Leading Remotely in a Crisis

When I was first asked to develop my list of how to successfully lead remotely, my first thought was, "I’m still figuring it out!” However, I have been leading a small business in a remote work environment for 12 years now, so I have had the opportunity to refine some approaches.

From the beginning, working and leading remotely was something that I intentionally built into my business structure. My vision was that work should be flexible and adaptable. Employers should treat employees like partners. As long as employees complete their work on time and with good quality, then they can do it whenever and wherever they wish.

Top 10 Recommendations

So what is "my top 10 list of how to successfully lead remotely”? My caveat here is that I am still learning about the best ways to do this too. I like to continue to try new things and be responsive to feedback, but I’m happy to share my recommendations in order to help others in these challenging times.

1. Always Keep an Open Mind to New Ideas

Keep learning, trying new things, and addressing feedback. Remote leadership needs to be adaptive and flexible because technology changes, new people join your organization, and you can’t always know everything.

2. Be Supportive of Your Employees

Remote working environments are challenging to adapt to, even if you think you are going to love doing it. Understand that your employees are adapting, too, so when you check in with them, spend a couple of minutes asking them how they are doing before talking about work.

Knowing that you care goes a long way to helping them feel supported.

3. Be a Good Listener

This applies in any setting really, but it’s important enough to mention especially for this topic. You don’t need to solve everyone’s problems, but you do need to listen and be understanding.

4. Insist on Regular Communication

Often your employees feel like communication is a hassle in a remote environment, and everyone is different on how they prefer to communicate and how much they want to communicate with you and their coworkers. As the leader, you need to insist on it.

In my opinion, regular communication is the single most challenging aspect of working remotely.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a misunderstanding arise over an email that was taken the wrong way. If that happens, talk to each person first if needed, then immediately set up a call to talk through the issue. It makes all the difference in resolving issues before they turn into a major conflict.

5. Set Expected Times of Accessibility and Enforce Them

The constant notifications from our devices at all hours of the day can become stressful. This situation is amplified in a remote working environment because you are never really away from work.

Talk to your employees and come up with a general schedule and preferred communication method for each of them, then post that information as a modified contact list. In addition, adopt a flexible system where everyone can indicate if they are currently working or busy, like with the status function in Microsoft Teams.

6. Build Social Interaction Into Your Work Environment With Your Employees

I’ve found that people really enjoy having an occasional happy hour, holiday lunch, coffee chat, cookout, or some other type of event. It doesn’t have to be frequent, but giving them that chance to interact socially helps build morale and camaraderie.

As the leader, you need to make sure it happens. It is important to get everyone to attend — even if they are all attending virtually.

7. Treat Your Employees Like They Are Part of a Partnership

Your employees need to feel like they are part of solutions and decision making and that you trust them, both to take responsibility for their work, their hours, and to have input on how to solve problems.

Most importantly — and the most difficult — trust them!

In a more traditional working environment, constant check-ins are challenging at best, but in a remote working environment, it is just not possible.

8. Document How to Do Everything as Much as You Can

This includes policies and best practices on how to work from home. You need to take the lead on doing this and keeping it up to date, but you can have everyone help you. All new employees should be on-boarded with that information.

Remote workers can’t lean across their cubicle to ask their neighbor how to do something. This can lead to frustration, confusion, and increased feelings of isolation. If employees can look up their questions, it helps them feel supported and part of a partnership.

9. Lead by Example

You must follow your guidance and standards yourself and not be an exception to the rules. If you feel like a certain standard isn’t something you want to follow, ask yourself why it is important. If it’s not important, then maybe no one should have to do it.

10. Take Some Time for Yourself and "Check Out" of Work

In a remote environment, it is very easy to always be "on” for your employees. You should be supportive, but you need to be able to trust them and check out in order to refresh yourself.

Find whatever recharges you best and go do that. When you return, your employees will appreciate your revitalizing and energizing demeanor.

Important Technology for Remote Work

Nowadays, there is a great deal of technology to support remote working environments.

File Server/Storage

We all work out of a cloud platform. We have a corporate Dropbox account with a lot of storage. Everyone syncs it to their computers so we can work like we are in a traditional office setting with a file server. We prefer Dropbox because of its selective sync capabilities and accessibility.

Email

We have Microsoft Exchange Server Online, so we can access email from any device.

Timekeeping

We use OfficeTimer, which is simple to use and low-cost. It allows me to customize our time and expense tracking in very detailed, customized ways if needed, which some of our clients require.

Work Flow

We use an online task management system called Flow, where we track, assign, and update the tasks on which we are all working. It is critical to have some type of system like this in place so that you always know what is going on with your projects and other efforts.

Communication

It is important to take a multi-layered approach in order to accommodate (1) different types of information that need to be shared, (2) varying levels of urgency, and (3) the different abilities and preferences of the people.

We use a combination of email, phone calls, text messaging, Flow comments, and Microsoft Teams. We have a traditional conference call line account with FreeConferenceCall.com. Microsoft Teams has been extremely valuable for communicating with everyone. It also has a great feature that is so valuable to a remote working environment — you can "check out” and "check in.”

Top image: A remote meeting. Getty Images photo.


About the Author
Kimberly Burton, AICP CTP, PE, LEED AP ND, is president of Burton Planning Services and associate professor of practice at Ohio State University.

April 20, 2020

By Kimberly Burton, AICP CTP