What’s so Different About Remote Leadership Anyway?

8 Rules of Engagement to Support People Leaders (even if they’re not asking for it)

Probably the most common thing heard recently from leaders running remote teams is “well leadership is leadership, we’re going to just keep doing what we were doing.

Wrong.

The thing is people new to this aren’t necessarily acknowledging that they have to think about things differently. But unprecedented circumstances driving new work locations means new rules.

What does that look like?

First, there’s a mindset shift that happens when we go remote. We’re thinking about work differently. We’re dealing with different situations. So much of what’s out there is scary, unknown. If we don’t allow that mindset shift to be part of what we’re talking about, people tend to revert to what feels familiar and known. And that’s not going to serve them well right now.

This is not about the potential financial crisis. Or numbers associated with the pandemic. Or how the company may have to lay people off.

This is a shift in mindset around how we’re dealing with the day to day things that are in our purview. How our teams work. How we’re conversing with people. How we think about teams, and work, and barriers.

No longer can we think about work in traditional terms when people are working from home, when they have loved ones in their space, kids at home, when many are working in a common household space like the kitchen.

There are leaders going into this who have never worked from home, who have never had colleagues that work from home. They’re facing challenges around how to manage time. They’re booking meetings the same way. They’re dealing with people the same way. They’re thinking work happens from 9 til 5. They’re not communicating in different ways.

That’s why it’s so important nowadays to get into the mindset and acknowledge that things are changing by giving space for conversations like: “How are you dealing with these changes? How are these changes affecting you or your team? What are you seeing in your team?”

As leaders, let’s imagine the people on our teams who don’t have a private office space, who are responsible for dealing with the kids, the ones who can’t work from 9 to 5 because they have other things they have to do, so they’re trying to work 10 til 12 or 1 til 3 or 11pm at night…

The idea is to shift our leadership mindset toward being more inclusive. To allow people and conversations to be flexible, to be inclusive, to shift away from thinking someone’s not working hard enough because it doesn’t look the way it did before the crisis.

Support People Leaders When Working Remotely

The reality is when we’re in the same space as others, physically interacting, were involved in conversations in a different way. A lot of us don’t ask for context as much as we could or should, simply because we’re in the same space.

For organizations and leaders that are very solutions focused, which is a fantastic thing, it can mean that going remote is more challenging because people don’t have solutions right now. We’re stuck in not knowing. Don’t blame. Be curious. Ask. Listen. Support. Empathize.

EIGHT RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

1. If your organization hasn’t created a Remote Work Policy, it’s good to have a blanket policy in place. HR can enable the conversation around these rules and policies. Click here for an emergency work from home policy example.

2. When you have a work-from-home policy it tends to be company wide. However, rules of engagement are more for the subculture of each team. This is the time for leaders to play within the overall policy. Scheduling and timelines and getting people involved in how they work together as individuals and as members of a team are key.

3. Hold daily check-ins. A time that works for the majority every single day for 10-15 minutes brings your team together. Be flexible and give your team grace. Some people may not join because they’re doing something else: on another call, taking care of their kids. Be aware of this now that people are home and things are different. As a leader, if there’s someone who’s not coming to these meetings, or someone who isn’t really participating, check-in with them individually after the fact.

TIP: Leaders who send a text or quick message to their reports, something as simple as “good morning, how are you doing?” – help their people feel more engaged. That tiny bit of effort to reach out goes a long way.

4. When to book a 1-1? Or a team meeting? Any one-on-ones that you normally have should remain the same; that cadence should not change because those are important touchpoints for people. But if you have something to discuss that affects or involves more than one person, include those people in a group meeting. It’s not like being in the office where you can tell something to one person, and then mention the same thing to another as you pass by their office or desk. Otherwise, in a remote work environment you’re going to feel like you’re having back to back meetings all day.

