In 2016, we have all accepted certain realities of the evolving business world such as globalization, the millennial work force and their attitudes, the continued development of emerging markets, and the understanding that the next disruptive technology is just around the corner.
Leading and influencing remote teams is one of the many changes in the workplace that we have also had to accept. However, I am beginning to believe that we are beginning to see the long term impacts on business and some skepticism about the effectiveness of remote leadership and the leadership style to execute it effectively.
I just finished a business acumen and strategic planning session with a group of sales leaders running businesses in South America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and this topic started as an afterthought and ended up being a major issue of discussion.
It is clear to most evolved leaders that there are always challenges to be there for your team when they need you no matter where that team physically lives and works. When you are working beside your colleagues you are able to read body language and mood. When working with your remote team it’s much more difficult to know if they are having a great day or a bad day. Or any day at all. You have to put forth much more effort and energy to check-in, engage, and support them. You must be able to do anything and everything possible to establish trust, openness, and transparency in the relationship and do that as quickly as possible. But think about the tools, techniques, and time that is required. The “best practice” is to meet face-to-face in the beginning and then follow-up with phone, and or, video calls on a prescribed and regular cadence.
But what happens if there is a travel freeze in you company? Or you are too tired to travel? Or it’s too expensive to travel? Or it takes away time from the teams that are live and around you?
One of the goals of any leadership methodology is to let your people’s voices be heard. And it’s also about creating an environment for engagement. In our Advantexe Global Enterprise Simulation (AGES) one of the most important reports is the Employee Engagement report (also known as the “Heat Map”) which provides a detailed analysis of employee engagement across multiple dimensions including the effectiveness of the execution of strategy and the communications between leaders and employees.
Many of the leaders we work with to design our business simulations will argue that is it impossible to effectively and consistently lead remote employees because it is difficult to give personal recognition, focused time and effort, and the money that it takes to visit, work side-by-side, and enjoy a meal together. In addition to the physical factors, there is also the problem of out of sight, out of mind. When someone in the office does something great, it’s natural to say thanks and personal thanks. With someone remote – and many times in a different time zone – there is more of an effort and of course the default of an email will never replace the high-five or the modern fist bump. As a leader today, these little things matter.
Much of the current thinking about business leadership involves emotional thinking and attitudes; we choose to follow leaders based on the way they make us feel and not what they tell us to do. Therefore, it’s imperative that the remote leader makes people feel valued, strong, appreciated, and most importantly an equal member of the team.
Without getting on an airplane, what are three things you can do to be a more effective remote leader? Here are a few suggestions based on interviews, observations, and personal experiences:
Build a Communication Plan on THEIR time
Nothing is more demotivating to a remote employee than a 3am conference call. It makes them feel like a second class citizen. Make sure that you put them first and rotate calls and meetings and build them as much as possible on their time, not always on yours.
Be Rigorous about Expectations
It is too easy for remote employees to get lost. Communicate early and often your expectations about their commitments, time schedule, being on time, checking in, and most importantly their asking you for help.
Do Whatever it Takes to Bring them In at Least Once a Year
No matter if there is a travel freeze, a budget crisis, or if the employee doesn’t want to travel, make sure that they come to see you and the rest of the team once a year. Be creative; use frequent flier points, buy cheap tickets, have that person stay at another employee’s home for a few days. As one leader told me “It’s always easier to beg for forgiveness for spending $1,000 on travel for a remote employee that trying to explain why a region is mot achieving its targets.”