Real Leaders

3 Ways to Lead From Home

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Are your employees working from home? Leading remote teams without resorting to nonstop micromanaging takes consideration and care. Try these tips to balance your need to allow employees autonomy without losing your managerial right to check in when needed.

Amid the coronavirus crisis, plenty of people have discovered that telecommuting is harder than they thought. It’s also more stressful for both employees and supervisors, the latter of whom often have to rethink the way they lead.

How big an issue has this become? CNBC’s All-American Economic Survey indicates that 42% more people are working from home since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. With no clear end in sight to social distancing or shelter-in-place regulations, that percentage will likely increase. Unfortunately, working from the couch or the dining room table is hardly without stress.

Working from home stresses everyone, including bosses

According to Arianna Huffington, during a Livestream discussion, remote work is adding to everyone’s anxieties. After the initial newness wears off, the reality of trying to balance a career while juggling the effects of being in your personal living space — possibly with numerous others — sets in. So does a feeling among CEOs and department heads that they’re way out of their managerial comfort zones.

What’s the right management style when you aren’t around your colleagues? How do you foster respectful remote work communication while ensuring that everyone’s jobs get finished accurately and on time? What part does employee autonomy play?

No fast answers exist for any of these pressing questions. If you lead a remote team, however, you do have some options. For instance, if your head is swimming from trying to balance between micromanaging and being hands-off, why not base managerial decisions on the tasks themselves?

Consider this situation: Your administrative assistant is working from home. He’s doing what he’s done a million times before. In this case, he shouldn’t need frequent check-ins. On the other hand, if your brand-new marketing teammate is tackling something she’s never done before, micromanagement could become your best friend — and hers, too.

Giving the nod to effective micromanagement

Micromanagement has become a blasphemous word in American culture, but not all workplace situations thrive under hands-off leadership — especially during the current work-at-home arrangement.

In Andrew Grove’s book “High Output Management,” the author shares the philosophy that you should monitor new processes quite a bit from the get-go to ensure the output aligns with the initial instructions. Just make sure you tell your colleague why you’re so meticulous. While in Germany, I annoyed plenty of German employees who saw my micromanagement of their early-stage project as an indication of disrespect and distrust. My mistake? I failed to give them context for why I felt a little more scrutiny was necessary.

Today’s work-at-home teams deserve to understand their leaders’ choices from a contextual standpoint, just as those German employees did. In Grove’s words, people who have proven “task-relevant maturity” can be given autonomy because they know what they’re doing. Those on the learning curve need more hand-holding, including a heavy dose of asynchronous communications.

What are asynchronous communications? They’re the pings you send on the fly or the quick phone call you make to a co-worker. They’re not meant for formal discussions but to collaborate rapidly in real-time. Because asynchronous touchpoints tend to happen fast, and only when needed, they become essential. When you’re leading a team remotely, you have various collaboration platforms at your fingertips to drive asynchronous dialogue.

The only downside to these moments when everyone’s spread apart is that they tend to vanish quickly. Therefore, if you’re serious about improving your remote work communication, urge team members to document synchronous and asynchronous activities. Doing so helps everyone see what’s happening and keeps the whole group up-to-date. When you’re not in an office setting, preserving team knowledge on a shared calendar or without a communication tool allows everyone access to essential information.

Beyond setting up strategies to keep everyone moving forward and using your micromanager superpowers sparingly, take a few other steps while leading remote teams:

1. Monitor newer initiatives closely during their infancy.

Like a proud parent, check on the status of your team’s just-birthed projects at least once every day or so. You may even want to touch base more often, depending on the nature of the project. Make sure everyone knows you’ll be on them frequently and that it’s not a reflection of their abilities. As the leader, you need to make sure their results fall in line with the project’s original scope — and the expectations of leadership.

2. Ask probing productivity questions during team member check-ins.

Part of your remote work communication should include regular 20- or 30-minute private exchanges with each team member. During the dialogue, ask pointed questions to gauge their productivity levels and needs. You might say, “What things are distracting you now that you’re working from home?” or “How efficient do you feel on a scale of one to 10?” Even if the other person doesn’t respond adequately, he or she will ruminate on the correct responses. Don’t be surprised if your most talented co-workers come to you later for guidance because you took the sting away from them by admitting remote work is tough.

3. Get a sense of how much autonomy your employees believe they have.

Autonomy and micromanagement can be in the eye of the beholder. You might fret that you’re micromanaging a teammate, only to find out later that you came across as perfectly reasonable the whole time. A good survey question to put to your crew is: “Rate your perceived autonomy from one to five, with five being the highest.” If a worker picks the first number because you’ve been so involved in her work, you may need to explain or reiterate the perfectly logical reasons you’ve been Big Brotherish.

Being in charge is complex in a traditional setting, let alone when you’re leading a team remotely. Nonetheless, you can foster a loyal, collaborative, engaged crew if you make a few tweaks to your leadership style and communication.

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