July 22, 2022

  • Steven Frank
  • Business

Leadership for a supportive, engaging remote work environment

It was in the early 2000's that I first started to work remotely full-time. That certainly wasn't so common then, outside of sales and consultant roles, but even they were typically traveling to meet with customers or on-site with a client most days throughout the month. Most of us have, however, experienced working remotely from a home office every day due to the pandemic that kept us largely sequestered over the past 2+ years. Now virtually all of us have first-hand experience with the pros and cons of remote work. For many, it was a significant adjustment. Not just for all employees, but for many companies and their executives, leaders, and managers who may have had no experience--and no interest--in enabling and leading a remote workforce. For me, it was muscle memory. I had been working primarily in an office for a couple of years at that time, so I was able to appreciate the contrast, the pros and the cons, with the opportunity to work daily from a home office again. I recently read an article that is an excerpt adapted from the book, Lift: Fostering The Leader In You Amid Revolutionary Global Change, by Faisel Hogue, et al., that speaks to much of what I have learned from working and managing remote teams spanning 10 time zones for most of the last 20 years. The authors address the pros and cons, the advantages and drawbacks, with reference to help from leaders: “Business transformation where digitalization plays a central role can be key in leveraging the advantages of remote work arrangements while addressing its drawbacks. As for those downsides, business transformation should also include management helping remote workers to address and mitigate the issues of isolation and loneliness.” When I first started working from home years ago, people would often say things to me like, "Oh, must be nice to sit around the house all day, sipping coffee in your PJs and slippers, watching soap operas!" My response? "I wouldn’t know." Admittedly, I was frustrated that this was the perception, but it quickly became apparent that no matter what I said in rebuttal, I could not change this perception. They just didn’t get it. Want to know a secret? Neither did I! At first, at least... No, I did not sit around watching TV in my bunny slippers all day. For me, it was the opposite. I worked far more hours, often 16, 18, 20 hours a day, 6 and sometimes 7 days a week. That was not healthy. Mentally or physically. It took me years to realize this, though. Eventually, I learned keys like setting boundaries, forcing myself to take time away from the desk and the computer, and packing up the laptop a day or so a week to work from a coffee shop or park. Another key that I had to learn, which was especially important for my remote teams, was finding ways to have more social interaction among the team and other colleagues.

"Transformation which includes a significant digital role can narrow that chasm, and digitalization can help cement a commitment to flexibility—a cornerstone of employees’ view of an engaging and supportive place to work."
I have virtual 1:1 meetings that I schedule at a time most convenient to the teammate based on their time zone and work schedule, whether that is 5 am or 9 pm for me. I make it a point for these meetings to be focused on the teammate, not on an agenda I might have as a manager to get status updates, etc. For teammates in other countries, I've rarely had the opportunity to meet them in person, so this especially is one of the only opportunities for me to get to know them on an appropriate personal level. I want to learn about them, their story, their experiences. What brought them to where they are today? What are their motivations, goals, aspirations? What gets them out of the bed in the morning? For the larger team, I have meetings at least once a month with all teammates where a wide span of time zones are represented. I alter the time of these so not one or more time zones are inconvenienced each time. I strongly encourage everyone to attend, though--if at all possible. I try to find ways to ensure that the agenda is not just work topics. I include highly participatory activities, sometimes not directly related to work, that are more of a social nature. For example, I've had each teammate send me a "fun fact" about themselves, something that no one on the team likely knows. Then, during a team meeting, everyone will try to guess who that is... This has always been fun, good for a lot of laughs, and can really help to break the ice to get to know each other a little better. While this may not having anything to do with work, I have seen this be an instant boost to collaboration among teammates. I also encourage giving presentations on something that a teammate has learned, is learning, or is researching. This may be related to a specific task or project; in other cases it is just something that they have wanted to explore and learn more about that I have encouraged them to pursue. This too often leads to collaboration and exchanging ideas that otherwise would not have happened. Of course, these are not only applicable to remote teams. It is important, however, to consider the need for more deliberate engagement and interaction when teammates or entire teams are remote too help address feelings of isolation and loneliness that can easily become overwhelming for some of us. Over the years working 100% on-site, 100% remote, and a hybrid of both, I have come to appreciate the flexibility that is afforded me and my teams when we are able to work remotely from home offices. I have learned valuable techniques and a balanced perspective that has helped ensure the advantages of working remote outweigh the downsides. Here a few specific suggestions from the article that I can personally attest to:
  • Encouraging remote workers not to work from home exclusively. Leaders can beat loneliness to the punch by advocating a variety of office-alternate work settings, such as cafes or parks.
  • Urging remote workers to unplug. Leaders can provide a routine that specifies when work ends, such as a certain time of day when emails can go unread or an office door which is closed and left behind.
  • Establish a broad network—and don’t talk about just work. Leaders can encourage remote employees to interact with people other than co-workers, and not limiting conversations with colleagues to work matters.
  • Leverage the flexibility. Leaders can make certain that remote workers vary their daily downtime. Take a walk, play a video game, or do some gardening or yoga. It’s not professional blasphemy.
  • Remind remote workers they’re important team members. Solicit input and feedback from remote workers. Routinely ask them what they would do differently to strengthen the remote work experience.
What has your experience been working remotely? Has management been supportive, actively engaged to make the experience work to your advantage? Have there been challenges that you’ve struggled to overcome? What impact has the flexibility that often comes with or is associated with working remotely had in your life away from work?

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