The pandemic forced a sea change as large populations of employees shifted to remote work almost overnight. Some workplaces have attempted to swing back to a mix of on-site and remote work, with mixed results.
A recent New York Times article described the employee backlash as companies introduced scattershot “return to the office orders.” People are changing jobs to avoid going back full-time, citing time wasted during their commutes. The evidence suggests that remote and hybrid work won’t be going away soon—if ever.
How does leadership style need to change when managers work with people off-site? How are employee productivity and motivation affected by remote work? What should leaders and managers do differently for on-site versus off-site team members?
Management Challenges of a Remote Workplace
In today’s decentralized work environment, leaders are challenged to move beyond outdated management paradigms and to create an environment where trust and respect flourish, where people feel connected and work well together—even when they don’t see each other or interact directly. At the same time, the past few years have highlighted the importance of in-person social interaction for encouraging innovation and achieving team goals. Virtual meetings and chat channels cannot replace that.
Managers who oversee remote or partially remote teams face several significant challenges:
- A remote workforce removes the informal interactions that happen organically on-site, such as water cooler chats and hallway encounters. These ad hoc social opportunities can help build connections and trust, and they’re hard to replicate through electronic communication.
- Leaders need excellent communication skills, both verbal and written, the ability to communicate challenging topics or complex ideas via email, video conferencing, and instant messaging.
- Leaders also need emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and empathy. Interactions without seeing body language or facial expressions—such as over Slack, text, or email—limit awareness of the other person’s emotional state.
- Maintaining regular contact with team members is as important as it is challenging. Team building is easier when everyone sees each other daily, and the flip side is that remote workers are easy to forget.
The Importance of Trust
Trust is a critical element in any successful relationship, but it becomes especially important when managing remote team members. Leaders need to trust off-site employees to do their work and give them the autonomy to complete those assignments. This kind of trust calls for clear and measurable goals and objectives, which often requires articulating things that are often taken for granted.
For instance, leaders and employees should discuss:
- Possible challenges in project assignments
- When to bring issues up to management
- How much decision-making autonomy the employee has
- Additional resources the employee can access
Employees are often reluctant to discuss challenges for fear of looking ineffective. Unless the manager can see the employee’s demeanor or body language, those challenges can go unaddressed. To counter this natural tendency, managers need to probe for specifics with better questions and then listen to make sure that the employee understands the tasks at hand, has confidence in his or her ability to do the job, and is not hiding insecurities or uncertainties about the work.
Traits of Effective Leaders in Today’s Workforce
Working from home is tough sometimes, even for people who like it. Poor leadership can leave employees feeling isolated, burned out, and disconnected from the company and colleagues. Addressing issues and challenges before they arise helps remote workers stay engaged with the team and the organization.
Leaders and managers who oversee full- or part-time remote team members need to:
- Communicate effectively, both in writing and verbally. This necessity is heightened when most interactions take place through technology.
- Create an open environment where employees are comfortable sharing feelings and suggestions, without fear of criticism or judgment. Regular, two-way feedback sessions help increase communication between workers and managers.
- Ask probing and powerful questions. Encourage employees to explain their underlying assumptions about problems, how they decided upon a solution, how they can anticipate challenges, and what they can do to avoid them.
- Be active listeners. Pay attention to what team members say and ask for clarification when needed.
- Create informal moments with employees, such as sending an amusing story or funny cartoon or starting a meeting with a humorous experience. Making human connections is important when people are not face-to-face.
- Consider motivation strategies for remote employees and try to identify what excites or engages them individually. One effective strategy is to communicate WHY things are done, WHY a job exists, WHY someone is given a special task. Showing team members the bigger picture often helps people maintain their motivation even during difficult times.
- Be flexible. Flexibility is one of the benefits of remote work. Employees can pause work to pick up children from daycare or run a critical errand, but this requires managers to be flexible about scheduling meetings or conversations.
- Empower employees, making sure workers have the context and information they need to make appropriate decisions autonomously.
- Do the advance work to make sure employees have the necessary knowledge, competence, and skills; recognize when they have it; and then let them do the job.
How an Outside Expert Can Help
In today’s decentralized workplaces, leaders need new skills to support successful teams. They must understand why remote and hybrid employees require a shift in management style, as well as how their management style impacts the culture of a team or group.
Leaders can build these skills and better understand how to adapt their styles to the needs of their employees in several ways, including:
- Participating in confidential multi-rater feedback
- Using valid assessments to explore their leadership strengths and weaknesses
- Attending leadership development programs
- Working with a coach who specializes in enhancing leadership capabilities
The Lindenberger Group can help managers adapt their leadership styles to remote hybrid teams and assist companies with creating a culture in which employees are motivated by the organization’s goals. For more information on leadership training programs, please contact us at 609-730-1049 or send us an email.