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Working from home – or “telecommuting” as it was called – has been around for at least 20 years. But, in 2009, the concept got a huge boost. It was then that IBM reported that 40% of its global workforce of 386,000 were telecommuting. And, that policy allowed IBM to sell off many of its office buildings at a gain of almost $2 billion. Numerous large companies saw this strategy as an excellent way to save billions of dollars on real estate costs (Goman, C.K. Forbes, 2017).

Needless to say, many leaders were unprepared for managing numerous employees who rarely came into the office. In fact, by 2010, various companies were touting their capabilities to assist large corporations – and their leaders – to manage their telecommuting employees (e.g., Ware J. and Grantham C., Managing a Remote Workforce: Proven Practices from Successful Leaders. Future of Work, 2010). Not surprisingly, many of the “keys” to successfully manage telecommuting employees centered around technology solutions, often referred to as “collaboration technologies.” These included high-speed internet for each employee’s home, teleconferencing capability for everyone, secure instant messaging programs, etc. With these enhancements, more people worked at home, at least for a portion of their workweek.

In 2017, a funny thing happened – IBM pulled thousands of its remote employees back to their offices. What happened? Were they no longer concerned with minimizing real estate costs? No. It seemed that after about eight years, the company decided that it needed to foster greater collaboration among its workers, and that required many employees to work side by side (Goman, C.K. Forbes, 2017). In fact, increased collaboration was a key reason for the trend of “open offices” that spread from Silicon Valley technology companies to organizations in many industries throughout the country (Fabregas, K. How to Design an Open Office Layout & Alternative Ideas, Fit Small Business, 2019).

Today’s Reality

With COVID-19 continuing to spread, and no quick solution in sight, employers have no choice – they cannot safely group workers together in a small space. Employees need to “social distance,” wear masks, and ensure that all facilities are disinfected on a regular basis. As we all know, this situation has moved from workplaces to universities, to elementary and high schools. In fact, today more people are working and learning remotely than at any time.

As a leader/manager of employees who work remotely, or “at a distance,” it creates a new set of challenges. And, many leaders have been struggling to effectively manage their teams when they are not even allowed to work in their company’s offices.

Successfully Leading from a Distance

Since it looks like we will be in this situation for many months – or years – to come, it seems as if working from a distance is becoming the “new normal.” What changes must be made for leaders to be successful when many, or all, employees are working remotely?

When a leader cannot meet, or physically work together, with his/her team members, additional approaches need to be undertaken in order to lead successfully. These include:

  1. Increase Empowerment but Set Expectations. Understand that you need to give each employee even more responsibility while increasing your level of trust in their abilities. Therefore, providing guidelines and setting boundaries – early and often – are essential. Once those are established, allow each person to move ahead without always “checking with you about everything.” This also means that leaders must resist the urge to micromanage.
  2. Be Organized and Flexible. Although this may seem to be a paradox – how you can be both organized and flexible – it is possible. Specifically, leaders must establish methods, time schedules, regularly occurring events, etc., but they must also be prepared to make adjustments when required. A good way to think of it is, “These are our procedures, our schedules, etc., but we can always reconsider them if necessary.”
  3. Adapt Your Meetings. As many of us have already experienced, a one-hour meeting in-person is not like a one-hour meeting over videoconference. I can’t remember all of the colleagues that I have heard say, “I’m so tired of these long Zoom meetings – they’re awful.” It’s much better to have short, focused discussions on a videoconference than a longer, traditional meeting. Understand that videoconferencing does not lend itself to “socializing” like an in-person meeting does. This must be considered as you are “organizing days/activities” (see #2 above).
  4. Track Each Person’s Progress. Although every leader should always do this, it must be more formalized when everyone is working from a distance. Remember, each team member must understand exactly what is being tracked, and how and when. And, the leader must be consistent with their tracking.
  5. Enhance Communication/Collaboration and Emphasize Listening. When people work within a defined space, it can be rather easy to talk with each other. It’s very common to hear someone say, “Hey Damian, I’m glad that I ran into you. I wanted to ask you…,“ or “Michelle, do you have a minute?” Unfortunately, this type of communication doesn’t exist in a “remote” world. Therefore, allow time for more informal discussion when scheduling a videoconference/conference call. And – this is critical – every leader needs to emphasize listening. This includes asking more questions. In fact, a designated Q & A session can be helpful. Remember, create a process for each person to easily talk/collaborate. Use technology – Sharepoint or Google Docs, for example – that allows colleagues to easily share information. It’s also important to establish guidelines. Unless you want to be called at 9:30 at night, set boundaries around the team’s collaborating/communicating.
  6. Celebrate Successes. Since working from a distance eliminates informal, “spur of the moment” discussions/meetings, leaders need to “plan” these. For example, start each scheduled conference call/videoconference with a summary of the team’s recent successes, or mention a team member who has recently gone above and beyond, etc. Understand that when people work remotely, unplanned or unexpected interactions rarely occur. Therefore, the effective leader “plans” these things. (Pellman, P. & Sparrow, J. SHRM, 2020).

Leadership during these times can seem overwhelming, with all of the safety and health issues surrounding COVID-19, and then the need to lead differently. However, it is those leaders who successfully alter their styles, and create high-performing remote teams, who will succeed in our “new world.”

E.A.S.I-Consult® is a leader in researching and identifying leadership capabilities in an effort to help organizations reach their full potential. Exceptional leadership is needed now more than ever, and it is important to remember that the most successful leaders consistently demonstrate the Four Pillars of Exceptional Leadership:

Pillar #1 – Strategic Agility

Pillar #2 – Engaging Leadership Across the Enterprise

Pillar #3 – Innovativeness/Driving Continuous Improvement

Pillar #4 – Developing Talent and Leading Through Others 

About the Author 

Joseph Gier, Ph.D. is Vice President – Consulting Services at E.A.S.I-Consult® and is a licensed Psychologist. E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized organizations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. Utilizing scientific approaches, E.A.S.I.-Consult provides superior results to Business – Driven by Science. Our specialties include leadership and leadership potential assessment, online employment assessment, customized skills assessment, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. To learn more about E.A.S.I.-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com, or call 800.922.EASI.