Leading From a Distance: The Benefits and Challenges of Remote Work
Hate it or love it, it’s clear that remote work is here to stay. As of this year, 12.7% of full-time employees work from home, while 28.2% work a hybrid model. And you can expect flexible work models to become the new normal: A study by freelancing platform Upwork estimates that 32.6 million Americans will be working remotely by 2025. That’s almost a quarter of the workforce!
So how do we lead teams from a distance? And how do we do it well? There’s no one answer to this question — believe me, if I had it, I’d be a billionaire. But here’s what I can tell you: by embracing its benefits and addressing its challenges, we can make remote work work for everyone.
Benefits of Remote Work
At this stage in the game, it’s easy to see the benefits of a remote work system.
Improved work/life balance: Remote work offers a better work/life balance and protects against burnout. By facilitating a better work/life balance for your employees, you’re supporting the whole person rather than just the employee.
Increasing productivity/engagement: Stress and burnout is proven to be toxic for people’s mental and physical health. Because remote work reduces both of these, it also facilitates an improvement in productivity and engagement levels. In short, people are more likely to bring their best self to the job when they’re feeling rested and relaxed.
Access to new labor pools: Competitively offering remote positions grants employers access to huge new labor pools, helping them attract different talent that they never would have been able to target before.
Show employees you value them: When you offer any kind of flexibility, you demonstrate that you value your employees not just as productivity machines or “a resource,” but as people.
Challenges of Remote Work
When it comes to leading from a distance, however, there are two main challenges leadership teams face: culture & productivity.
In a remote environment, your work culture is more likely to struggle. Behavioral psychology data actually shows decreased brain activity for virtual interactions, which translates to less engagement, less team collaboration, and less personal connection.
And despite the potential increase in productivity brought on by a better work/life balance, remote work can actually hurt productivity depending on the type of role. For example, If you have a role where accountability and productivity are regularly measured and there are clearly defined expectations, remote work usually won’t affect productivity levels. But, if a role is opaque with subjective expectations — i.e., there’s no deliverable, there’s no throughput, there’s not a time tracking element — that’s when some leaders report seeing a dip in productivity.
4 Strategies To Overcome the Challenges of Remote Work
Some examples of types of roles that might struggle with remote work include administrative roles, support roles, or any type of roles that wear multiple hats or aren’t defined by a specific deliverable or time tracking element.
However, that doesn’t mean these roles can’t be included in a successful remote work plan. To overcome the challenges of remote work, there are a few key strategies you can target:
Get invested: Invest time, energy, and resources into connecting with your people. That doesn’t just mean a virtual happy hour once a week — it means being intentional about figuring out what kind of connection is needed, even if that means flying out your team to meet in person.
Connect creatively: Don’t just go for the low-hanging fruit (e.g., virtual happy hour once a month). Ask yourself, what forms of connection are a good fit for your culture? Are you a serious, utilitarian culture? Something that’s wacky and zany is going to go over like a lead balloon. Do you have an irreverent, edgy culture? Then you better have something that speaks to that as well.
Set a remote work plan: Establish expectations for your remote work environment. This includes the rules of the game, the dress code, etc. Is it OK to have cats on the table during check-ins? Are pajamas acceptable team meeting attire? What about client meetings? Set those expectations early (just try to keep your list of “rules” short and sweet.)
Maintain accountability: Accountability is not a bad word. Establish a regular cadence of meetings with your team, and prioritize support as well as the inspection of productivity during these meetings. Follow a regular agenda and meet at a regular time so your employees know what to expect and plan for.
In my opinion, there’s no substitute for connecting with somebody in person — for breaking bread, looking in somebody’s eye, and sharing an event or experience together. It’s invaluable to our experience as human beings.
But as technology continues to charge forward, our ability to adapt to remote environments is critical to the present and future success of our organizations. From my observations, I think employers are at a significant competitive disadvantage if they don’t offer some kind of flexibility. I’ve seen a hybrid model work well for many of my clients.
But if your remote culture lacks intentionality and connection, then you run the risk of being treated like just another commodity — your employee can more easily get up and leave for another company (or vice versa). So prioritize making those valuable connections with your people and show yourself proficient in adapting to change in a remote circumstance. Do this, and it won’t be the distance that defines your leadership, but the depth of your connection with your team.
Need Guidance on Leading From a Distance?
As competition for talent grows more fierce, having a flexible remote work plan is more important than ever if you want to attract the best people to your team.
If you’re interested in improving your strategies for leading from a distance, give us a call or send us an email to set up a free consultation. We can have a deeper conversation about your company culture, determine if your remote work plan needs some adjusting, or help you overcome your current challenges.