This article represents an update to a piece I wrote recently on remote work that went viral. I’ve added an eighth law and included a hot off the press study on the state of remote work from Bluescape.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I find I no longer have to start articles on this topic by building the case for remote work or by sharing how fast it’s growing. Reality just made the case for me, and previous statistics on the commonality of working remotely just got blown into irrelevance. So now I have the luxury of diving right into the how to’s of leading effectively from a distance. Research and experience teaches these are the 8 immutable laws of doing it well.
1. Leading remotely still means leading.
Start with what your leadership gut tells you and what you’ve learned about being a leader all these years. You aren’t starting from scratch – most of what made you great before COVID-19 as a leader still applies. That said, do follow the “specialty advice” that follows.
2. Replicate the human need for face to face.
We’re a visual species. In fact, research shows an astonishing 55 percent of what we communicate comes from body language, with only 7 percent coming from the words we speak (and the other 38 percent coming from the tone of our voice). So using video with remote employees, regularly, is an absolute requirement. Period.
By the way, resist the temptation to have your video feed framing only your face; instead sit back far enough to include your upper body so body language and hand gestures can be seen as well.
3. Treat communication like a strategy, not an activity.
Communication (or lack thereof) is the number one barrier to effective manager/employee relationships in remote work. It’s now strategically vital to put exceptionally clear communication systems, processes, and agreements in place. Spend the amount of time and attention to detail on a communication plan that you would a key strategy– because that’s what it now is.
Establish a video meeting rhythm; one that allows for overcommunication while at the same time establishing clear boundaries (working remotely does not mean remotely having a life). And time zone differences and personal needs for flexibility triggered by working from home or remotely all have to be baked into the plan as a basic cost of doing remote business.
4. Leading from a distance doesn’t mean things have to feel distant.
Remember that you’re trying to replicate a culture and the human need for connection. So commit to frequent connections and be willing to invest in informal communication too. This can mean longer one-one-one’s to catch up on personal things or starting video team meetings with chit-chat. In between video connections you can use gifs (try giphy.com) to connote the emotion you’re trying to convey (emotion that just might not come out in an email or on an instant message). You can pair up employees as “remote buddies” thus encouraging more frequent communication between the pair to foster friendships (like Zapier does).
And don’t be distant about career discussions either. Research showed that remote workers reported having 25 percent fewer conversations about their career with their managers versus in-office employees. So keep things personal, literally.
In general, it’s important to recognize the biggest worries for remote workers, which all have to do with feeling left out. Research shows the specific biggest challenges are remote workers feeling isolated, worrying about “colleagues not fighting for my priorities”, co-workers “making changes/decisions without looping me in”, and concern about co-workers “lobbying against me/talking behind my back.” Let all of this serve as a reminder to close the emotional distance your remote workers feel.
5. Manage by objective, not observation.
Forget “seeing is believing.” While video is critical for managing remotely, that doesn’t mean the point of you seeing employees is to confirm they’re working. Focus on outcomes. Trust them and give them space. Focus on inquiries intended to help, not inquisitions intended to inspect. Use the face time to emotionally connect with them, set clear expectations, and to keep reinforcing the big picture (among other well-intended things).
6. Leverage just as much tech as you need, and not more.
Without question, getting the technology right to enable proper remote work is essential. Just approach the challenge with intention, not distraction. Have a plan for your group’s remote communication needs and don’t get caught in technology creep. Giving employees too many communication tools can cause confusion, burnout, and have the opposite effect of what you intended.
For example, perhaps you decide you need one application each for group chat, instant messaging, video meetings, email, screen sharing, and file sharing. And that’s it. The point is to have an intentional plan to provide the technological tools you need, without overcomplicating it.
7. Don’t create second-class citizens.
This applies when you have a mixture of on-site and remote employees to lead. All too often, the out-of-sight remote employees become out-of-mind employees, then effectively become second class citizens. It’s helpful to mentally flip things. Think of the on-site employee, the ones who see you all the time and that can stop in whenever, as being second priority for communication responsiveness. Respond to remote employees immediately and be extra-flexible in accommodating their need to meet. Ask on-site employees to be more disciplined in scheduling times to connect with you. I’m not saying go overboard and now ignore on-site employees, I just mean for you to “put some teeth” into keeping everyone feeling equal.
8. Dial up your listening, asking, and flexibility skills.
None of these will ever be more important than when working with remote employees.
Bonus: To help your employees establish the basic habits needed for effectively working from home or remotely, share these seven tips with them.