- Many organizations haven’t yet upskilled their leaders to inspire, engage and motivate under a remote or hybrid framework.
- The best leaders in a remote or hybrid environment rely on trust, deep relationships, vulnerability and outcome-based evaluation metrics to mentor and guide employees.
- Connecting with employees in a meaningful way for just 15 minutes a week can increase engagement.
A recent Gallup poll found that employee engagement is at its lowest in nearly a decade. One contributor to this crisis is that many organizations haven’t yet upskilled their leaders to inspire, engage and motivate under a remote or hybrid framework.
While remote work hasn’t changed the need for leaders to mentor and guide their people, it has changed how leaders need to approach this task.
My company, Centric Consulting, designs remote and hybrid workplace strategies for organizations. One common issue we see is conflict between leaders stuck in the old ways and their employees, who want the flexibility and autonomy of this new world of work.
When leaders fail to address this impasse and learn how to be effective outside of a traditional office setup, engagement tanks, burnout soars and people go looking for opportunities elsewhere — a big problem in today’s tight labor market.
A Crash Course On Effective Remote Leadership
The best leaders in a remote or hybrid environment rely on trust, deep relationships, vulnerability and outcome-based evaluation metrics to mentor and guide employees. Let’s dive in to each essential task of modern remote leadership:
1. Establish trust:
I’ve led Centric Consulting for more than two decades. The company has been remote-first since the beginning. While many leaders seem to worry their remote workforce is slacking off, my experience working with countless remote workers tells me the opposite is usually true.
Research shows that most people find their productivity increases away from the distractions of the office, and high-trust cultures score consistently better on retention, financial performance, innovation, organization and agility.
Many leaders, however, have trouble letting the data guide their actions. Case in point: Nearly half of businesses use monitoring software to track remote employees.
Lack of trust in your people is never going to result in happy, engaged, motivated employees. Full stop. And it’s going to erode your culture, making your organization less attractive to workers who have learned to demand flexibility.
Here’s what you should do instead: Tell your employees they will be treated like adults with the flexibility to get the job done however is best for them. And then follow through. I wrote about this in my book, “Office Optional”:
“By starting with trust and allowing remote employees great autonomy and flexibility to manage their time, people get to be independent and empowered while still feeling like a part of something bigger. This leads to happy, loyal employees with a rich quality of life, which leads to an amazing culture.”
2. Build deep relationships:
When leaders cultivate strong relationships with their employees, they accomplish two important things: They prevent the isolation that can so easily plague remote workers, and they become better equipped to guide and support people on their career journey.
Relationships are also key to talent retention: 75% of employees who quit do so because of a negative relationship with their manager.
The 2022 Microsoft Work Trend Index found relationship-building is one of the greatest challenges in a remote or hybrid workplace. But is it really so difficult? Yes and no. It does take intentional, consistent effort, but a little goes a long way.
At Centric, we build relationships in a few simple ways:
- On virtual calls, we always start off by connecting as humans before diving into business. Sometimes this looks like everyone answering a fun question, sometimes it’s entirely unstructured and we just chat about our day. Either way, this practice helps us get to know one another better.
- Our leaders hold regular one-on-one check-ins with employees. They use that time to ask how employees are doing (both at work and in life in general) and check in with project progress and challenges so they can offer guidance and support. According to Gallup, just 15 minutes a week connecting in this way can increase engagement.
3. Practice vulnerability:
Vulnerability has always been difficult for me, but I’ve worked hard during my time as a leader to be more open. It’s been transformational for all my relationships, at work and at home, and it’s helped me be a more empathetic, effective leader.
Vulnerability is the quickest way to build strong relationships. It enables effective communication, collaboration and innovation, and can transform a group of loosely connected people sitting behind computer screens into a team unit. Vulnerable leadership allows you to uncover employees’ passions, challenges and aspirations, giving you the necessary insights to mentor, guide and inspire.
I witnessed the power of vulnerability during the Covid-19 pandemic. At the beginning of our calls, we’d check in on how everyone was feeling. Everyone was struggling, feeling somewhere on the spectrum from anxious to terrified. By talking about our feelings, we all felt more connected and less alone, which helped us pull together and work hard to get through the crisis.
If you want to practice vulnerability as a leader, you must admit mistakes and be open when you don’t know an answer or when you’re struggling with something. And you must do it with humility. A quote from Brené Brown captures the concept perfectly: “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.”
4. Use outcome-based evaluation metrics:
In a remote setting, worker productivity shouldn’t be tied to how many hours they’re online, spreadsheets produced or other meaningless metrics. Evaluating workers in this manner is counterproductive to unlocking discretionary effort and contributes to digital presenteeism, which increases burnout and decreases productivity.
Yet this style of evaluation remains common: 54% of remote/hybrid workers feel pressure to appear online at certain hours of the day. They work an extra 5.5 hours per week, spending their time responding to chats or emails in real-time, commenting on documents and participating in online chat rooms just to prove they’re working.
If you want to be an effective remote leader, you instead need to measure employees by outcomes. Work with employees to set specific, measurable goals and then track employees against those goals—this should be a regular conversation (see the point above about regular check-ins with employees) and not saved for an annual review. When employees know their purpose and goals, they are freed to focus on what really matters.
5. Model being a great remote worker:
To counteract remote workers feeling like they need to be constantly working and suffering burnout as a result, leaders need to set an example for what it means to live a balanced life. I do this by always being open about taking time away from the office or taking breaks throughout the work day.
I don’t always immediately respond to chats or emails, and I don’t expect my employees to, either. A few times a year, I even do a ‘digital detox’ while I’m on vacation — I don’t check emails, and I certainly don’t check in with people. This helps employees feel comfortable recharging, too.
Over the past few years, the leadership rulebook has changed. If you want to continue to be effective in a remote or hybrid setting, you must address gaps in your skillset for mentoring and guiding remote workers.
The stakes are high: People no longer want to be stuck in an office all day, and as the Great Resignation has shown, they’re not afraid to go looking elsewhere for a job that better aligns with their desire for flexibility.
Larry English is a remote work expert and author of Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture With Virtual Teams, a roadmap to virtual work success. The book draws on his insights as Cofounder and President of Centric Consulting, an award-winning business and technology consulting firm that has been virtual-first since its founding more than two decades ago.