Leading Remotely: 8 Factors You Should Consider

Leading remotely has just, in the space of a few months, become the most applicable leadership discussions of our times. Keeping employees involved and engaged during this time of remote work and social distance is a substantial challenge.

I recently read an excellent article written by Jawad Syed in which he explains how leaders can ensure the involvement of their employees.

This is more relevant than ever in light of the current crisis. In fact, it suggests a number of ways to address the whole issue of employee engagement.  

Should you wish to read the full article, See it here:

COVID-19 Impact on Leadership

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the leadership of the South Africa and the world under immense pressure. All of a sudden, the whole world has to figure out leading remotely. We read about how these challenges are being dealt with every day on social media and in the traditional press. What we hear less about is the pressure our business leaders are currently under.

But you know this already.  Not only do leaders have to ensure that their organisation complies with the Government regulations (which are constantly shifting goalposts). They also have to ensure that the working environment is safe for employees; and they also have to find a way to survive the economic pressures that has been brought by the lockdown.

And then of course there is the issue of taking their people along with them. Bearing in mind that employees are all under pressure with lockdown. Home schooling, confinement for work purposes for some, working from home, all without their usual outlets. On top of this, you have to ensure that all employees practice social distancing, sanitise and wear masks.

The question is; how do you stay in business as well as do all of this to keep employees engaged? How do you keep your people motivated to perform at the highest level needed for your business to survive and hopefully to thrive again?

Employee Engagement and Care & Growth

Employee engagement is the key to business success during all times and that is why many of you have adopted Care & Growth as your leadership framework and philosophy.  However, if you really think about it, never has employee engagement been as important as it is now.

Based on research that has been done, here are some excellent ideas that can enable and sustain employee engagement.  These have been adapted below as a checklist for you.

1. Communicating effectively

This is a very important enabler for employees in general; and forms part of providing the Means to your employees to do their work. This is the first thing to consider when leading remotely. Because communication is so much more critical during this crisis.  It is your job as a leader to keep everyone informed and updated on all developments. This includes updates on decisions you are making and how you are responding to the ever-changing situation.

As you know, there is the risk of gossip taking over in the absence of credible information from leadership.  This means using (or creating if necessary) effective channels for the flow of information and clear direction for employees.  You may already have suitable structures and channels to foster two-way communication.  If you do not, these need to be set up so employees feel that they have a voice.  The traditional “town hall” meetings of senior leadership with an entire department or workforce can easily be organised virtually.

Any other parallel communication structures, through elected safety or union structures, are a bonus and can be a way to reinforce your own messages.  These structures should never be seen as the solution to your communication challenges though. This would be failing in your duty as a leader.

Communication topics can include

  • Company policies, existing or revised, for health coverage, employee assistance programs and working from home
  • Current statistics and action taken, recoveries statistics and also, sadly, the loss of lives
  • Projections and how these may be affected by each employees action. How you are relying on them to be accountable for their own actions
  • Special arrangements made to accommodate customers and other stakeholders and their changing needs. Even for employees not dealing with these people directly.

The CEO of a small but successful manufacturing organisation I work with does a “Roundup” every Friday afternoon online. These meetings enjoy almost 100% attendance.  Employees share powerful stories. Some of them have had a great week and there are others who have experienced challenges.  They solicit and debate possible help and solutions with senior leadership at the Helm, accessible and supportive throughout.

2. Using technology

It has always been desirable for organisations to continually invest in their information and communication technology. But these are budgets that are often trimmed at budget review time; particularly if the head of IT is not very convincing.

If this is your business, you will be sitting with outdated laptops; obsolete systems that don’t talk to each other; and/or  poor internet/ wifi connectivity.  This inhibits your employees from making the best contribution they can. It will also impact on how employees engage with one another and other stakeholders.

During this time, leaders also need to consider home office setups; along with providing fast internet connections for employees who are working remotely.  Now, in this time of leading remotely, you really need to listen to your IT manager.

3. Building trust remotely

When the only connection you have with employees is via the telephone or computer, trust is another key factor for employee engagement when leading remotely.

In fact, the MD of a large manufacturing business said he was amazed at what his people are coming up with while working remotely.  “It makes me wonder how much we leaders have been micromanaging because of our own insecurity”.  He has told his team to step out of the way and allow employees the space to perform.

