Maybe you’ve heard the wonderfully descriptive term “seagull manager”—this is the kind of leader who flies high above the day-to-day business, only swooping in occasionally to defecate on his or her staff from afar, before being carried away on the next breeze. In my experience as a leadership keynote speaker, I’ve met hundreds of employees who have worked for this kind of manager, receiving only negative feedback from bosses who are wholly unavailable to mentor them into improvement.
If you’re reading this, you’re already demonstrating your desire to avoid these tactics. When you work in a traditional brick-and-mortar office, with all of your employees on-site, you have the ability to deliver feedback and hold important discussions in person. But in an increasingly virtual workplace, with an estimated 50% of employees expected to be working remotely by the year 2020, how do you lead your team without falling back on these unpleasant, seagull-like traits?
Because of my busy leadership keynote speaker schedule, I’m rarely on-site in either of the two offices I maintain, either in the U.S. or the U.K. Here are my top tips for managing compassionately and comprehensively from within the flock—even then you’re flying to far-off places.
Set Expectations + Accountability.
This is important in any professional setting, but it’s absolutely critical in remote office environments. Start by establishing the basics, like the hours they’ll be expected to work, and the communication channels on which you’d like them to be available during those hours. Many of these things can be assumed in traditional 9-5 offices, but particularly if your employees are in a different time zone, you’ll want to be crystal clear about your expectations.
While specific goals and the granularity of your involvement will vary by employee and level of experience, ALL remote staff members should work with you to set clear milestones and lines of accountability—with monthly, quarterly and yearly performance goals. This is also a great time to set up regular progress check-ins at an agreed-upon frequency, via the channel that works best for both parties.
Maintain Clear Communications.
I talk a lot about the magic of delegation on the leadership keynote speaker circuit; it’s never my intention to create a “helicopter boss” environment, and my goal is always to foster independence in team members of all levels. But I can’t stress enough the importance of regular communication with remote employees.
Not only will this keep you abreast of any developments that need your attention—it will also help you maintain a virtual “open door” policy, in which your employees feel comfortable asking questions and seeking mentorship from you. Casual communications like instant messages and emails should be informal and unscheduled; pre-arranged check-ins should happen on a regular cadence, with a proper agenda.
Let Technology Bring You Closer.
Speaking of communication, I read a fascinating article in Psychology Today that’s worth discussing in light of our increasing reliance on email and text messaging. UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian broke down the various ways in which human beings are wired to express ourselves to one another. He claims that 58% of communication is through body language; 35% is via vocal tone, pitch and emphasis—and a mere 7% is through the actual content of the message.
For remote managers, it should go without saying that 7% is an alarmingly low figure on which to hang ALL your company communications. While email (or one of its more modern messaging cousins, like Slack) is probably the most expedient channel for day-to-day housekeeping issues, you’d be wise to consider video conferencing and screen sharing for team meetings.
Meet in Person Whenever Possible.
It’s the nature of the modern workforce that “virtual” might not just mean “working from home,” but “working from almost anywhere in the world.” That’s great news for you, and for people like me who travel the world on the leadership keynote speaker circuit; a recent study found that 98% of virtual employees said that “work anywhere” policies had a dramatic positive impact on their productivity.
But as a leader, you surely understand that productivity is only one part of the overall picture. A healthy business with a thriving corporate culture simply cannot exist in the vacuum created by a remote collective; there MUST be occasional some face-to-face interaction.
While your team (or individual team members, if only some are remote) will obviously miss out on the natural “water cooler” camaraderie that occurs in traditional offices, you can still create some version of in-person culture with regular company outings or even a larger annual retreat. Not only will it be beneficial for the entire team to come together in the service of common goals—it’s also nice for your employees to get to know one another socially, if there aren’t many regular opportunities for them to do that.
Not all “Reply All” Messages Are Created Equal.
The “reply all” function has got a bit of a bad rap over the years, and with good reason; we’ve all made the occasional faux pas this way, or been the unwitting victim of a time-consuming flurry of messages that don’t pertain to us. But in a remote office setting, it’s the quickest way I know to deliver public praise for a job well done.
Think about it this way: If your entire team was in one room together, everyone would hear you deliver praise—whether to one person or the whole group. But in the isolation of a single email message or 1:1 phone call, you’re preaching to a party of one. That’s why I’m especially fond of sharing my praise with the whole team; it feels good to the person being praised, and helps set goals for everyone else.
Can a Remote Workplace Work for You?
I’ve been mostly remote for the past 10 years as a leadership keynote speaker, but it’s literally my job to be on the road. Can the virtual office also work for leaders in other sectors that require them to have a heavier hand in the day-to-day operations of the company? The answer, increasingly, is a resounding YES.
Joe Cowan, who leads a fast-paced 4,000-person software enterprise in Atlanta from his home office in Austin, relies on both technology and face-to-face meetings to keep his company cohesive—a strategy he believes will ultimately cultivate better client relationships as well.
“My folks who are working remotely really learn how to make distance working relationships work,” says Cowan. “And that helps when it comes to cultivating relationships with our customers. Most B2B (Business to Business) relationships are distance ones. And because that’s often how we operate as a business, we know how to build and foster those relationships—with our employees and customers.”
Keep these tips in mind when you’re on the wing (and when you return to the nest) for a happier and healthier flock.