This week on the Distance Leader Podcast show 0108, we’re talking about the leadership changes for distance working. Here are some of our guiding questions:
- How has leadership changed to make distance leadership a more common approach?
- What do you need to think about if you are new to distance leading?
- Let’s first look at how leadership has changed now that distance working has entered the modern workplace:
- Higher or more connected expectations
New leaders are expected to be much more technology-conversant than they were in the past. There is almost no time to train on systems, and some large organizations don’t even have training programs for their new leaders. Many new leaders are also expected to maintain team performance or have connections already in place to prevent dips in team performance. This is a reflection of faster-moving job changes in many industries.
- More accountability (read: metrics)
Data collection for almost every task means that many companies are developing data-related evaluation strategies in ways that are perhaps not productive. For example, in one job, I was evaluated on the cost of my flights to work with customers, regardless of the timeline to buy my tickets or my destination. I had no control over this, but I was held accountable for it.
- Data overload
The other side of so many metrics is the inability to figure out what should receive your attention. We all know people who have “analysis paralysis,” and you may be one of those people. As a leader, one of the new critical skills is understanding what should be monitored and what should be ignored.
- Communication overload
As if data isn’t enough, there is a steady stream of email input coming into your inbox. Because many leadership metrics include “responsiveness” as an implied or explicit expectation, the email inbox has become a quick-response tool for many leaders. I’m guilty of this, and it’s because the sooner I can deal with the items arriving in my inbox, the sooner I can get to my “real” work. Beyond the inbox, there are newsletters, memos, websites, and group notifications that also demand leadership attention. (And don’t even get me started on social media!)
- Blended employee locations (in-office, collocated, virtual)
Of course, if your team is a blended team of in-office, collocated, or virtual employees, then you have to figure out strategies that bring the team together for critical activities, either virtually or in-person. Having a blended team but an in-office leader even presents its own challenges, and the converse is true, too. What happens when the team is located together and the leader is elsewhere, either in another office or at a customer site?
- Higher or more connected expectations
- Employee diversity (multiple countries and/or cultures). As a modern leader, you have to be prepared to support employees who are very different from you. Furthermore, you need to be conversant on the cultural expectations that come with leading a distance team. Supporting cultural harmony is a challenge, and has grown in importance in the last generation of leadership development.
- Multiple employee responsibilities that compete for time. The role of leadership used to be simply working with employees to solve problems and facilitate business activities. With all of the other challenges we just discussed, finding time to work directly with employees can look like an insurmountable problem. If you have the right tools, though, the employees quickly swing into focus, and you’re able to concentrate on the right priorities without ignoring the wrong things and paying attention to the right things.
- What’s new for distance leaders?
- Shifting employee expectations
One of the largest drivers for distance leadership changes comes from the employees themselves. Whether it’s due to changing employee demographics, large teams working remotely, or new expectations of work styles, distance leaders have a few new things to address as leaders.
- “Right” to work from home
Some employees feel that they have a “right” to work from home. This may be true in some cases, but working from home should be a business decision. For example, some offices will expect their employees who work in the same city as the office to make the occasional appearance, but also have team members who live in other cities who are exempt from this expectation. As a leader, you should be aware of your company’s policies and expect to speak with your employees about these business policies.
- Cross-training for distance activities (who’s in the office to print this document?)
In some blended work environments, physical coverage is required. As a leader, developing work-from-home guidelines and setting the expectations of team members out of the office should also include some level of knowing how to cover those physical activities within reason. Printing, shipping, attending an in-person event, or receiving an order may require an employee to stop their job to cover the out-of-office team member.
- Guidelines for establishing effective distance work practices
A smart leader will develop reasonable work expectations for employees and then follow through on those expectations with consistent, fair communications. If you are a new leader, make sure to think through the variety of solutions, and then develop documents that you can share with the team so it’s fair, effective, and collaborative.
- Shifting employee expectations
Technology tools in place to collaborate
One of the most interesting challenges for distance leaders, both new and experienced, is the sheer number and type of different distance collaboration tools available to modern businesses. I was on a recent call where three different tools were mentioned in one 30-minute meeting! I highly recommend coming up with a plan for your team, sort of an “official” strategy, but then be willing to change it as new tools emerge. File storage, collaborative workspaces, video conferencing, and time management may require different tools, and it’s the role of the leader to help define those tools or help employees use those tools effectively.
Overcoming conflicts for “hidden problems” that require cultural or geographical sensitivities
Beyond employee expectations that have changed, there is also a need to learn to recognize the problems that emerge when physical proximity to employees is missing. When problems are emerging, it’s really quite a challenge to identify them and resolve them unless you, as a leader, are looking for signs of miscommunications and problems.
Reporting project activities to maintain visibility
In my case, I was working near my bosses, so status conversations were very helpful. Now, however, I am in a completely virtual work environment, so I work very hard to make sure I provide appropriate status reports as well as interact periodically with other leaders who might need my help. That has been one of the most valuable methods for me to stay attuned to organizational initiatives.
Establishing expectations takes more time in many cases
Establishing expectations of yourself and of others as a distance leader takes more time than it does in a collocated environment. It’s okay to revise your expectations over time, but you can never expect others to read your mind, a rule that applies even more to distance employees.
So what were some of the strategies that I used?
- I developed an “advisory council” to help me share new initiatives and keep on track when there were significant organizational changes.
- I vetted new ideas with my boss periodically so she was aware of what I was doing in the organization.
- I developed a database of common questions and answers for my teams.
- I provided a shared workspace of resources that offices could use in their own locations
Many of the strategies that work for collocated offices also work for distance work environments, except additional attention must be put on effective communication. Distance workers and leaders have both space and time barriers, so addressing both of those challenges will only help a leader become more effective. Finally, remember that employees may have their own expectations of distance work environments, so it is up to the leader to set the workflow requirements, demonstrate compliance, and communicate effectively.