How different is leading remotely?

Mar 10 2020 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

In case you hadnít noticed, there may well be a pretty compelling reason for even the most office-bound organisations to start insisting their people work from home in the near future. And since the Coronavirus knows no boundaries, pretty much everyone needs to start to ponder how things are going to work if their team canít be in the same physical location.

But letís forget the mechanics of this for a moment and ask a more fundamental question. Is leading a remote team really that different from leading a team where everyone's in the same room? The answer depends on where you put the emphasis in that question. Is it different, or is it really different?

In my work with clients around the world, I've come to believe that what you're looking at are degrees of difference, rather than orders of difference.

Here's what I mean. A degree of difference means that things need to be done differently; faster, smarter, and perhaps using different tools than we're used to. An order of change means that this is a completely different animal and we require a radical new solution.

A simple example, might serve. If you travel a lot, your clunky old car might need to be replaced by a newer, safer and more dependable ride. Getting a new car is a degree (in the case of the piece of junk I drive a major degree) better than what you have. On the other hand, if you travel really long distances, and need to be functional when you arrive, maybe it's time to think about getting on an airplane. That's an ORDER of difference.

Degrees of difference mean you're doing the same thing over all, but doing it differently. An order of difference means that you need to do something completely different in order to achieve your goals.

Of course there are differences between the way you interact with remote coworkers and how you work with people whose desk you can hover over or share a pizza with. Some of the most important are things like:

  • Not being in physical proximity makes it hard to communicate informally
  • What communication you do have is mediated by technology. There isn't a lot of technical skill required to share a doughnut. Running a webmeeting is (slightly) more complicated.
  • Even if you work like crazy to maintain good relationships with each of your coworkers and team members, it's often tricky to get them to communicate with each other like they do when everyone shares a space on the cube farm.
  • You can't know what everyone's doing at a given moment. The level of trust required is much higher in a virtual environment than in a traditional workplace.

But there are even more similarities than differences for good leaders:

  • If you have a coherent, compelling vision, people will work towards those common goals
  • If you have trust and truly open communication you won't be stressed when people aren't in your line of sight
  • Communication is absolutely necessary, and communication is a complicated 2-way process, not just a stream of emails
  • Team relationships must be nurtured and maintained, and working with other human beings isn't easy whether you're co-located or separated by oceans
  • People are accountable for their work whether you're hovering over them or not.

As Genghis Khan, Queen Victoria and countless others including you have proven over the centuries, the job of leading people to success is possible, even against rough odds and intimidating distances. Yes, you need to have higher levels of trust. Technology is a complicating factor (if it's seen as a barrier) or a solution to a problem (if used appropriately and well). No doubt, it's somewhat different.

The work we've done over the years in our training and writing, though, leads me to the conclusion that these are degrees of difference, not orders of difference.

Good leaders will overcome the barriers and be successful. Good teams communicate, share information and pull together to reach their goals. Poor, lazy, or unskilled leaders and team members will use the differences as excuses for poor results.

What changes do you and your team need to make in how you communicate and work in order to be successful? Do you need to use new tools, put better systems in place and tweak the way you work ?

My guess is you're facing a degree of change, rather than an order of change. Examine your approach, your goals and the tools you are using. Odds are, you need to do something differently. That's natural. But it's not like you're doing something radically different.

I hope you feel a little better about the challenge ahead of you. Now, how will you tackle those degrees of difference? Just asking.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.