As we review and give labels to 2020, I nominate Year of the Remote Leader. During 2020, the number of leaders of remote teams increased exponentially, as many tried to determine what that meant. The first phase felt like whiplash as leaders tried to locate their team, ensure they were ok, and learn how to stay connected. As they moved into the next phase, leaders were surprised that productivity was stabilized and their leadership style was changing, often for the better. As one vice-president explained, “Before we talked about trust, now we really have to trust our people.” And the employees preferred trust-based work.
As we navigate the future post-corona, I advise to keep the positive leadership practices that have emerged during the past months.
Practices for the Future
- Focus on output, not face time. Leaders learned to set clear deliverables and offer support when necessary. This allowed team members to complete the task in their own time, especially when they had other commitments such as schooling their children or caring for family members.
- Emphasize team purpose and goals to unite. In the absence of physical cues, such as the office building, team leaders reinforced elements that the team members have in common – shared purpose, team goals, company values, etc. These helped team members feel connected to each other.
- Strengthen the team. The astute remote team leader quickly realized she could no longer be the center of the activity as she was in the office. In the void of her physical presence, the more integrated team makes the difference. The leader then focuses on helping the team to connect, cooperate and support each other.
- Shared Leadership. Many leaders noticed that some employees ‘rose to the occasion.’ Team members helped each other, took responsibility, made decisions, etc. They shared in the leadership responsibilities, allowing the leader to focus on strategy, crisis management or network building. Research has shown that shared leadership can help virtual teams to realize their potential.
- One-on-Ones. The one-on-one meetings between the leader and team members play a more important role in a virtual team when compared to co-located because this meeting helps the team member to feel that they belong to the organization and that their concerns are being heard. Microsoft noticed the number of one-on-ones increased significantly when people started working from home. Leaders have learned to begin these meetings with ‘How are you?’ and ‘How can I support you?’
- Trust as the foundation. The VP I mentioned earlier was not the only one to notice how trust is critical for remote work. Research showed that teams with trust had higher performance.
- Structure to allow flexibility to thrive. Virtual teams are defined by their flexibility – work anywhere, anytime, with anyone. However, remote teams thrive with certain structures in place. For instance, team charter, agreed communication tools, clear deliverables, team rhythm, etc. Teams who are explicit about how they work together can leverage the flexibility which many people prefer.
The future organizations may be 100% remote, 100% in the office, or a hybrid that allows people to work in the place best suited for their task at hand. As we prepare for the future, leaders can reflect on the learnings of 2020 that they can bring forward to the future.
For more information to support your virtual leaders and teams, contact Theresa firstname.lastname@example.org