There is a lot of talk right now about the rapid acceleration of remote working due to the COVID-19 pandemic and even as lockdowns start to ease, remote working is likely to be a trend that will continue into the future.
Dispersed teams are not new of course. But as organisations de-layer and outsource, and as technology continues to invade our working lives, more and more leaders are facing the challenge of managing and leading remote workers, remote teams and hybrid workforces (a mix of remote and office based).
Does leading remotely require new skillsets? Or maybe even new mindsets?
Leading or managing?
One of the key difficulties in answering this question is the simple fact that lots of different organisations and lots of different managers understand leadership differently (if they think about it at all). Some leaders see their job as control, some see it in facilitative terms, some perceive it as performance-focused, and others view it as mentoring or coaching others.
To my mind, one of the most unhelpful beliefs is that there is a clear and vital distinction between leadership and management. Personally, I have never met a great manager who isn’t also a great leader; nor have I met a great leader who isn’t also a great manager. Furthermore, I believe that the arrival of digital technology and disruptive change is rapidly eroding the distinction.
Roaming the range
Leading remote teams successfully means being really clear about what your leadership (and management) role actually is. One simple way to start thinking about this is to understand a leader’s role as getting results through others, and that the method is to take action.
At Impact we have always understood leadership as a special and vital form of action. That action might be to take firm control, to coach, to facilitate, or to focus on outcome. Effective leaders and managers are able to ‘roam the range’ and make effective choices about the nature of the action they need to take, depending on the context. One-speed leaders just can’t cut it anymore.
The biggest mistake we see leaders making when managing remote teams is overcorrecting. This is especially true for remote or hybrid teams because at least some, if not all, members of the team are isolated from the leader, and the leader from them. This means that leadership/management interventions and the actions leaders take are amplified by that remoteness and therefore carry more meaning.
At the same time, that mutual isolation also makes it more difficult for the leader to understand what is happening both with the team and the individual. This is when leaders often fall into the trap of overcorrecting, which manifests itself either in being entirely invisible to the remote team or by suddenly micromanaging everything. In hybrid teams, leaders and managers need to be conscious of not defaulting to spending more time with team members in the office and must find a credible balance.
Use the technology
One of the most important ways in which leaders can improve their work with remote teams is to use technology effectively. MIT researchers did two studies[i] which show that leaders who are comfortable using technology are rated consistently higher by direct reports than those that don’t. They also show that the majority of leaders don’t feel comfortable using technology tools. Given that one of the most important things that any team needs to do in this age of disruption is to learn together, then the failure of the leader to learn how to use these tools sets a poor benchmark.
Kanban boards and team tools
One of the key jobs of the leader of remote teams is to be able to track progress and manage workflow. Kanban boards are one simple example of a tool to log and track work across a dispersed team and Trello is a piece of software that helps visualise a Kanban system. For relatively simple projects and small teams, Trello is great. For larger and more complex projects and teams, other tools like Monday or Wrike are great. But of course any tool is only as good as the people that use it.
Discipline and cadence
Leading and managing remote teams demand particular disciplines for workflow management, communication and check in. The Agile/Sprint process (popularised by the world of software development) includes a morning ‘stand-up’ meeting and a regular series of project/progress reviews. Setting these disciplines in stone and maintaining a good cadence is important in keeping everyone engaged with what is happening and their role in it.
The new skill sets required by managers and leaders of remote teams involve connecting people, work and technology together in a disciplined and expert way. We meet too many leaders who simply aren’t skilled in the use of technology tools; they need to up their game fast if they are to stay ahead of the disruption curve.
New mindsets are required to frame how work is managed remotely, including an ability to roam the range between the various interventions that are available, and to be smart about understanding the communications impact that remote leaders can have on their teams.
We need to update our tools and approaches for learning how to lead and manage remote teams and build a management and leadership capability that is fit for twenty-first century needs.
Impact are working with companies all over the world doing just that. Get in touch if you need help.
Grahame Broadbelt is Head of R&D at Impact.
[i] Gerald C. Kane, Doug Palmer, Anh Nguyen Phillips, David Kiron, and Natasha Buckley, “Strategy, Not Technology Drives Digital Transformation”, MIT Sloan Management Review (July 14, 2015); Nina Kruschwitz, Didier Bonnet, and Michael Welch, “Embracing Digital Technology: A New Strategic Imperative,” MIT Sloan Management Review (October 7, 2013).