I still hear surprisingly often that there’s nothing special in remote leadership – that it’s just good leadership. I could say yes, I agree and no, that’s not true. Yes, good remote leadership is basically just leading people and doing it well. Yet to succeed in remote leadership you need to shift the focus more on people than most organizations and managers are currently doing. It also is important to be aware why managers and teams encounter challenges when working in several locations.
Remote work is trending in Northern countries, and it is important to realize that leading remote work, as we understand it here, is not that much different if there is trust between the manager and the team members, the team leader has no need to control every day spent at the remote office and they still meet at the office several times a week. Remote leadership is quite different when we work from several locations in different cities, countries or even continents.
It seems, that more and more companies arrange their organization based on operations not location. For example in Finland, there are a growing number of organizations where the team is working remotely and even though team members are geographically quite close to each other, they may not have the opportunity to see each other more than once or twice a year. In global companies, remote teams are also becoming more common. In both situations the distance is seen difficult and even though ways of working have been developed the biggest challenge seems to be building the connection and dealing with different kind of issues virtually.
An employee in a globally operating company told me that they used to have a small team in Tampere, Finland and the team leader was in the same office with them. After a new organization model, everyone in their small office is part of a different team and has a manager abroad. None of them had met their new managers or team members. As remote leadership is becoming more established, it’s important that top management and team leaders understand the basics of remote leadership if they want to have a productive and successful organization.
Clear goals is a start but not enough
Goals are important and when communicated well they guide the work and give team members clear message what is expected from them. Too often we see that the conversation about goals is too general. With the goals you need regular conversation about them. Follow-up is about short-term goals, progression of work, discussing work-related thoughts and issues, challenging their thinking and helping them grow as professionals. Follow-up should include talk about non-work-related topics as well in order to get to know the employees better. It’s not about control but about coaching and supporting the employee.
There has to be time and resources for leading people
What said before about goals and follow-up is the core of modern leadership: coaching the employees, removing obstacles, enabling successful work and being there for the team members. This is exactly the kind of leadership we need because this is where the mutual trust and understanding grows. It enables building connection between the manager and the team members and without the connection there won’t be open discussion about work, successes and challenges – or anything else for that matter. An acquaintance of mine told me about a friend who had acknowledged the importance of leadership as a remote manager but realized that top management didn’t and therefore there were no resources to do it well.
Don’t spoil everything with too much control and micromanagement
If a team is managed the way described above, the team leader has a good connection with every member of the team and there is enough regular communication, the team leader has a sufficient view about the situation and there is no need for control. A leader I interviewed said that controlling is one of the most time-consuming parts of management. If the direction and goals are clear, we can trust more and control less. Time and energy are released for more productive work.
Distance between manager and team members also means more independent work. If we want employees doing their work independently it means they have more responsibility and more freedom over their tasks. Team members can’t take responsibility if they have no chance to make decisions in their daily work. So managers on all levels of organization face an important question: are both the team leader and the top management ready to give enough freedom to do the job as well as possible?
There still are quite a lot of organizations where either the top management or HR hasn’t understood the importance of succeeding in remote leadership. There was a survey made already in 2014 (Virtual Leadership Survey, Mercuri Urval) that 90 % of managers think virtual leadership is more challenging. That’s why organizations need more discussion, training and development of company culture and ways of working so the leaders and teams have a possibility to succeed.
The writer of this article, Ulla Vilkman, is a leadership trainer who is specialized in remote work, virtual teams and remote leadership. Currently she’s working with organizations operating in Finland, Nordic countries or globally. She also is the author of Remote Leadership (Etäjohtaminen – Tulosta joustavalla työllä, 2016, published in Finnish).