Do you have what it takes to be a leader with remote staff?

Today’s businesses leaders have the unavoidable challenge of flexible to contend with, writes Nigel Davies, founder and CEO of Claromentis

Do you have what it takes to be a leader with remote staff?

By 2022 remote workers will make up 42.5% of the global workforce, predicts the Global Mobile Workforce Forecast. That’s a staggering 1.87 billion people who cannot be managed in traditional ways.

One cannot hover over the desk of a virtual employee to make sense of a spreadsheet or dissect a presentation and you cannot meet for an informal catch up with someone who’s simply not there. Micromanaging, thankfully for staff on the receiving end of it, isn’t an option, but neither can leaders extricate themselves from their duty to their teams.

The successful leadership of an increasingly fragmented workforce rests heavily on how well leaders can adapt and find new ways of being useful, effective and present from afar. 

Part of the problem is historic models of leadership reinforce the idea that one person – or a handful of senior people – makes a business great. In reality, today’s best leaders are those who enable their staff to produce their best work. They are champions and enablers of more agile working practices, and of empowered teams that organise themselves.

Why leaders must embrace remote working

It’s becoming increasingly hard to argue the case against remote working, given the studies and data finding in its favour. In one survey by Polycom of 25,234 workers in 12 countries, 98% of respondents felt remote working had a positive impact on productivity. 

Another study in the US found companies offering remote working reported 63% fewer unscheduled absences. And separate research by CIPD in 2016 found absenteeism costs the average UK business £522 per employee each year.

Lifestyles are changing. The cost of childcare in the UK is a postcode lottery but it’s usually somewhere between expensive and extortionate. And, as someone whose city is served by Southern Rail, I believe I am well within my rights to say that commutes are growing as unaffordable as they are notoriously unreliable. 

Meanwhile, urban property prices – or perhaps it’s remote working – are believed to be the reason the average age of people relocating from cities to the countryside has fallen below 40-years-old for the first time ever, as 30-somethings abandon cities to chase cheaper housing stock and a better quality of life. 

Remote working solves many of these issues: more time at home means less money apportioned to nurseries and childminders and more time spent with family, rather than paying through the nose for the twice-daily experience of a rush-hour commute. And – broadband dependent – one could reasonably live anywhere. 

In short, leaders who advocate and enable remote working are conveying a message to their workers that is: “I care about you and I want you and your family to live your best life.”

How to lead a remote workforce

There are caveats to the success of remote working, the first being technology. Your internal software has to do all the things a team working side by side from the office would be able to do, from letting multiple users work on the same project at the same time and track all versions and changes, to replicating your company culture. 

The Institute of Leadership and Management surveyed 1,008 people and held 41 in-depth interviews with members of dispersed teams across a range of sectors, including local government, ICT, construction, manufacturing and financial services. They found the potential for remote teams to increase efficiency and wellbeing is all too often impeded, with 88% of remote workers struggling with inconsistent working practices and miscommunication, and 83% feeling overwhelmed by emails.

A good digital workplace is one place, in which to do everything, and access all the apps and files your workforce could ever need. In it, teams collaborate, leaders lead, colleagues talk, people are trained, files are accessed, projects evolve, decisions are made, annual leave is booked, career progress is monitored, social events are planned, and culture lives and thrives. 

Leaders can use tools in the digital workplace to stay present by, for example, participating in discussions within internal social media feeds, creating content and sharing internal communications, and overseeing group projects where required.

The second caveat to the success of remote working is choice. Even with the best technology set up, remote working can be lonely and isolating, which is why many people want to be able to come into the office regularly. 

Rather than specifying that everyone must be in the office on, for instance, a Thursday or twice a week, we’ve found that trusting employees to figure out the best routine for maximum productivity – remember, everyone is different – is the best way to approach it. And the message it conveys, that you trust your employees, is a healthy one.

To rally troops you may only see face to face a few times a month, leaders must be prepared to embrace remote working, embrace technology and trust their people. Only when all three are in place can companies reap the benefits of remote working. 

Nigel Davies
Nigel Davies

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