5. Set clear expectations and outcomes. One of the things that happens most when we go from an office environment to remote is that we’re used to (subconsciously or not) thinking the number of hours someone’s at their desk is a direct measure of their productivity. We know what they’re working on, what they’re doing because we can see them at their desks – so they’re working. But when people are working from home, we don’t have that. Setting really clear KPIs, outcomes, things that people are working on – and then relinquishing control over how they get there and letting them do it without interruption, without micromanaging – becomes more and more important.

Support People Leaders Remote Work

6. Communicate! You can’t communicate too much right now and you can’t be too transparent. Leaders don’t have to say they’re struggling, however it IS ok for leaders to say “I don’t know what this is going to look like in six months but I’m going to keep you informed every step of the way.” That vulnerability, that transparency helps people feel like there’s a community around them. They’re not in this alone. This is really important right now for people’s mental health, for people to feel some sense of stability in a time that feels really unstable.

TIP: An effective communication approach is to establish virtual office hours where you set aside maybe 90 minutes on Zoom so someone can step in and have a private (locked) conversation for five or ten minutes. It’s like the university prof who makes themselves available to their students, in their office, during a specific period of time. People can reach out. There’s a lifeline if needed.

7. Create opportunities for social connection to lift spirits. Don’t change what you’ve been doing to engage people. Adapt. And have fun with it. Toss out the question: “What’s one cool thing in your house, your prized possession?” – a virtual show and tell of sorts. Set up a team bookclub. Establish an activity around another purpose bigger than work. Supply team members with fabric for instance, and learn how to make masks. Have a Monday morning coffee room where the Zoom room is open for an hour for drop in chats. Bring people together who may not know each other (they have kids of a similar age or they live in a similar area). Whatever it is put them in groups of three for more for support and connection. Slack has a great app called Donut that introduces you to someone in the office you don’t yet know.

TIP! Steer clear from arranging these kinds of gatherings for after hours as they become just another thing to add to already overwhelming “To Do” lists.

8. Beware of ghost expectations. These are the invisible expectations we place on people around us. They’re often baked into the assumptions we have about how things work or how we work or how people work. We don’t talk about them, they’re not verbalized, they’re not put into place, they’re undocumented. But they drive how we think. In an environment where we’re with and seeing people every day, there are lots of times and opportunities to disprove these ghost expectations or to quiet them down. We have checkpoints in-person. A common ghost expectation that’s less toxic when we’re in an office is the expectation for a prompt response to an email. In a day to day environment, those responses can slide a bit more. But at home, because we’re not seeing what people are actually doing, we’re not seeing what’s happening around them… they become toxic.

9. Focus on well-being. There’s the physical environment – making sure that people have the tools and resources. And there’s the mental angle – providing the support and resources (like a yoga app for example) that can help with feeling of stress, anxiety, and isolation.

Double down on gratitude. Thank people for what they’re doing; if people feel valued, that influences their mental well-being. Start a meeting with a roundtable expression of gratitude. Ask people in one word to describe how they’re feeling today. It’s okay for people to feel whatever they’re feeling and to share. Bring people together for a guided meditation. Have people internally coach each other. (At WorkTango we sent succulents to our people’s homes as a way of brightening up their remote work environment – and their day).

 

Leaders can maintain and even build rapport and culture with their remote teams.  As an international speaker and executive coach who has experienced remote work first-hand both as a corporate employee and leader Céline Williams suggests we’d all do well to remember we manage things and we lead people. “This about enabling leaders in the leadership of people. Managing things is NOT the most important thing right now.”

Additional Resources

Check out our guides on workplace culture, employee engagement, and employee surveys. Learn about every aspect of a successful employee voice initiative!

WORKPLACE GUIDES

Read great blog posts on workplace culture, employee engagement, employee surveys and other great workplace topics.

WORKPLACE BLOG

Watch the webinar that inspired the article, HR’s Role in Enabling Leaders to Lead Remotely (Specifically, in This Time of Crisis).

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