Technically, we have been ready to work from home for many years. Work-at-home offers little or even no technical competitive advantage as virtually anybody can buy and implement the same tools. The real challenge is in the leadership/managing/human aspect of this solution. Let us call these sets of abilities digital emotional intelligence (DEI). How can you be a leader in a remote environment?
For a leader, work at home goes way beyond just changing their job location to his/her home. No, it is an entirely different animal. It is much more challenging to lead, manage, coach, and inspire remotely than it is to do it in person. First, we must get “in the mood.” We should prepare for the start of our workday as if we were going to the office: dress for success. No slippers, no pajamas. And sure, the environment should be appropriate: no distractions, low noise levels. Nothing beats having an actual “office” set up in your house even if it is just a spare room or a strategically placed corner. Since you will be using videoconference regularly, make sure the camera does not capture “unprofessional” details.
However, what has been mentioned so far is just housekeeping. The most crucial aspect of leading remotely is leading remotely. How are you going to motivate, inspire, coach, and lead your people to achieve the firm’s objectives?
The first aspect is communication. And, by definition, communication is a two-way street. So, make a point of “touching” each one of your direct reports daily. Nothing sophisticated. It does not even have to be a video call. Just grab your phone and call them. Yes, start with small talk. Remember, the human aspect is all-important. Then review the previous day. Praise him/her for their accomplishments and then plan for the day. Provide any needed coaching. Inspire them. (Yes, this is a tough one since managers themselves need inspiration, but it is an indispensable part of leadership).
Emotional Considerations for a Remote Leader
Here we have a recommendation: to prevent you from being dragged down emotionally, minimize your news consumption. Set, say, 15 minutes per day, at the same hour, to inform yourself via objective, reliable channels and then shut down this turmoil until the next day.
The current situation will not last forever, so this is the moment to plan and prepare for the future, particularly the future of your direct reports. Ask them these questions: what online training will enhance their value for the company and, in general, make them more competent, more promotable? Review the options, and if needed, take the courses yourself before assigning them to your people. Carefully selecting the right training will create purpose and allow your people to be better professionals at the end of this quarantine. Make this a conversation. Your coaching is vital in their career development.
This situation has changed us, has changed companies, has changed life in general. We will eventually go back to business as usual, but it will not be as typical as it used to be. No, the shift toward digital has been accelerated. This new world will favor those that are tech-savvy, but plain technical abilities will not suffice. Those that have digital emotional intelligence (DEI) are the ones that will conquer this brave new world.
So, your test is now: are you able to keep a remote team inspired and engaged in achieving the firm’s objectives? Yes or no? In what are you excelling in? In what are you doing a so-so job? In what are you failing miserably? If you are drowning, do not die alone, ask for help. Either your leader or persons with remote leadership experience can help. In a sense, these are uncharted waters, so experimentation is a must. Each one of your team members is different. Some things will work better with some of them and others with the rest. However, at the end of the day, one of the critical measures of your performance as a remote leader will be your team’s engagement. How does the current engagement compare to the level you had a few weeks ago when you interacted in person? It will probably be lower but should not be much lower.
Also, your team (and you) will be mostly competing against other virtual teams, so that is the new benchmark. Again, engagement is critical. If you start down the spiral of disengagement in a few weeks, your team will be lost, and you may be out of a job.
If your team is more engaged than most other groups in similar circumstances, then you are winning, and thus your DEI is above par. This is where you should strive to be, and if so, congratulations, you and your team will come out stronger after the current crisis is over.