Article

Rising to the challenge of remote leadership

By Heather Hudson

Published May 6, 2020
Last updated May 6, 2020

Unprecedented. Troubled. Uncertain. Scary. Frustrating. Whatever you want to call the “times” we are living through, they are creating a departure from the way most of us have always worked.

Leaders and employees alike are learning to pivot in new and dramatic ways. But how do you know you’re doing the right thing—both for now and in the weeks, months, and even years to come?

We checked in with eight leaders who are accustomed to leading remotely and/or communicating during difficult times. Here’s their best advice.

Rethink your organization’s technology

Dessalen Wood, Chief People Officer at Thoughtexchange, a leadership crowdsourcing program with a 100 percent remote workforce, says successful remote organizations require intentional decisions about communicating, collaborating, and connecting employees. This means ensuring you have the technology to support your efforts.

“At Thoughtexchange we have this amazing cocktail of our own platform for collaboration, prioritization, and ideation; Slack for instant messaging and posting both work and non-work-related content; and Zoom for “camera on” face-to-face meetings and breakout sessions,” she said.

What works for your business may be different than for other companies. But putting in the time to figure it out will help you now and in the future. “Successful remote organizations are not accidental. The use of important tools is key to our success,” said Wood.

[Related read: 7 ways to build your team’s communication strategy—especially when remote]

Make leaders more visible

For better or worse, leaders around the world are communicating more openly and frequently with their people. Citizens look to their leaders for trusted information, reassurance, and guidance. The same is true for an organization’s leaders, says Russ Hill, senior partner at Partners in Leadership, a leadership training and management consulting company.

“Leaders should increase visibility in moments of disruption and uncertainty. Most of us are now attending virtual meetings. Those should be happening frequently—with webcams on. A team needs to see their leader right now. Your body language speaks volumes. It can be calming. Be the example they should be following when communicating with customers,” he said.

What works for your business may be different than for other companies. But putting in the time to figure it out will help you now and in the future.

If virtual meetings are tricky, try conference calls, pre-recorded videos or even personal emails. “None of this communication has to be lengthy, but it should be frequent,” said Hill.

“If your team normally has meetings once a week, you might consider doing them two or three times a week. One of them could be the normal length. The others could be briefer and feature a ‘huddle-like’ atmosphere. The longer the period without seeing and hearing from a leader and peers right now, the higher likelihood of distraction, confusion, and a lack of focus, which can be reflected onto your customer service.”

Randy Pennington, of Pennington Performance Group, says leaders should also make more time for feedback. And make it video feedback, if possible.

“The best managers spend 25 to 30 minutes per day coaching and providing feedback to each of their team members. Being remote is not an excuse to cut back. If anything, you should have even more connection. Feedback and coaching sessions should cover priorities, progress toward results, challenges the employee might be facing, and an update on what’s happening in the organization.”

[Related read: Talking about mental health at work, now part of the employee experience]

Support your team with compassion and provide resilience tools

It’s important to acknowledge uncertain times and provide tools for your team to work through stress and challenges, says Dr. Benjamin Ritter, a leadership and empowerment coach at Live For Yourself (LFY) Consulting.

“Leadership doesn't actually change during uncertain times such as COVID-19 and the transition to remote work. The same aspects that work in-person work remotely, it's just that as a leader you now have different tools at your disposal,” he said.

"Being remote is not an excuse to cut back. If anything, you should have even more connection." - Randy Pennington

Ritter suggests blending the tried and true ways of reassuring your team (regular meetings and a clear line of communication) with inventive ways of creating resilience in employees.

Viewed through a customer service lens, he recommends: “Bring in [virtual] speakers or share resources on dealing with change, uncertainty, stress and anxiety. Also, build resources for your team members that solve new and constant issues from customers.”

[Related read: Can burnout actually be good for you?]

Focus on what is certain

It often feels like the world is shifting beneath our feet. Melissa Hollis says one of the best things you can do in a leadership role during uncertain times is focus on what is certain. The editorial director at Think Save Retire has an extensive background in communications for flex workforces and she says stability is what a customer service team needs most.

