Let’s face it: some people crave the office.
Way back in the 90s, I had the opportunity to work with a great team of people, some of whom were virtual leaders. The word “virtual” was being bandied about with great imprecision, and nobody really knew what virtual or distance working looked like in most corporate settings. Corporate settings involved lots of ties and hosiery (though probably not on the same person), and laptop computers were really hefty little beasties that required a strong back and deep sense of commitment to take on a business trip.
Without the rich communication media today (this was so far before tablet-phones, Skype, or even cameras on laptops), the only real communication protocol was the phone. Email was available, sure, but it was a newer technology and not always reliable. Even conferencing calling was an expensive, cumbersome process. The shift that many of the leaders faced was a crisis of communication.
Note to self: Talk to my team members
Just because our communication tools have improved, the need for interpersonal communications has either stayed the same or increased. Being an effective leader today means that you are probably better at communicating with technology resources than previous leaders, but you may not be as skilled at the interpersonal communications your team craves.
The Norm vs. Being Normal
Being in an office comes with many advantages, including built-in communication opportunities (unless you are this guy. One of the advantages is working in a collocated group is that the “norm” behaviors that people are using are more easily understood and accommodated, including those behaviors of vocabulary, processes, and acceptable ranges of interactions. People often crave the sense of working within a team, and there are whole sports channels devoted to the concept. For many leaders, the ability to interact with team members and employees is a key motivating factor to stay in the role.
The shift continues, though
In my example from above, leaders had to transition to distance teams, and summarily had to spend up to 80% of their time actually speaking with their employees (gasp!), as opposed to having a team meeting in a conference room and sending everyone off to pursue their own chores and work tasks. I was not a supervisor then, but I would have really struggled in a similar situation to lead effectively with a very limited set of technology tools.
By contrast, today is a great time to be a distance leader. Whether it’s reaching my team members through instant messaging, phone texts, email, video conferencing, phone calls, or in-person meetings, distance leadership today looks very different than it did in the 90s. The technology-moderated approaches of teaming seem much more “normal” than they did in the past.
Recognizing personal needs
One great starting point for understanding your need for interpersonal connection, either in person or via technology tools, is by assessing your existing interactions with others. I’ve provided some guidelines below, but this may be an opportunity to think clearly about your specific leadership needs in either in-office or distance leadership environments.
Understanding what you will need before you start leading remotely is a bit of a challenge, but fortunately, there are some good resource guides to get you started. One of my favorite descriptions of the “new” virtual work lifestyle is in Remote: Office Not Required, by Fried and Hansson (2013). Their chapter on collaboration is outstanding, and gives you a good taste of what it’s like to go from collocated to distance working.
You have just been asked if you want to lead a team virtually. How do you decide whether this is something that would be a good fit for you or will make you unhappy as a leader? Here are some tips:
Evaluate your day, not just your workday.
When I look at my activity communicating with others, what can I learn about my need for communications? This doesn’t just include your workday, but your after-hours time as well. If you commute, are you connecting with family or friends during your commute? What weekend and evening activities are you doing that are social and fulfilling?
What conversations are you having?
I periodically conduct an informal audit of my time spent connecting with others. I look through my phone log, my text messages, and my email. I don’t really have social media accounts at the time of writing this, so that’s off the list. However, I know that some of my calls are business-only, and some are personal-only. The ones with my work friends can be very fulfilling because I can connect with my colleague-friends a little more deeply. If you are communicating with others, how do these communications make you feel?
What efforts are you making?
Time for some potentially brutal honesty. I work from my home office almost exclusively, so how am I reaching out to others? How are others reaching me? As a distance worker and leader, I have become much more willing to pick up the phone to ask a question of a colleague or friend because I know I need that personal connection. I also make a list every couple of weeks of friends I would like to reach, either by phone, text, or email. This helps me beat the feeling of isolation that can happen when I have had a few quiet days working at home.
Social media does not replace social time
If you are spending a great deal of time on social media, it may mean you are, in effect, isolating yourself. One side effect of being a distance leader is making the most of the time you are spending using technology to communicate. Social media can emphasize your feelings of isolation and prevent you from feeling connected to others (Watkins, 2009). Instead, start using sites like Meetup.com, Yelp!, and oddly enough, AARP’s local calendar to find things to do with friends and by yourself. If none of those things exist in your local area, then start one. You’re a leader (dammit!)… get leading!
The Results and Evaluating Your Readiness as a Distance Leader
Perhaps you have been thrown into the distance leadership world unexpectedly, or maybe you took a role as a distance leader and are now unhappy with a feeling of isolation. You’re not alone, but you may need to be connected to others. Before running away from the opportunities that distance leadership provides, spend some time thinking through your social needs and what you can do to make sure you have the interactions you need.
What experiences have you had around staying connected with others as a distance leader? Do you have a strategy that works especially well for you? If so, I’d like to hear it!
Comment with your answers below!
Working as a remote leader requires some critical personal preparation. Fried and Hansson’s book, Remote: Office Not Required includes a great chapter entitled “How to Collaborate Remotely,” with excellent advice on developing a winning personal strategy for being a virtual worker and leader. The following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.
Fried, J., & Heinemeier Hansson, D. (2013). Remote: Office not required. New York, NY: Random House LLC.
Watkins, S. C. (2009). The young and the digital: what the migration to social network sites, games, or anytime, anywhere media means to our future. Boston, MA 02108-2892: Beacon Press.