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Leaders: how to stimulate high performance when your people can’t see you


Hilary Kennedy is an International practitioner for Investors in People International. She specialises in planning and evaluating the delivery of IIP assessment across a region of 75 countries.

From global multinationals to local start-ups, leading remote teams can be one of a leader’s biggest challenges. But leaders who understand the skills and practices that create a successful remote team will see their people’s and their business’s performance surge ahead of the competition.

Leading a remote workforce can mean anything from running a multi-sited company that operates in different countries, time zones and languages to heading an SME that employs people who take advantage of the new laws on flexible working.  

At least 40% of the most innovative small UK companies employ remote teams on either a full- or part-time basis, according to a survey by 4th Office in 2014. What’s more, 39% of company leaders cite remote leadership as their biggest challenge.  

If you're a leader, you'll already understand the challenges remote leadership presents. But you'll also know that a flexible or remote workforce is a requirement for any progressive company. To attract and retain valuable employees, you have to offer a way of working that’s designed around your people's needs [link to IIP/resources/how-to/your-peoples-needs]. This forms part of your practice as a good leader.

When people in your team work in different countries, in a mobile capacity or from home, traditional leadership skills still matter. But it's also vital to embrace more specific practices to ensure a happy and productive remote workforce. Here are some key ideas to help you meet the challenges of remote leadership.

 

Walk the talk  

Leading by example sounds like a cliché. But it's a necessity. It's up to you to demonstrate how your company's policies are put into practice on a daily basis.  

If you think of yourself as a figurehead, your role is to embody the values of your company in a way that crosses the boundaries of location, language and culture. People are motivated by everything from body language and energy, to the tone of the people at the top. Leadership is personal and behavioural. So if you’re not sharing the same physical space as your team, how can these traits still be apparent? Consider the tone of voice you use in your emails and communications – is your language overly formal or energetic and encouraging, for example? 

A lot comes down to authenticity. A genuine understanding and belief in what you and your company stand for must underpin your big decisions. The common vision will only exist if you can see it for yourself and show it to others.

 

Be transparent, be visible

If you want to be authentic, you have to be completely open. Transparency not only allows your team to see your processes and understand how you achieve your successes, it also gives them an insight into your shortcomings. And to gain trust – to build those all-important team bonds – you have to demonstrate your ability to learn and adapt .

Investors in People’s 2014 Leadership Survey highlighted some key statistics about how people’s relationships with their bosses impacted their motivation and overall feelings about work:

• 53% of people said that having a good relationship with their boss makes them happier.

• 75% of people say they discuss their boss’s management style with colleagues.

• 34% of people said the quality they admired most in their boss was ‘trusting me to do the job’.

• Another 34% of people said the quality they admired most in their boss was ‘they’re approachable’. 

To achieve transparency you must remain visible. This means accepting that although the body of your work with others may be carried out remotely, nothing replaces the 'in the room' relationship. If you want to be a successful leader you should meet with your people in person as much as you can.

I work with an Investors in People accredited worldwide Duty Free organisation with a CEO who physically visits each hub on a rota basis, so that in the course of a year he will be present in every work place. This hands-on approach takes stamina, commitment and rigid scheduling, but it pays rich dividends.  

 

Make the most of the latest communications technology

Although it's essential to find time to meet in person, most of your communication will realistically have to take place from afar. This is where technology is invaluable. Think creatively and invest in using technology to minimise the physical strain of meetings and maximise the flow of communication. And it's crucial to know the best tool for the job…  

Emails are low on the list of the best ways to communicate when dealing with groups. A step closer to meeting in person is to have a real-time connection in the form of a virtual workspace or live webinar. People can contribute, develop and share ideas, all in one place.

But don't overlook some of the older technologies. For example, video conferencing can be less effective than the traditional phone conference, mainly because unclear images and breaks in video feed can be disruptive.  

Coherent and cohesive communication is a must. And when you speak to people in different time zones it's important to prioritise their needs. Change your timing to suit your workers, especially if a late night call for you will enable more of your team to join the conference during their own working days. Also think about the most appropriate form of technology for the nature of your discussion and desired outputs – will you be screensharing to view/ collaborate on a document together? Or is it more important to see people’s faces? How much needs to be recorded/ written down? 

 

Create positive opportunities

The best leaders are connected with their remote workforce. They understand that communication is a two-way process. And the only way to communicate with your people is to give your team a voice.  

Feedback is the bedrock of investment in your team. But this doesn’t have to be a negative process – although you should encourage constructive criticism from your people, feedback is also a forum for positive opportunities.

For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers Ltd (PwC) – Cyprus, an IIP organisation that achieved Champion status in 2013, introduced 'questions for the CEO'. This was a fundamental part of their approach to the IIP Standard as it invigorated the feedback cycle. "It is extremely important for our people to understand how their individual goals and contribution affect the organisation's strategic goals and business results," says Philippos C. Soseilos, Head of Human Capital. "The introduction of additional forums of communication has been the driver in strengthening this link even further.” 

This kind of leadership practice is time-consuming and can be stressful. But if we return to the idea of setting an example, a leader who brings positive energy and motivation to a team will encourage workers to take on the can-do attitude for themselves. 

Remote workforces are on the rise. And so is a new generation of progressive leaders with the motivation and stamina to succeed in their vision of building the best remote teams.  
 

Find out more about how you can put these ideas into practice with IIP – An introduction for leaders.