another Zoom happy hour these days?
There are no perfect answers, but here are the top 5 questions that I have my clients think through when they bring up these challenges so they can gain some more control over how to approach thier situation. Take 10 minutes and do a little self-coaching with these on your own and see where it leads you!
What is the most important thing each of your direct reports needs from you? Each might need something different. Perhaps your newest employee needs weekly 1:1s with you, and your most experience employee needs you to empower them to take on more without you. Clarifying what they need (and don't be afraid to ask if you aren't sure!) gives you control in determining how to provide that with the limitations you have to work with.
Where do you feel you are succeeding in leading your team? I'm sure you are doing many great things, and likely (as is the case with many leaders) not giving yourself much credit for them. Take a moment and think about what is working, and how can you do more of that or use it to build from.
What technology "norms" have you put in place? We have SO much technology that it can end up being more overwhelming then helpful at times. If you haven't yet, spend a little time with your team setting some guidelines for how and why you use different tools. For example, use e-mail for things that will need to be referenced later or have attachments, Slack for quick questions and pick up the old-fashioned phone for deeper conversations.
What is the culture you want to develop in your team? How can you identify behaviors that you want to encourage which support that culture and aren't limited by being remote from each other? I've worked with some teams who never set foot in a room together last year, and have an impressively strong culture and way of working together. It is because they took time to define that and decide how they would act accordingly.
How do you want to show up as a leader? This might be the most important. Once you know that, you can build out the behaviors that are required for you to be that leader...and how they need to happen in the remote team setting you are leading. You don't necessarily need to be a different leader than you would in-person, but you might need to be more intentional about how your team sees you and experiences working with you. If you want to be seen as available and welcoming, but you can't give them a good morning smile in the hallway each morning and let them know you are there if they need you, what are options you have to replicate that feeling remotely?
Leading can be complicated and leading remotely is often more so. It can be done well, and might just require more thought from you on how to achieve the outcomes you want, but if you give yourself that time you can find the path to remote leadership that gives you confidence that you've got this.