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Leading Remotely

Managing remotely has unique challenges. When the entire nation is in crisis, keeping employees engaged can be even more complicated. Organizations across the world have been forced to transition to a partial or fully work-from-home environment in response to COVID-19. Understanding what managers need to lead remotely is a must, because 70% of an individual's engagement is driven by their manager.

Business leader Sofia Kluch says there are three areas managers have to master for employees to engage well now, and all managers struggle in one or more of these areas.

  • Individualization. When people are in the office, it's easier to have one set of rules for everyone. But when many employees are working from home without a dedicated office, when children are not in school or daycare, and when neighborhood broadband connections are stressed to capacity, individualization is king. Managers have to figure out where structure is required (e.g., no crying children during client calls) and where it is flexible, like shortening meetings by 5 or 10 minutes to allow people to transition between calls and reset an activity for a child at home. There may be a need to accommodate flexibility to hours worked (e.g., shortened schedules), available hours (e.g., schedule all meetings in the afternoon when a child is napping), or the meaning of "close of business" (COB) to mean midnight or even 8 a.m. the following day. Managers need everyone to be able to give their best and positively impact the organization, and they need to create a space so their employees can do so.

  • Communication. While many managers are effective communicators, taking that home means that the only method of communication is what your managers are providing. If an email tone is too harsh, there is no facial expression to soften the sting. If your question during a phone conference feels abrupt, there might not be a video that shows you literally leaning into the conversation in interest instead of a perceived attack. For this reason, videoconferencing with a service like ZOOM may be best, as much of our language is nonverbal. When managers limit the nonverbal cues, they increase the chance for miscommunication, defensiveness, and conflict. Managers need to communicate with their teams in multiple ways and through multiple mediums to keep expectations clear, to reinforce priorities, and to help understand and address barriers to maximizing their team's work while they are away from the office. Managers should ask how employees prefer to be contacted. Are text messages okay for urgent issues, or is that an invasion of privacy or stressful? Do they have everything they need to videoconference comfortably? Managers should also proactively schedule weekly check-ins with their teams, replacing the informal office conversations that relationships are made of.”

  • Accountability. When everyone is physically present, it tends to be easier to evaluate the level of effort people are putting in and the output your team is generating. The reason most remote employees can work remotely is that they're doing the type of work that may be harder to count or measure productivity against. That is no reason to neglect accountability. Managers must create or improve upon their systems for holding their teams accountable when everyone is working remotely. This is based in communication but includes tools for measuring timelines and deliverables, check-ins, and evaluation of submitted work. It's important that everyone understands the quality of work expected from them while working remotely, and that your managers are prepared to assess and hold team members accountable for their continued performance. It doesn't hurt to ask helpful coaching questions such as, "What challenges might you face in getting this done?" Get the invisible gorilla or elephant into the conversation.

However, there are also great benefits of remote work. Managing remotely allows individuals to get creative, leverage their strengths, and engage with their teams in different and meaningful ways.

Your managers are in the best position to minimize any negative effects of working from home. They are also best positioned to create new methods and processes for getting things done.

Here is how you can set your managers up for success:

Trust them. Give them latitude to embrace acceptable risk in trying new things. Managers are going to have to get creative on everything, from creating an engaged work team to meeting clients' needs in a very uncertain time. Managing remotely will include taking some risks. Whether it is taking a videoconference outside, creating new documentation procedures or sending care packages, let your managers innovate on the best ways to connect their teams and get work done.

Be open to discovery. Be open to finding out things about your business that might surprise you. You may have a team or role that you didn't think could be effective remotely or inversely, a team that you were confident in that ends up struggling. Be open to learning lessons from this experience and even having some of your thinking about your work, your organization, and your customers turned upside down as a massive field experiment in remote work is currently underway. Managing remotely allows individuals to get creative, leverage their strengths, and engage with their teams in different and meaningful ways. Ask your managers what they are finding and learning and think about how that evidence supports or rejects your perceptions of remote work for your organization. Evolve your culture. As humans, we tend to empathize best with situations we have personally experienced. There is a huge opportunity for us to experience remote work firsthand that we would otherwise not encounter. This can make our overall work culture more inclusive and more friendly to a variety of workers, including those who will work from home long after COVID-19 subsides. This allows us to think more strategically about when, why, and how remote work should be approached in the long run.

What Remote Managers Need: Once your managers are equipped with the tools they need to manage their teams and keep your organization moving forward, what they need next is your support to do all the right things.

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