It’s a Remote (Work) World. Learn to Lead It

The workforce has changed. It's time we start adapting.

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I grew up in the traditional corporate environment (right out of high school at 18 years old). Face time was a big deal. So was being in the office for 10-12 (or more) hours every day. Perception – and physical presence – was everything. If you weren’t there, you weren’t working. End of discussion. So, as I came of age in management roles, I played by similar rules. If I didn’t see you, it was hard for me to believe you were “there” and being productive.

Even as technology emerged as an enabler and expediter, it still took quite a while to shift my understanding and acceptance of what was possible away from the actual office. In the early days of Instant Messenger, if your button wasn’t green… you get the idea. Thankfully for all of us, I’ve swayed my stance on the issue, though it took a good 15 years. The fact is, I’m a visual person. I’m a present person. I always have been, and honestly, I still am. But I’ve also trained myself to work uber effectively from anywhere – hotel, car, airport.

I read recently that HR leaders predict remote work may impact the future of work more than AI. [Gasp. Or gulp? Amen?] The trend is surging. Today, more than 60 percent of companies employ remote workers and 90 percent of those remotees intend to keep working remotely for the rest of their career, according to the 2018 State of Remote Work report. Yes, some companies, like Yahoo, Bank of America and IBM, have abandoned remote work and called their employees back to the office. But I won’t be surprised when those policies are reversed yet again. The next generation of employees will demand it.

That said, working remotely requires a different mindset and approach than leading remotely. Drawing from my own experiences successfully managing a multi-national team that is nearly entirely remote, here are my four “rules of engagement.”

Make the phone call. Communication is critical. Period. You wouldn’t think twice about walking into someone’s office or tapping on the corner of their cubicle at 5:30 (or any time). Nor would you hesitate to pick up your desk phone to dial their desk phone and say, “Do you have a minute? I have a question about this… I need that…” Now that we’re connecting more often via cell phones, there’s an apprehension around making the call. Make the call. Don’t be reluctant to reach out to your colleagues. However, if you are calling after hours be respectful that they may already be in personal mode.

When I need someone toward the end of the day or after hours, I send a text message first. I acknowledge the possible personal situations: “You may just be getting home… or I know you might just be settling down for the night… Let me know when you have a minute.” This gives them the option to not answer immediately, to wrap up their workout, to finish dinner with their family, etc.

Trust fully – at first. Trust is huge. You can’t lead a team without it. Always start from 100 percent and give your people – whether they work from home, are in another country or their desk is down the hall – the benefit of the doubt from the beginning. Trust, especially when you don’t have the advantage of building rapport in person over time, shouldn’t be something employees earn; rather, it’s something they lose. But don’t be too quick to take the trust away (in big chunks) either.

Remember, everyone responds to and resonates with things, and people, very differently. Just because someone doesn’t deliver exactly what’s expected the first time doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust that they can’t or won’t get it right with more time, or further or different direction. For example, the folks on your team likely require varied levels of coaching from you: one might be too tactical and another too visionary, while the other is pretty much always right on target. Figure out together the best ways to work with each of your teammates. Flex yourself to accommodate their style. And try to focus on milestones and outcomes, not the day-to-day, minute-by-minute minutia.

Make (face)time for those who don’t sit with you. I won’t lie—I do have closer relationships with those who meet with me in the same room for that hour or so every week. But my connections with remote employees are very strong as well, because we work at it. This requires extra time, and face time specifically. I set up regular 1:1s – via video teleconference with my remote employees so I can see their body language and reactions to me and vice versa. This is key to emotional intelligence and helps me (and them) really understand not only what is being said, but what may not be said. Feelings matter; your eyes and posture will almost always give you away. Also, context is critical, and you don’t always “get it” through email or by phone.

Don’t go into these calls without a plan. Know what you need to cover and align on the agenda in advance. You need them to be prepared and ready to close on necessary actions. If they’re not, then you’re waiting, and sometimes that compromises your trust and confidence. You also need to remember that they’re not walking the same halls as you; they may not know everything you assume they do. Keep them in the loop but keep it short and simple: this is what happened, this is what I know, this is what I need you to know, this is what I need you to do, and these are the outcomes I’m looking for. Being very clear – context, results, expectations – is super important.

Use technology as an enabler. Yes, it’s essential, especially when you’re leading and working with remote employees, but don’t get bogged down by technology and other so-called “productivity tools.” Despite my late start, I’m far from a luddite. In fact, it wasn’t long ago when I would’ve said to you, “Just send me an email.” But sometimes we don’t use technology in the right ways, or we overuse it, and that can become a real problem.

Think about your goals and then make an intentional decision about the best channel to communicate. Take social media for example. I use LinkedIn as a strategic, indirect means to connect with my team. Articles like this one, they’re not solely PR or thought leadership. They’re opportunities for people in my company to gain insight into their vice president. And by the number of folks who let me know they’ve read my post and that it resonated, it’s an approach that works.

Whatever your leadership style and rules of engagement, stay flexible. This is the real key to thriving in the future of work, today and every day. The business world is changing fast, and if you (and your team) aren’t agile enough to roll with it, where you’re working from will be the least of your challenges.

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