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How to better lead a remote working team

Context:

We are now perhaps so deep into a ‘pandemic’ way of life that we don’t even talk about the ‘new normal’ anymore. This is just ‘how it is’ . . .but what if things could be even better than they were before? Is that possible? Here we explore some of the things that have really worked and had a positive impact during such uncertain times.

What have we taken from the last two years?

Let’s be clear – there have been positives. We have definitely seen clients embrace new ways of working and ultimately decide that the gains far outweigh any negatives. For example, some organisations have now officially made the move to consider themselves ‘remote-first’ places of work. This has meant that employees have total flexibility to work from home but are also actively encouraged to meet with colleagues regularly, in a workspace provided. This shift in approach has meant for greater flexibility when recruiting – as this potentially frees them up to attract people from anywhere in the world . . . helpful when we consider the current context of the so-called ‘Great Resignation’ and the ongoing ‘war for talent’.

We have undoubtedly learned that when forced and ‘up against it’, we can work in ways that we never believed possible. Perhaps for the first time in some organisations, people have been encouraged to ‘show up’ as they really are – as a whole person – with challenges and responsibilities outside of the workplace. Homeschooling, anyone?! This can only be a positive thing. As humans, it is in our nature to want to feel accepted and welcomed for who we are – imperfections and all. It is only then that we will be able to perform in an authentic and meaningful way.

 . . .and the down-side?

Well, working from home can be great if you are lucky enough to have a separate work/office space where you can create a clear distinction between work and home life. We know that many do not have this luxury. We hear of stories where people are having to work in bedrooms, using ironing boards for laptop tables – you name it. For some, going to a place of work is their solace – their escape or change of scene. For whatever reason. For others, impromptu chats with colleagues may be an important motivator or even help define what they will focus on at work.

We have to be aware that working from home doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone – and as an employer, it is vital that you stay alert to what is going on for your people. This doesn’t mean that you need to engineer a complex process – rather that you take the time to check-in, connect – and listen. There is a real danger in making assumptions – take the time to ask the questions, without trying to predict the outcome.

The importance of connection

As human beings, we are wired for connection. The science is very clear: neurons in our brain get stimulated when we are interacting with other people. Research suggests that when we feel a sense of belonging, a connection – we feel more motivated, energised and engaged. It is really important to take the time to understand what may have been lost through ‘screen only’ communication – and how we can put things in place to go some way to make up for this. Can office space before more agile, for example? Could small groups of people be encouraged to get together in one space every now and again? Could you facilitate people meeting up for coffee and a catch-up, by agreeing to pay for these expenses? Obviously, this has to be within reason – and that will look different for every organisation – depending on their size and budget – however, a business would be naïve not to consider the options here. After all, we all know that disengaged employees ultimately don’t perform well and have an impact on the bottom line. Plus, it’s just the right thing to do!

What is my role as a leader?

As a leader, you may have experienced some difficult lessons over the past couple of years. It’s the realisation that so much is actually out of your control. Learning to feel ok with this can feel like a job in itself.

Here are some things that ARE in your control though – even if you can’t control or predict the outcome.

1. Check-in with your people – without assumption or agenda.

Understand that not everyone is motivated by the same things. Often we can assume that we know what’ll give someone motivation – for example, a pay rise – but this is rarely the case… often, it is something a lot more simple to action. As a leader, you are not required to always instinctively know what is happening with your team – but it is your job to find out. This doesn’t need to be through lengthy virtual meetings – a quick team huddle or ‘buzz’ meeting every morning can really do the trick in helping people feel better connected. And don’t always assume that there needs to be a work focus – what can you find out about your team just by asking different questions and shifting the energy up a gear?

2. Understand that motivation is intrinsic

As Andy Cope talks about in his book ‘Leadership: the Multiplier Effect’ – you are NOT responsible for the motivation of others – but you ARE responsible for your own levels of motivation. How you show up as a leader – your behaviour – is infectious. So, check-in with yourself – are you motivated at work? Do you feel connected to a wider purpose? Take some time to connect with your ‘why’. You will, whether consciously or not, be putting messages out there to your team. Make sure these are the messages you want the team to pick up on.

3. Get really clear on your strengths

The uncertainty over the last couple of years has meant that we have all probably taken on work/responsibilities outside of our usual remit – and it is perhaps through this that we have discovered more about our capabilities. Who in your team has strengths that you weren’t aware of before? How could you harness and use these strengths to advantage the team? When we are working remotely, it is even more important that we are clued up about what each of us in a team brings as we have to be more deliberate about roles, responsibilities and communication.

4. Where there is clarity, drive those messages home

There may not be much we can count on for certain at the moment but ask yourself: ‘what do we know to be true right now?’. Understand this and then use every channel at your disposal to communicate it. Your people need information. Where there is a communication void, they will fill it with (not always helpful) messages of their own. The best communication is two-way. Amongst the uncertainty, help your team understand the communication channels open to them. When there is nothing to tell them – share that fact. Don’t leave people guessing and making assumptions. But remember, it is also ok not to know and have all of the answers, all of the time.

5. Be prepared to be vulnerable

As a leader, we may assume that it is down to us to make this right. But we’d be wrong. It is an old school of thought to expect leaders to have all the answers. How can they? As we talked about earlier, the best leaders hold a developed awareness around their own strengths – and those of their team. They don’t try to be all things to all people.

Brené Brown talks about leaders needing to be prepared to be vulnerable – to create environments where people feel able to ask difficult questions and to be able to lean into these. Answer honestly. Admit when you don’t know or when it is tough. This will encourage connection and trust.

Be prepared to ask, ‘what does support from me look like?’. Don’t assume. And listen. Yes, it’s unpredictable and ‘out of your control’ but it helps to establish a shared way forward. Where there is co-ownership, there is productivity.

As you can see, there really are opportunities for things to evolve and improve in the workplace with a newfound better balance between traditional office-based structures and enforced fully remote working– but it will require some deliberate thought and application. Let’s harness the great things that have occurred as a result of a more remote and flexible workforce – what are those things for your organisation?

Talk to our HR experts for practical advice on effectively managing remote teams

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