This is not easy to do, especially in the absence of direct access to their outputs. So those leaders who previously took their comfort from continuously monitoring employees have to be more trusting.  This about trying to respect the reason you employed these people in the first place.

Of course, if there is someone who abuses your trust, that is a conversation about Accountability. But, there is no need to penalise the whole team because you are suspicious of one or two people who may take advantage of the situation.

4. Showing empathy and support whilst leading remotely

Some schools are opening up and so will day-care centres in time. But until we are back at full capacity, employees with caring responsibilities not only have to work from home; but they also have to drive their children’s education; do the shopping; cook the food ;and clean, their homes.

Leaders have the opportunity here to show the Care that is expected. To be more understanding and accommodating of employees home circumstances when agreeing tasks and timelines.

There may be a way to work with employees leave allocation or provide time off during the week.  And of course, sensitivity to gender differences and individual circumstances means some employees are more likely to be struggling with managing domestic duties alongside job requirements. Take this into account in agreeing tasks and timelines.

Leaders need to establish what the company can offer in the form of online therapy; team and individual coaching; and counselling for employees who are experiencing anxiety and uncertainty. And then make sure employees know this is available to them.

To do this successfully, leaders need to know who needs this attention and for what reason. This is the time to stay close to your people so that you can provide the kind of support that they need.  Weekly online check-ins that do not have to do with work and deadlines are a must.

5. Encouraging visibility

One of the ringing themes from people is that lockdown has resulted in feelings of isolation and loneliness. We have virtual meetings and interactive tools that can help address this issue. Where possible, employees should be encouraged to keep their webcam on during online meetings. Not just so that the interactions can bring life and colour to meetings, but also to keep us on our toes.

One colleague made the decision after a month of “wallowing in lockdown anonymity” to set her alarm; as she did prior to lockdown and to actually get dressed for work.  Now that winter is here, she allows herself to wear her slippers to meetings!

6. Growing employees whilst leading remotely

Many of us do not have the option to work from home and this is an opportunity to focus on developing Ability.  While the Growth of people is the leaders work; now is the time to structure these conversations with employees to encourage them use this time to develop themselves. Not only for their current roles but to enable them make the step up in future roles. If you have been diligent about future career discussions, this will be a simple extension of the conversation.

Many universities and other training providers are offering online courses on a variety of topics at a minimal cost or free of charge.  By making use of these opportunities, employees will come out of this crisis feeling better about their own prospects. And, the fact that they are gainfully occupied with their own development is also psychologically good for them.

What should not be underestimated is the challenge faced by employees who have not been wholly exposed to the digital era. They may be experience insecurity at the prospects of managing virtually.  Spend time on getting them up to speed so that they can secure their futures with a deeper understanding of the digital age.

7. Building your community remotely

This can be done through an intelligent use of technology such as dedicated web pages on intranet or private groups on social media.  Use these to highlight achievements, communicate important company information, celebrate employees’ birthdays, wedding anniversaries, work anniversaries and to share company memories and anniversaries.

Employees can even share their own creativity at home as healthy cooking, pictures of a finished puzzles or games of Scrabble.  They can start their own fitness and well-being challenges, or a gardening competition.  Anything that encourages a healthy lifestyle and a feeling of belonging is worthwhile exploring.

We talk about the importance of honouring our diversity, so does this cease because of lockdown?  Our religious and cultural traditions, rituals and festivals are as important now, if not more so.  Just because we are not sharing an office, we can find a creative and virtual method of celebrating our cultures by dressing in our traditional outfits on Human Rights Day and sharing Valentine’s chocolates, Easter eggs and Diwali treats.

8. Dividing office and family time

A clear boundary between office and family can become an issue when leading remotely. Both for you as the leader, and for those you are leading. All of us have been guilty of staying close to our smartphones 24/7 and some of us are known to check and respond to messages within a matter of minutes. We may even be proud of our prompt attention to important matters but to do this consistently is not healthy and may lead to burnout.

A caring organisation will make it a matter of policy that this is not expected and that even though employees are working from home, work-related communication is restricted to normal working hours.  Of course there will be exceptions and leaders need to apologise when breaking the boundary of office hours out of respect for their employee’s well-being and to re-inforce the rule.

Another factor for an international organisation to consider and respect is their different time zones. It will be impossible to accommodate all employees in their time zones and so meetings may be scheduled within working hours for some but these times must be kept as convenient as possible for other employees.a

If you want to read more on Care & Growth leadership, find the book here.


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