“How do I stay connected to my people when they’re working remotely?”
“How can I show people that I care without seeming like I’m prying?”
These are questions that have been raised repeatedly by managers grappling with remote leadership for the first time. The answer to neither question is simple – relationships are, after all, complex by their nature. But the following points are worth bearing in mind as we work to build and maintain our own relationships with our direct reports remotely:
- It’s not only possible to maintain relationships at a distance but many people have, in fact, reported improving their relationships while their teams have been working remotely.
For many managers remote working has highlighted the transactional nature of the relationships they have with their people. It is entirely possible to work next to, or even with, somebody every day for years without ever really getting to know him or developing a genuine concern for his welfare. When these managers are asked for insight into how their people are doing, they simply don’t know. When it is suggested that they set up time one-on-one with their people, they ask, “What do you want us to talk about?” Well, find out how the other person is doing. Not just how she is getting on with her work, but how the human being behind the human resource is doing. Let her know how you are doing. Sincere relationships go both ways.
Developing a genuine concern for somebody and looking for ways to be helpful requires that you open the door to personal conversations. You can’t force people to walk through the door but showing them that the door is open is a fundamental part of your leadership job. As is listening in a way that allows you to understand and empathise with people’s often-complex personal situations. Whether the conversation happens in person, over the phone, or on a video call is less important than the reason for the conversation in the first place: genuine interest, care, and an intent to be helpful.
2. Excellent leaders make time for their people and give attention to what concerns them.
Finding out how someone is doing, what is really on her mind, is not the same as checking in at the start of a meeting. It’s also not the same as checking in at the start of the day in the daily team check-in, or a surprise 5-minute call to find out how things are going. Whilst also important and valuable, none of the above represents a good opportunity for a person to share with her manager that she is thinking of emigrating to Australia, or is really concerned about whether her career is on track, or struggling to pay for her child’s school fees. These things require considered preparation and a time in the diary when neither party is distracted or busy with something else. Giving your people the opportunity to connect with you in a meaningful way by deliberately and proactively scheduling time with them is key to enabling sincere, open and honest conversations. Working with someone on the latest deal or asking them for feedback on a client presentation is not enough.
3. Building a robust and sincere connection, even remotely, requires tough love.
One of the problems with remote leadership is that “difficult conversations” are perceived to be even more difficult when they are not face-to-face. This is especially true if we are concerned about how the other person is reacting and what he might be thinking of us while we are telling him something that we know he does not want to hear. But cultivating independence in your people is even more critical than ever when you are expecting them to take accountability for themselves and their performances. Have the courage to tell your people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear, be aware of the difference between being supportive (helping someone to solve their problems) and disabling (solving their problems for them and allowing them to remain in a victim state). And don’t put today’s conversations off because the technology’s not perfect – tomorrow may be too late.