As remote working looks gets more entrenched in our business lives, it’s time to look beyond technical solutions and ask about the crucial ‘soft skills’ that business leaders need to help their teams succeed. What do we need to do, and what should our employees and co-workers expect of us?
The first question is whether remote working merits a fundamental change in leadership style at all. Surely it’s technology and execution that need to change, and personal and professional qualities can remain the same?
In my view, quite a lot needs to change. And here’s why.
You don’t need to look far to see entrepreneurs whose personal charm – real or curated – has played a big part in their success. Sometimes – mentioning no names – their personality *is* their success, overshadowing a lack of real achievement. But that’s usually in the context of a traditional office, with all that implies in terms of relationships, hierarchies, and personal interaction.
In a remote team, things look very different. The subtle body language and verbal cues that oil the wheels of office relationships miss their mark. In their absence, remote teams place a much higher value on being helpful and reliable.
And when we interrogate that further, helpful and reliable really comes down to being trustworthy.
What kind of behavior gets you recognized as a leader in a remote context? Not the usual mix of assertiveness and confidence but positive and affirmative actions: offering help and feedback, being the person who makes things work. And this can happen at all levels: the minute you start to take time to help other people, they begin to think of you as a leader.
It’s all a far cry from the traditional view of a business leader. So what’s going on?
One theory is that the remote environment in general, and video meetings in particular, devalue the attributes that ‘charming’ leaders instinctively rely on – and that can sometimes make co-workers uncomfortable. We’ve all known charismatic managers who use their confidence and physical presence to gain approval, dominate meetings, and manipulate or intimate their co-workers. It’s something that’s not limited to business, and the effects can range from motivating to downright toxic.
Now take a look at how these individuals cope in a remote business environment. Their body language is automatically muted, and when it comes to muttered asides and put-downs literally, no-one is listening.
When teams share their experiences, emotional intelligence becomes a real asset. Sharing problems and finding solutions within the team can extend to mitigating feelings of isolation, exclusion, and anxiety about the future.
Faced with an unprecedented situation that may impact our work, prosperity, and personal lives for years to come, it’s important to let your team know that you understand and share in their experience.
Respecting boundaries is also essential, and recognizing when an individual feels left out and when they genuinely prefer to be left alone is another skill that managers need to cultivate.
When cherished friendships and stress-busting hobbies are put on hold, we can find ourselves grieving for our old lives. Days can blur into each other without the natural breaks and intermissions provided by going outside, getting lunch with a colleague, traveling to work, or a meeting, maybe picking up dinner on the way home. The small incidents that distinguish each day from the next are far less frequent. All this needs to be acknowledged.
Don’t pile on the pressure
Are your meetings too long? Do they leave people tired and stressed without the energy to be productive?
The online tools that saved the day when lockdown hit have begun to generate resentment. Consider swapping a few for good old-fashioned phone calls, or split a long meeting into several shorter ones, using the intervening time to consolidate your ideas,
You can’t fix everything in your team’s lives, but you can share ideas, nurture their resourcefulness, and give them tacit or explicit permission to raise issues and ask for what they want or need.
Be a better communicator
Without the benefit of water coolers, coffee rooms, and office corridors, teams can lose casual communication that fuels so many creative ideas. To compensate for this, you need to plan how the team will communicate.
Make a point of asking what channels your team prefers – one person’s useful email is another person’s annoying distraction.
Be transparent about your broader goals, and be careful not to create a privileged inner circle within the wider team.
And remember, in the new remote working environment, it’s genuine empathy and real contributions that count.