When the coronavirus lockdown hit in 2020, millions of people found themselves working remotely for the first time. Much has been written about issues these employees faced ranging from not having adequate workplace to having to watch children while working. But what about their supervisors who were leading remotely for the first time? How should they meet the challenge of leading remotely to enable their employees to be successful working from home?
The Challenge of Leading Remotely
The challenge of leading remotely is not the same as the challenge of leading face-to-face in the workplace. Differences include
People Are Not On Demand. If everyone is working in the same space, it is easy to walk into an office to ask a question, or grab a few people for a quick consult. This is more difficult to do when people are working remotely, as it takes some planning to schedule a conference call or Zoom meeting.
People Are Isolated. Although everyone might stay in touch virtually, many people feel isolated working from home, and this can affect mental health and well-being.
Virtual Communication. Communicating remotely is different from communicating face-to-face. Most virtual communication is limited to text or voice, which leaves out nonverbal communication that can be important. Even video conferences with often grainy and jerky video limits the nonverbal cues that are available face-to-face.
Working asynchronously. The realities of working from home is that many employees and their supervisors are unable to work their typical schedules, most often 9 to 5. This means that not everyone is working at the same time, which can complicate coordination of efforts.
How To Lead Remotely
Leading remotely requires a more flexible approach that recognizes that the needs of remote employees can differ from those you see face-to-face in the workplace. Leaders should be prepared to incorporate strategies to support remote employees.
- Clarify Expectations. I was part of a task force at my university that surveyed employees about the challenges of working from home during the pandemic. One issue was that employees were unsure of what their supervisors expected from them. If they received an e-mail at 9 pm, they felt that they had to respond immediately. As people work asynchronously, leaders should make clear the rules for responding. One way to do that is to indicate in the e-mail when a response is expected rather than assuming the employee will know that the 5 pm e-mail on Friday does not have to be addressed until Monday morning. Or better yet, do not send e-mails late Friday afternoon about things that can wait until Monday.
- Communication Strategies. It is important that communication strategies are developed and that everyone knows how best to engage with one another. This includes deciding on communication channels, for example, using text for critical and time sensitive matters and e-mail for issues that do not need immediate attention. Video conferences are particularly useful for group meetings, but they should not be overdone.
- Empower Employees. It can be tough for many supervisors who are used to supervising closely to let go and trust employees to perform their tasks correctly and on time. Particularly for remote workers, it is important to make clear assignments, and then hold employees accountable for results rather than micromanaging their process.
- Good Work Space. One of the issues that our task force uncovered was that many employees did not have adequate home work space. Many did not have a comfortable chair and desk, and others did not have adequate computer hardware and internet speed. Having a good headphone, microphone, and webcam can make video conference much more efficient and pleasant without everyone having to strain to hear and see colleagues. Working remotely without adequate space and equipment can result in lost productivity and even physical injury.
- Zoom Check-Ins. The well-being of all employees should be a concern to all leaders, especially those forced to work remotely. One way to offer support is to initiate periodic Zoom meetings just to check on how each employee is doing.
Being a leader is not easy under any circumstance, but it can be particularly challenging when employees are working remotely. With some effort and flexibility leaders should be able to meet the challenge of leading remotely.
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