Since the beginning of 2020, there have been several seismic shifts in how and where people work. The pandemic generated a need for many offices to close, and huge numbers of employees started to work from home. With little time for planning and organization, the majority of employees soon became remote workers. Surprisingly, in many organizations, productivity increased, and engagement went up. I found that satisfaction with leaders also improved significantly. Zenger Folkman’s data from assessments comparing results on 109,419 leaders before the pandemic to 3,835 leaders in the pandemic revealed 360-degree evaluations of leaders improved (e.g., pre-pandemic 50.34, pandemic 55.01), and engagement of direct reports also increased (e.g., pre-pandemic 50.39, pandemic 53.06).
Does Managing Remote Employees Require Different Skills?
Looking at the data, my colleague Jack Zenger and I wanted to understand what skills were more important for leaders to successfully manage employees working remotely? To answer this question, we examined leaders before the pandemic started comparing those in the bottom quartile based on their overall leadership effectiveness to those in the top quartile. We then rank-ordered 60 behaviors based on the behavior that differentiated the most to the least. While all 60 behaviors showed a statistically significant difference, we were interested in the behaviors that had the most impact. We did the same study for the 3,422 leaders in the pandemic. We then looked for the behaviors that moved up the ranking and increased their importance in the pandemic. We discovered a significant shift in 12 individual behaviors that clustered into 9 capabilities and identified the skills that were more important in managing remote employees.
- Trust. When people work remotely, leaders can’t see if their team members are working hard or watching soap operas. When there is low trust between a remote employee and their manager, managers often start micromanaging direct reports and constantly checking on them. Micromanaged employees spend extra time and effort proving their value rather than doing their job the way it should be done. The frequency and quality of direct contacts between leaders and their employees needed to increase as employees moved to remote work. When everyone was in the office, people would just bump into each other in the hall, and many leaders would engage in MBWA (Management by Walking Around). But as employees moved to remote work, contact between leaders and employees decreased significantly. To succeed in remote work, leaders must be more intentional about making contact, checking in, and ensuring that the employee is happy and healthy.
- Be knowledgeable about all aspects of the job. When working in an office situation, leaders could rely on the knowledge and support of colleagues. That is much more difficult when employees and leaders are working remotely. When a leader has to stop a project to search for answers to basic questions, work slows down, and productivity decreases. Having knowledgeable leaders with a broad set of skills is key to keeping productivity high and employees engaged
- Anticipate and resolve problems quickly. Problems are more difficult for leaders to understand and appreciate when they occur outside their field of vision. Some leaders ignore or minimize direct reports problems, causing increased stress and inevitably reducing productivity. A critical skill leaders need to be effective with remote employees is the ability to anticipate problems before they occur. Leaders who do this well avoid significant minefields.
- Customer empathy. The pandemic increased the distance between employees and their customers. When employees work remotely, communication with customers is different and often more difficult. It is often hard for employees to clearly understand the difficulties customers are facing and accommodate their new realities. Leaders who took the time and made the effort to really understand customers’ needs and unique circumstances were viewed as valuable resources to their organization.
- Cultivate better collaboration and cooperation. Distance makes collaboration and cooperation more difficult and less frequent. Leaders who preferred to be more independent often created significant difficulties for themselves and their direct reports. Coordinating efforts and increasing collaboration between individuals and groups is often a key to increasing productivity and profitability.
- Honesty and integrity. As people work remotely, there is an increased expectation that their leaders will be more candid and share important information about the state of the business and difficult issues that the organization may encounter. Having employees working remotely makes it easy to hide information about the state of the business or significant problems. Remote employees rated leaders who were candid and open with them much more positively, even when the news was negative. Also, leaders who were role models in behaving the way they wanted their employees to behave were rated much more positively.
- External focus. Leaders with remote employees are expected to be more aware of external issues that may negatively impact the business and employee wellbeing.
- Improved communication. The assumption that the same level and cadence of communication utilized in an office situation is sufficient for remote workers is absurd. Communications need to be better, faster, and more regular as people work remotely.
- Make decisions and move forward. The beginning of the pandemic required that a lot of critical decisions be made quickly. As the pandemic continued, remote workers still needed their leaders to make decisions quickly to avoid leaving them in limbo. One of the negative side effects of poor decision-making is reflected in the great resignation of 2021. A huge percentage of people in some organizations quit their jobs looking for a better place to work, while in other organizations, employee engagement has never been higher. Having leaders who quickly make good decisions is a key factor influencing employee engagement.
In a recent survey with one of our clients, we asked employees their preference for working remotely or returning to the office. Only 7% of the employees wanted to return to the office. We also found that engagement in that organization had improved significantly as they moved to remote work.
Remote work is here to stay, and the good news is that most organizations have found ways to make remote work successful. But, for engagement and productivity to remain high, leaders need to up their game in several critical areas. We have found that leaders who have the opportunity to assess their effectiveness utilizing 360-degree assessments while working with remote employees were able to identify their current level of effectiveness and identify opportunities for improvement. The leaders who were rated the lowest did not realize the need to change the way they were working with their team members.
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