Her tips to help lead team members as they provide good service from home during a crisis include:

  • Inspiration: Remind your service teams that their interactions are making a difference.
  • Clear goals: Share objectives and what results you need to see and that you're looking at productivity, not perceived activity during these times.
  • Autonomy and trust: Give team members the emotional bandwidth and resources to handle difficult situations and provide empathetic support.

Go above and beyond for your team

Neal Taparia, co-founder of Solitaired, a new business that uses classic games to improve mental health, stresses the importance of providing customized support and more leeway to staff members to help them manage the challenges they face.

“Given the uncertainty brought by the pandemic, we've been going above and beyond to make sure our employees know we're looking after them. For us, this means increased 1-on-1s for not only business updates, but to make sure our team members are in a good state of mind. We've even implemented policies like paying for apps like Disney+ to help with stay-at-home orders and to keep kids engaged,” he said.

“We've told our customer service staff to think of and treat our customers just like we do our team. This specifically means solving for hope and small wins during an anxious time. Our team has the latitude to do whatever they want to meet this goal,” he said.

“While it's empowering for our customer success team, it's had a ripple effect on our entire company. Our team realizes that if we go above and beyond for our customers, we'll always be willing to do that for our team. Leading through example, in my opinion, is the best form of leadership.”

[Related read: 4 things you can do to practice empathy at work]

Provide transformational leadership

Employees who are serving customers in heightened circumstances require higher-performing leaders, says Amanda Hagley, senior digital content manager, at Verb, a leadership development company based in Austin, Texas.

“Transformational leadership is more personalized, motivational, and inspirational than just setting processes and priorities. This is a hard time for teams and having a leader who pushes them to remember the greater purpose of what they do will have a big impact on team morale. Provide resources for your team that can help them as they navigate these new challenges both personally and professionally,” she said.

"Transformational leadership is more personalized, motivational, and inspirational than just setting processes and priorities." - Amanda Hagley

This kind of leadership includes prioritizing a team’s mental wellbeing alongside its projects and performance metrics. “Now more than ever, one-on-one attention centered on the whole person is crucial… If [your team] is burning out due to stress in their personal lives, their work will suffer as a result. This is especially true in customer service roles when many organizations are facing high contact rates and high-stress communication touchpoints with customers who have a little more on their minds than usual,” said Hagley.

[Related read: How to support your remote team’s mental health]

Help your team heal

Troubled times bring a wave of emotions for everyone. And it’s important to understand that not everybody has a support network. An employee’s job may be the glue that’s holding their lives together.

Bunch.ai is a 24/7 AI-leadership coach for leaders of remote workers. The company’s “Manager’s Guide to Mental Health During the COVID-19 Crisis” offers a wealth of advice on leading teams through this difficult time, including:

  • Provide updates every week from trusted sources in a team meeting, Slack channel or by email
  • Create a dedicated place to discuss the situation
  • Galvanize the team by researching and sharing volunteer opportunities, organizing an event or brainstorming new ideas to help others
  • Encourage teams to ask and answer three vulnerable questions for each other every week: How have the last few days been for you? How is the crisis impacting you and your family personally? What do you currently struggle with?

It’s also important to recognize when one team member may be negatively influencing others—and doing something about it. “Not everyone on your team will realize how it affects others when they share news or potentially traumatic content with their teammates. If someone is sharing negative news regularly, reach out and ask them to keep in mind that not everyone is able to cope with it on a constant basis. Instead, ask them to limit their sharing to specific channels where it’s expected,” writes Kurtis Morrison, Chief Growth Officer at Bunch.ai.

"Now more than ever, one-on-one attention centered on the whole person is crucial... If [your team] is burning out due to stress in their personal lives, their work will suffer as a result." - Amanda Hagley

As challenging and heartbreaking as these times can be for all of us, silver linings are starting to break through. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant says the global lockdown will naturally create some post-traumatic stress, but he emphasizes that it may also provide post-traumatic growth.

"That might mean redesigning jobs to make them more meaningful and motivating, trying to build cultures of creativity and generosity in teams, or even trying to make entire organizations more productive,” he told the World Economic Forum’s World Versus Virus podcast.

By viewing this crisis as an opportunity to grow, leaders have the potential to make a lasting impact on the people and processes that they oversee.