Great Remote Leadership Part 2: Key Decisions

By: Daniel Russell

In the previous post of this two-part series, we looked at five essential behaviors demonstrated by great remote leaders. These were: clarify aligned goals, promote inclusivity, share leadership, build trust via competence, and create connections. The remaining four factors center around decisions leaders make to set the stage for successful remote teams. These decisions enable leaders to more clearly exhibit the behaviors described in part 1 that inspire followership, stimulate thinking, and build relationships—even among widely dispersed, remote teams.

  • Communication frequency. Leaders consistently highlighted the communications they have with their direct reports, skip-level team members, peers, partners, and project teams. The forums and times of communication are well planned and consistent, so leaders and team members are never surprised and always prepared. One manager asserted that remote leadership all comes down to communication. Another said that being available for ad hoc team communications is paramount. The impact of these actions was evident in the engagement survey results: remotely managed team members reported feeling more informed about decisions and more satisfied with communications than team members in the rest of the organization. It’s important to note that many of these connections are informal, and leaders highlighted the importance of making personal connections with team members beyond their direct reports in all locations. They made a point to maximize face-to-face time spent onsite at remote locations by scheduling informal Q&A sessions, lunches, or dinners with small groups of team members.
  • Organization of work. Although various leaders described different strategies and preferences, each explicitly mentioned that the location of team members was considered before structuring and assigning work. For example, some leaders advocated a “follow the sun” (FTS; always on, with work getting passed from location to location as they get up in the morning) model because their work is operational in nature and requires continuous availability. Other leaders described how they used FTS to accelerate project completion by having distributed team members continuously working on development tasks around the clock. Yet other leaders cited inefficiencies and high process loss when implementing FTS with complex design and development projects and preferred to use a location-based approach to project assignment, matching specific centers of expertise around the world. While these approaches differ widely, the common theme is careful consideration of how to organize work to maximize effectiveness and efficiency. By carefully considering the distribution of work, they are able to capitalize on efficiencies (avoiding employee disengagement by clustering nonstrategic work at one location) and minimize potential challenges to success (such as delays due to miscommunication).
  • Location strategy. Leaders consistently mentioned the need to have a “critical mass” of team members at each location. While exceptions were commonly made for more experienced employees, there was a clear bias to co-locate team members (especially new hires) with similar skillsets to allow for more collaboration. Some leaders also mentioned a potential need to rationalize locations to move toward fewer, larger hubs. Another strategy frequently mentioned was co-locating support functions with their internal clients. They felt that larger locations were not only easier to manage but also provided greater career opportunities for employees. One leader stated, “Having an engineer alone doesn’t allow him to collaborate, learn, etc. . . .”
  • Communication modality. Most of the leaders interviewed described a rigorous travel schedule to allow periodic face-to-face interactions with remote teams. They clearly described the need to build relationships through in-person visits during the initial stages and to maintain those relationships with periodic (if less frequent) in-person visits. Leaders also expressed a preference to bring teams together for in-person meetings as much as feasible to foster better communications and relationship building. On an ongoing basis, leaders expressed a preference for high-fidelity (but not necessarily high-tech) communication modes. While face-to-face and video conferencing are their preferred communication modalities, leaders talked about the importance of thoughtfully selecting the right communication modes for the message and coaching team members to do likewise. One leader shared, “We are trying to train team members to think about the right mode of communication. When you see a long email chain, just pick up the phone.”

Overall, many of the factors covered here aren’t unique to great remote leadership and are just good leadership practices. As noted by researchers and by our leaders, remote leadership requires adaptation, not radical changes. One leader stated, “We need good leadership in general.” Research suggests that most leaders choose more transactional, task-oriented leadership behaviors in remote teams at the expense of transformational behaviors (i.e., intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation, and relationship orientation). This is partly because it is much more difficult to display transformational behaviors in the context of remote teams. The leaders we interviewed consistently emphasized their focus on exactly these behaviors with their remote teams. They acknowledged the difficulty but also clearly articulated the benefits and results for the organization and individual team members. To the extent that these leaders were able to adapt their leadership styles for remote leadership, others can do the same. By emphasizing transformational leadership, in general, and these nine factors, in particular, other leaders can practice great remote leadership.

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