Articles

Working Remotely And Leading Remotely Are Decidedly Different

February 06, 2020 - By Dave Stevens, Associate, BSc (InfSys) (Hons)

Covid has unceremoniously dumped society into a new way of life that seems to have irretrievably blurred the distinction between our personal and professional lives. Many organisations are now adopting a “wait and see” approach regarding the future of remote working, while others are saying “we will never go back to the office”.

In all this however one thing is certain: working remotely and leading remotely are not the same thing.

Working remotely is largely about tangible things like laptops, internet connections, noisy kids, home-schooling, and separation of personal and professional time. These things are well understood and should be regulated by defined “rules of engagement” or “behavioral standards”.

Leading remotely, on the other hand, requires empathy, trust and a deliberate increase in time and attention devoted to our people. Leaders who do not spend one-on-one time with their teams and are not “watching the game”, for whatever reason, are unlikely to be perceived by their people as having a sincere and genuine interest in them.

If leadership is about cultivating exceptional human beings, we need to get to grips with what it means to lead from a distance.

Legitimate Leadership recently ran a diagnostic exercise with 16 of its clients and nearly 300 individuals (managers and non-managers) to understand, among other topics, their experiences of working remotely in the past six months.

The exercise confirmed that it is one thing to work remotely, but it is entirely different to lead remotely.

Among the themes which stood out from the exercise were:

  • Leaders haven’t clarified expectations and standards for leading remotely – this was evidenced in conversations and comments like “my boss calls me whatever time suits him” and “… ‘but you can use the time you previously spent in traffic’”.
  • Leaders aren’t making time to “watch the game” – “I don’t have time to watch the game, in fact I’m on the field playing the game” and “my manager seems more worried about how quickly I answer his call than me getting the job done”.
  • Leaders are failing to hold people accountable, both positively and negatively. – “some of my colleagues are having a paid holiday while I’m doing their work for them”.

Particularly important, is that “watching the game” must be a planned activity rather than opportunistic (as is currently often the case). Leading remotely requires leaders to increase the time and attention they give their people and watch the game to ascertain the support their people need (and not for the results they produce).

And despite the remote working conditions, leaders must continue to hold people appropriately accountable, both positively and negatively. It is all too easy for leaders to delay holding their people accountable until they are back in the workplace. This is an excuse and reflects cowardice in leaders.

Leaders need to develop several important skills to lead remotely with legitimacy:

  • Remain connected as well as demonstrate care remotely.
  • Establish supportive and enabling rules of engagement.
  • Maintain and even increase productivity with remote teams.
  • Appropriately lead exceptional performers at a distance.
Dave Stevens
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