In The Long Run, We Are All Leading Remotely
By Mandy Hübener, Program Director, Executive Education, ESMT Berlin
Working from home is here to stay. It feels like a distant memory that Marissa Mayer, the then president and CEO of Yahoo, banned remote working there in 2013, or that we were having heated public debates on “shirking from home.” The COVID-19 pandemic has turned remote working into a perfectly acceptable practice for office workers across the globe. Many now appreciate it as an essential way to make our modern work lives actually work.
Once the pandemic boost has faded, we may not see people working from home at the same scale anymore, but it is also unlikely that we will return to the pre-crisis presenteeism. Don’t be surprised if your team members don’t want to come back to the office.
More and more leadership roles will entail managing virtual teams, and many leaders do not feel sufficiently prepared. While enabling their people to work from home gives managers an opportunity to boost their team’s engagement and productivity and tap into a wider talent pool, they also typically face a number of challenges. Leadership training courses, targeted 360° feedbacks, individual coaching, peer-to-peer coaching, and mentoring from internal role models can play key roles in building their confidence in this new situation.
Engagement and personal touch
Leaders and their teams often complain about the lack of face-to-face interactions, especially the missing informal social interaction that is typical of an office setting. In working remotely, information does not flow as easily and relationships require more intentionality. Leaders worry that their team members will not perform as well without their supervision. Employees struggle with having less access to and support from their managers.
For those who used to work in the same office, some of this can be fixed by mixing working from home and working on site: The research and advisory firm Gallup discovered that engagement gets a boost when employees spend some time working remotely and some time working in a location with their coworkers. The optimal engagement boost occurs when employees work remotely for three to four days per week. For geographically dispersed teams, this is not feasible. Prioritizing regular check-in conversations and creating opportunities for remote social interaction are crucial for team leaders who want to closely support their people and keep morale high.
360° feedbacks, targeted leadership training, and individual coaching can help leaders make the most of their contact with individual team members, for example, by shaping their communication habits, enabling them to give meaningful feedback, switching on their radar for emotional support needs, and helping them resist the temptation to tighten the reins to feel more in control.
Productivity and effective ways of working
Besides boosting engagement, working from home can also lift productivity. Much of the research shows that remote workers are more productive than on-site workers. Many professionals, if given the choice, prefer to work on what is called the maker’s schedule – that is, they prefer having longer time spells to work on one specific task rather than days fragmented by calls and ad hoc gatherings. This is much easier to handle remotely. However, getting work done effectively in a remote team also requires more deliberate planning and communication. When colleagues do not see each other in the office, they are typically less aware of what everyone else is doing, less clear on what is expected of them, and less alert to duplicate work or things going in the wrong direction. Task processes need to be communicated more consciously and explained in greater detail. Digital communication and project management tools only partly address this.
Leaders need to invest extra energy in being exceptionally clear on expectations, roles, responsibilities, and process steps. Leadership trainings entailing supervised project work in small groups can be very effective in this context because they provide a safe space for experimentation and feedback. Peer-to-peer coaching is another relevant learning format, because peers from the same company are familiar with the organizational context and can provide their perspective on what works well (or not) in order to get things done.
Talent pool and diversity
Offering the opportunity to work from home is also a powerful lever for recruiting and retaining talent. According to a 2020 Gallup survey, 54 percent of workers say they would change jobs for the choice to work remotely or not. Companies that give them that possibility are more likely to become their employers of choice. A remote team setup can also help leaders gain access to otherwise unreachable talent, for example, experts who are based in other countries but not interested in relocation. It can also increase diversity. For example, getting more control over their own schedule is an attractive value proposition for working parents. Not being “the odd one out” among a young crowd helps attract more senior talents.
In this context, reverse mentoring – interpreted very broadly – can help leaders broaden their view of the talent pool they could tap into. Recruiting and talent management professionals and well-connected internal talents may act as door openers. At the same time, they can often offer advice on the preferences of the “new” target groups in terms of leadership style, ways of working, and communicating.
Time to raise the bar for remote leadership
More and more workers want to work remotely, and more and more leaders are letting them. Those who don’t – for whatever reason – will soon be forced to compete harder for top talent. It is without a doubt more demanding to lead a virtual team. However, what leaders learn now about managing a remote workforce will set them up for success for years to come. The time, money, and energy they are putting into their personal development are well worth the investment.
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