Ensuring Team Compliance with Remote Leadership
Do not shy away from communicating just because it may be difficult at first
With the rapid expansion of the digital space, information is more accessible, and communication is far easier and quicker than before. This is not only in the social networking and personal arena but has also extended itself to the professional domain. An increasing number of workspaces are predominantly online in nature, with several employees working remotely and communicating everything from everyday briefs to self-evaluation and appraisal discussions through WhatsApp, email and Skype. While this widens the scope for employers to find talent across geographical borders, there are certain challenges that need to be addressed. These challenges are most often encountered within the employer-employee relationship. Considering how important effective communication is for good leadership, it is time to have a closer look at the obstacles faced by remote leadership and break them down to arrive at a solution.
One of the most important factors for an employer to consider before hiring someone, and for an employee to feel comfortable within an organization is cultural understanding and inclusiveness. Often with remote leadership, the sheer geographical distance leads to cultural differences that can sometimes cause miscommunication or gaps in understanding. This only gets compounded by the fact that the leader might be from a different cultural context than most of the team, thereby resulting in divergent approaches to situations and problems. In such a scenario, it is imperative to first acknowledge these differences rather than ignore them as either a non-issue or a situation that cannot be worked on. Step two, after acknowledgement, is to come up with solutions. The most effective step to foster better understanding among employees and between the team and their leader is to keep the communication going. Do not shy away from communicating just because it may be difficult at first. If possible, some investment should be made in bringing the team together from time to time in one place, especially at the outset. Team-building exercises and some free time to unwind and organically bond with each other should be a priority. If such interaction in person is not possible, then emails should be followed up with a phone call or a Skype conversation. The tone of voice matters almost as much as body language does in understanding people. These solutions need to be implemented in a sustained, long term manner. There is no quick fix approach here. However, with consistent sensitisation and interaction, leaders and their teams will be able to overcome geographical boundaries and find mutual understanding.
Another important aspect to this is that while recruiting individuals for a potentially remote position, leaders must discuss culture and geographical context with them. Leaders and recruiters, alike, should get to know their employees not just in terms of qualification and work experience, but also as cultural fits, and in terms of their work ethic. This will enable leaders to foresee certain gaps in communication that may happen in the future, and thereby overcome these obstacles in a timely, effective manner.
The Importance of Structure
Leaders themselves are at different levels of the hierarchy and possess varying levels of decision-making power. While managers are directly aligned with their respective teams, making the team accountable and answerable to them, directors are responsible for more overarching responsibility and possibly do not make decisions on as micro a level as managers, but are still in charge of approvals and final feedback. These roles and responsibilities make it crucial for managers and the director to be present locally with the team, preferably within the same working space. This will ensure that there are everyday supervision and real-time knowledge of tasks and deadlines, achievements and shortcomings. Troubleshooting also becomes possible because the physical presence enables a quick understanding of the problem, and a chance to communicate directly with the team to get solutions executed effectively.
On the other hand, for leaders higher up in the ladder such as the vice president and those above him, it is easier to sit at a remote location with respect to the team, and still be able to get timely updates on the functioning and assessment of team members. In such a context, it is important to schedule periodic webinars, meetings, catch-up sessions, and written updates where the remote leaders and the team can both benefit from each other's presence and inputs, even if it is mostly virtual in nature. Robust regular reviews are also essential, and these should ideally be face-to-face. These should involve saliently outlined metrics, projects, plans, dates and deadlines, targets, and outcomes. If these aspects are put in place right in the beginning, then the nature of reviews is concise, transparent and fair. Such a system can beautifully balance and remote with local leadership and enable various leadership levels to adhere to their responsibilities with little to no hurdles.
Remote leadership does come with its challenges, but technology plays a very crucial role in streamlining such a set-up. Video conferences, webinars, calls and automated updates all help in communication and planning across geographies. Project and task tracking software can augment the functionality of remote leadership and hugely reduce the burden on people to continuously follow up on tasks verbally.
However, all said and done, periodic travel from both sides will remain of utmost importance, and can solidify interpersonal understanding much more effectively than any other approach.