What does effective leadership for remote working look like?

Overseeing teams that don’t meet face to face isn’t easy, and requires the ability to engage, enable, empower and trust, says Niall Eyre

“I want to share some words with you about the organisation I want us to be. I do not care whether you are in the office at 8am. I do not care if you choose to work from home, or not. I do not care if you work from the garage while you get your car fixed. I hired you for a job and I trust you to get it done. Just let me know what you need from me and I will show up for you. Life happens! You do not need to justify to me why you need a day off. You do not need to explain how sick your child is to leave early. You do not need to apologise for having a personal life. 

“Yes, I care about results, but I also care about you. We are all human and we are all adults. I lead people. I do not run an adult daycare centre. My advice to hiring managers is 1. Select the right people; 2. Agree the deliverables (be crystal clear); 3. Provide proper tools and support; 4. Get out of their way.”

This is a communication from a CEO within a fledgling global tech company to all employees. It embraces a leadership style designed for the remote working world. It depicts a leader who is clearly articulating what type of organisation they wish to lead and their desired work culture. 

Leading remote teams is not easy. I know this from experience, having spent the last 10 years doing just this, leading teams nationally and internationally, spread across Ireland and 70 other countries. It was a fantastic experience. However, I had to change my leadership style, perspective and approach. 

During that time, face-to-face meetings with team members were not feasible and face-to-face meetings with my line managers were rare. However, the remote working model worked because my employer had a strong and trusting culture that provided the right environment, technology and processes. 

All indicators point to workforces seeking more remote working arrangements post crisis, as individuals want greater balance between their professional and personal lives. The business case for remote working is now proven and organisations can exploit the opportunity to ensure better outcomes for all stakeholders. Within Ireland where we’re based, for example, studies show more than 80 per cent of employees have communicated a desire for some element of remote working to be part of future working life. 

I am optimistic about the capability of business leaders to radically alter and challenge previous workforce design assumptions. Next year will bring huge change. As we move from crisis to a more normalised working environment many issues will emerge. Decisions around where, when and how work is delivered are now part of a national and global narrative. Some businesses are already responding. Siemens has a stated strategy that all locations, across more than 100 countries, will move to remote working for two to three days per week. The global tech sector (Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Google...) is leading the change and other industries will follow.   

Leading remote teams requires specific skills, including a clear and direct communication style, with straight-talking and straight-listening. Leaders need to provide clarity in relation to expectations, results and outcomes. A work culture that promotes self-direction and personal responsibility and ensures the right structure, resources and processes are in place is needed. Once achieved, leaders can focus on the key element of trust. 

Trust is the anchor that binds teams together. Micromanagement or excessive control will be counterproductive. Leading teams to focus on outputs, not specific tasks, is the way forward. Transforming from a face-to-face culture to incorporate remote working will challenge many organisations, particularly when dealing with promotion opportunities, training, incentive plans, career development, mentoring, creativity and innovation. Ensuring the organisation’s performance management process is fit for purpose for the new conditions will be key, but changing this will take time.  

Leaders may argue trust levels are already high within their organisations. However, this requires the highest level of discipline, which some leaders may struggle with. In the CIPD HR practices in Ireland survey (2020), 69 per cent of respondents indicated a lack of visible support from senior business leaders for remote working. So leaders are on a journey to convince their employees they are open to remote working.  

Coming back to the global tech CEO’s email to their staff, written communication is a key skill for remote working leaders. Precise, concise, effective language is imperative. It needs to be open, honest and authentic. That is what’s required to lead successfully in a remote working world.  

Niall Eyre is principal consultant at Transform HR