Leading Remotely: What We’ve Learned

By Anissa Low

Clients often ask me if anything has changed in executive hiring as a result of COVID-19. One thing I tell them: When you hire new executives and managers, make sure they are prepared to lead their teams remotely, or partially remotely in some sort of hybrid arrangement which will be increasingly common as people trickle back into their offices.

We have had a year now to observe what works (and does not work) in terms of leading remotely. What follows are recommendations for remote leaders based on my own observations as well as discussions I have had with executives across Asia. I also provide some lessons for “hybrid leadership” for those managers who have a mix of in-office and remote employees.

Leading Fully Remote Teams
  • Check in, but not too often. Some form of regular daily check-ins should be in place, but not to the point of overkill. Communication is paramount but over-communication about tasks, duties and desired outcomes can be detrimental to your relationship with your team. It can make them feel smothered and constantly under a microscope. Instead, set clear expectations every so often – weekly or monthly, for example – and empower your team to develop its own plan of execution to encourage their creativity and ownership.
  • For videoconferencing, provide resources and remove obstacles. It is critical that a remote team has the tools and technologies they need to be productive. If videoconferencing is your preferred means of staying in touch, ensure that the team is equipped with fast-working laptops and crystal clear speakers and headphones. That said, “Zoom fatigue” is a real thing, especially on teams that cross countries, continents and time zones. As a remote leader, evaluate and seriously consider whether real-time conferencing is necessary all the time or if asynchronous communication such as email is better in some situations.
  • Happy hours do not need to be after hours. Most managers I speak with who have led remote teams successfully have integrated some form of remote social interactions – such as regular virtual happy hours, theme parties, and employee recognition sessions – into their team’s routine. While research has shown that this practice can work, managers need to be mindful not to mandate even more video meetings, but rather carve out time during already scheduled meetings for these non-work-related activities. Virtual social gatherings can feel forced and inauthentic, but they feel less so when they are part of the normal workday schedule and not one additional “task” that employees need to do.
  • Watch for the warning signs of burnout. Managers need to understand factors that can make remote work especially demanding – to the point of burnout – in order to find solutions to these challenges. Some of the common ones include lack of face-to-face supervision, limited access to resources and equipment, minimum social interaction, a lack of a conducive corner or room to work at home. The most dangerous factor may be a lack of a “cut-off point” in a worker’s day.
  • Empathy, empathy, empathy. Each team member has unique circumstances, stresses and anxieties, especially if working from home. Always make it known that you are available to listen, advise and help when necessary. Help can come in the form of verbal communication, but it can also come from sending care packages to team members’ homes and even covering their utility costs or telephone and broadband internet access Get creative and be proactive in showing empathy.
Leading Hybrid Remote/Office Teams
  • Do not play favorites. As offices reopen, it will hard for managers to treat everyone the same whether they are in the office or working remotely. Once you have made a decision to have a hybrid environment, do not place guilt on anyone for their decision. Wherever someone is working, ask yourself—am I helping this person to feel like part of the team?
  • Stay creative and keep socializing. With team members dispersed in different locations, you should still arrange for time for the team to bond and be social together—keep having virtual happy hours and recognition times when people can celebrate together.
  • Listen to every voice. With some people at home and some in the office, it will be easy for people to feel they are not heard enough. Devote extra time to listening to each and every person on your team.

The term “compassionate leader” is not new but, in a pandemic when managers have to lead remotely or in a hybrid situation, it is especially relevant. For employees, experiencing compassion and empathy from their manager can be intrinsically rewarding to the brain and boost productivity. True leadership comes from the heart. If we truly care about other people, that will be apparent in the words we speak and the actions we choose. In the end, the best managers are those who “manage” less and spend more time listening, mentoring, coaching, and being there for their team members whether they are working in the office or at home.