Back in ancient times (like, say, 2012), it was unusual for an executive or a manager in corporate America to work from somewhere other than headquarters or a large branch office.
Oh, how the world has changed. With COVID-19 dramatically accelerating a shift toward remote work, 25% of professional jobs in North America will be work-from-home by the end of this year, according to a study by the job site Ladders.
How many are in management? Early in the pandemic, Fundera estimated that 16% of remote employees are managers. That number undoubtedly has fallen some as offices reopened, but the fact remains that more people in leadership positions are telecommuting than ever before.
Yet, only around one in five bosses has extensive remote management experience, according to one report.
That dichotomy – more remote managers, relatively few who have done it before – represents an interesting challenge for organizations. Complicating matters, these managers often oversee virtual teams spread around the country or the globe. They are likely supervising employees who themselves are newly remote and, in some cases, whom they’ve never even met in person.
Addressing this reality requires understanding that remote management demands different skills and approaches than face-to-face work. Remote executives and managers can be just as effective as those in an office, as long as they acknowledge the situation’s unique qualities and put energy into tackling them.
I know this from personal experience, having managed remotely for most of my 23-year career. My “remote old schooler” credentials include leading teams at scale-up organizations to large enterprises such as Oracle and Salesforce, the company where 10 years ago I was one of the first telecommuting product marketing vice presidents. Today, I’m chief marketing officer of a San Francisco-based company, working out of my home in Seattle.
Here are five strategies that have worked for me through the years:
1. Foster an environment that maintains the best parts of office life.
The best thing about working in an office involves proximity. When people work in the same place every day, it’s easier to build relationships. Communication flows more naturally, whether it’s a serendipitous hallway conversation about a business issue or a chat in the break room about the “Ozark” finale.
So, remote leaders need to use the tools at their disposal, like Zoom and Slack, to replicate that feeling of connectedness. That’s why, for example, I always reserve the first 10 minutes of Zoom calls for good old-fashioned chit-chat. We get to know each other better as people, not just workers. With that knowledge comes greater trust.
There are so many little ways to make the virtual feel less distant. Folks in the office never think twice about grabbing a coffee together, so why not schedule quick catch-up calls with others you don’t work with on a day-to-day basis? People in the office don’t hesitate to block their calendars or disappear into a conference room for heads-down work time. Leaders should respect and protect remote workers’ ability to avoid distractions when they need to — don’t expect people to return every Slack message instantaneously.
2. Maximize your travel to HQ and office hubs.
When I do travel to our headquarters or central office hubs, I consider it more than merely a visit for a particular meeting or whatever. I view it as an opportunity for “focused networking.” Rather than holing up in an office or conference room between meetings, I prioritize the networking and social events and walk the halls to talk to and socialize with as many colleagues as possible.
That includes people in other departments, with whom I don’t work regularly. In fact, that’s the whole point: to understand our business from all angles.
Put another way, I go all-in on relationship building when I’m in the office to make up for the time when I’m alone. It can lead to some long days, but it’s worth it.
3. Double down on great communication.
Remote teams are prone to firing Slacks and emails at each other all day. That may feel more efficient, but efficiency isn’t the goal of good communication. It’s about informing, making sure the other person truly understands what you are saying and the intent behind it. “Let’s hop on a Zoom” or “Do you have time for a quick call?” are often the smartest words a leader can say, especially if the topic at hand is complex or difficult
Bosses also need to be cognizant of a prime pitfall of remote work: under-communication. Information sometimes travels slower among virtual teams than in an office, creating a “news vacuum”. Something as simple as compiling a weekly wrap-up email to team members can go a long way toward keeping everyone in the know.
4. Prioritize feedback.
Knowing how to give feedback that is specific, actionable, and inspiring is the hallmark of great leaders. But providing effective feedback can easily fall by the wayside when working remotely.
Because of the “news vacuum” effect mentioned above, feedback is even more vital when remote is part of the equation. That doesn’t mean micro-managing but strongly appreciating the sense of distance that remote can create. Go the extra mile to help employees be their best professional selves by giving regular feedback!
5. Be generous with your time.
When remote, it is even more important for employees to think of their bosses as approachable.
I strive to never let a team member think I’m too busy for them. For instance, I prioritize weekly one-on-ones with my direct reports. It’s too tempting to start allowing that time to be canceled at the last minute or moved out yet another week for something “more important” or harder to schedule. This time is not just for me, it’s for them, and it’s important. Being genuinely available to employees is one of the best things a remote leader can do.
Take it from a “remote old schooler”: These five steps can help those who are new to managing remotely to gain confidence and become effective quickly. In today’s evolving work models, it’s important to their organizations that they do.