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Rebuilding Remote Leadership Starts With Building Trust

Ira S. Wolfe

President, Success Performance Solutions

Last month, I wrote an obituary for normal: the way things used to be. Many typical practices and ways of working are no longer effective, forcing everyone to utilize the most valuable skill of 2020: adaptability.

One area where this is especially prominent is in leadership. The shelter-in-place orders eliminated face-to-face interactions and hands-on supervision has been replaced with digital communication and invisible oversight. The long-held belief that employees couldn’t be trusted to work as hard or as efficiently was put to the test. Likewise, many managers found themselves challenged to manage a remote, distributed workforce.

The early weeks of working-from-home were completely chaotic. Uncertainty about our health, safety and future distracted everyone. So did the lack of proper processes, tools and digital know-how on the part of many workers and managers. In a recent Global Mentor Network interview, San Francisco Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper stated, "We’re all making it up as we go. Most of us are faking it."

But that’s changing. The unplanned working-from-home experiment seems to be working for many people and companies. Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft and Square have all made permanent full-time remote work optional, if not the default. Even the insurer Nationwide has committed to reducing their physical office space from 20 locations to four.It’s the tip of the iceberg, but all signs are pointing to the notion that while this is the new normal as we know it, it will continue to evolve.

And when it comes to leadership, it will continue to evolve too. Senior management is learning how to support remote workers. Supervisors are getting comfortable managing their teams through digital and cloud technologies. Still, most would also admit they have a long way to go. As businesses begin to reopen, managers need to adapt to lead their teams virtually.

Trust Matters Most

Overseeing a distributed workforce without the benefit of informal coffee breaks, lunchroom chats and in-person meetings requires a new approach to leadership and advanced digital skills.

Where should you start? Sure, technology tools are required, but those alone won't build engagement and ensure productivity and performance. Effectively leading and managing a team of remote workers begins with trust.

The first and foundational question for leading distributed and remote employees is : "Do you believe these employees can succeed?" For obvious reasons, answering "no" requires deeper inquiry and analysis. But so does answering "yes."

For example, if you answer "yes", consider these questions:

  1. What are the reasons your employees can succeed while working remotely?
  2. Are these reasons based on facts or assumptions?
  3. If assumptions, what are the additional things you need to do or need to know?

If you answer "no", consider these questions:

  1. What are the reasons you believe your employees can succeed while working remotely?
  2. What is required for you or your employees to successfully get to "yes"?
  3. What tools or resources do you need or do you need to provide to get to "yes"?

You can also ask similar conditional questions about:

  • Access and collaboration requirements
  • Team meetings
  • Team morale
  • Gathering feedback

Managing remote and distributed workers can be complicated under normal circumstances. But add a pandemic, social unrest and technological disruption, and tensions are heightened. Crisis or not, employees look to their managers for cues. These cues drive the moods and behaviors of everyone else. Do your cues and actions instill trust? To find success in your team and for your company, they must.

To learn more about what the future of work looks like, download our new whitepaper, Five Ways COVID-19 Will Change the Future of Work.

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