The shift to working from home for office-based teams has fundamentally changed the way such teams connect and communicate. To maintain productivity and help teams navigate the crisis, business executives need to adapt their leadership skills to a remote environment.
Fortunately, as more and more are discovering, there are ways to inspire and motivate your workforce at a distance, whether via email, audio or videoconferencing solutions. Use the following strategies to establish good remote leadership practices that will work during the lockdown and even beyond—when it’s likely some companies and teams will continue to work remotely to some degree.
Take the lead on setting expectations
Remote teams face several common challenges that can undermine productivity and engagement, for example, the lack of face-to-face supervision or access to immediate feedback and information.
Add to that the specific effects of the coronavirus crisis—social isolation, at-home distractions, and personal and family health concerns—and it’s clear that leaders need to be sensitive to the situation their teams find themselves in.
As a leader, it’s your role to lead by example. Set expectations and create trust by setting aside regular, structured daily check-ins with remote workers, and outlining the best communication methods to use for different types of exchanges. For example, sensitive or subtle interactions might be best handled via videoconference versus email or instant messages, where personal nuance is often lost.
As your business transitions to a work-from-home setup, be sure to let workers know that you’re available if they have questions or concerns. Make it clear of the best ways and times to reach you during the workday, and how you’d like emergency and high-priority queries to be tackled. (Say, by calling your home phone or texting if an urgent matter pops up.)
In addition, to minimise team disruption, any pre-existing meetings you had in place prior to the operating shift should remain on the calendar.
Pay attention to details when communicating
Videoconferencing calls may well be a new way of communicating for many teams. Some colleagues may feel at ease giving co-workers a view into their domestic life, while others may not. Be sensitive that some people will actively want to share their background, while others will want to avoid doing so.
Be mindful of what’s visible in the background. Several providers offer free virtual backdrops that can dress up a spare bedroom; almost all have an option to blur the background.
In addition, when giving a presentation via video, make a point to look into the camera directly. Avoid typing or checking emails and instant messages while others are talking since giving others your full attention is vital when engaging in a team video call or a remote one-to-one.
Actively listen to, and properly absorb the information your team or team member is sharing, just as you would in a face-to-face situation.
Promote individual and team interaction
Remote work can often feel isolating and create a sense of distance from one’s team, vision and purpose. Taking a few minutes at the start of a conversation just to catch up and ask how others are adjusting to the working-from-home routine can go a long way towards maintaining empathy and a sense of connection.
Set up virtual team-building meetings specifically for social interactions, such as virtual happy hours and office catch-ups (participants can bring their own drinks and food) so that your colleagues can engage with each other and discuss what’s on their minds.
Taking care of your employees in this way helps keep familiar faces front and centre and can help increase employees’ sense of belonging while offsetting the isolating effects of social distancing.
Also consider inviting in other colleagues who may not be part of your direct team but would usually be involved with your team. It’s likely they and your team are missing those types of broader interactions that come naturally in an office-based environment.
Be helpful and supportive
In uncertain times, people want to know what’s happening—so be sure to let your team know where things stand, and what’s coming next that will impact your employer and workplace.
You can help put anxious workers at ease by maintaining a firm sense of direction and helping to minimise the sense of disruption. In times of volatility, however, business leaders need to be upfront about the unknown and ensure they communicate plans and concerns effectively to employees.
Make a point to regularly check in with direct reports on a one-to-one basis and explicitly state what your company action plan is for dealing with current events, and how the actions are helping create positive outcomes.
If you have to convey bad news, be short, straightforward and empathetic. When discussing furloughs, project delays, and other changes in plan, being honest and respectful with co-workers is the best policy.
Whatever the nature of your remote meeting, prepare for questions that employees may ask. Be helpful with any supporting information ready to go in advance and take time to walk through how any impending changes impact your team and the next steps to take. If necessary, direct them to any resources that could help them.
Show empathy and encouragement
Like senior managers, employees often experience stress and anxiety in the wake of unexpected events. During these tough times, leaders are encouraged to acknowledge these concerns, set aside time to listen to worries, and actively seek ways to empathise.
You might also pose questions to them (“How are you guys adjusting to the work-from-home routine?”) that may help provide insight into the state of their thoughts and alert you of ways you can lend a hand.
Exercising emotional intelligence and providing others with comfortable contexts in which to air their feelings and opinions is a crucial part of modern leadership.
The more you acknowledge your colleagues’ feelings while simultaneously projecting an air of calm and control, the more successful you can be at remote leadership. Top leaders not only inspire confidence in their peers, they also provide a sense of encouragement at every turn.
Above all, acknowledge that working from home will naturally be different from working in an office. If you can put your teams at ease, they will be more comfortable and ultimately more productive.