In a few years, a management coach doing a training session will probably describe the year 2020 as the inflection point for remote management. Several managers, who were used to have their team members around them every single day, have faced a real challenge in 2020. Maybe not so much those, who always focused on true leadership and created an environment of empowerment and trust. But it was a hard lesson definitely for those type of managers, whose management style is mainly characterized by lack of confidence and the infinite urge to micro-manage and micro-control. Suddenly they are no longer able to check every day, when the employees come to work, when they leave, how often they chat privately and whether the actual project is on track or not. Sounds exaggerated? Believe me, I have seen these managers a lot in the past 30 years, over and over again.
My own experience
I actually never had the chance to really closely manage, not to even mention micro-manage any team, because already my first small team of just three people was distributed among three European cities. So I needed to get used to remote management from the very beginning in my career. From then onwards, I basically only managed teams distributed around the globe. Actually, that is not 100% true. When I did a small excursion into the hotel business during my “multi-year sabbatical” in Brazil, I actually had my team around me the whole day. And I also needed to practice real micro-management sometimes. But this is a very different story, which is described in much more detail in my book “Jenseits von Samba und Karneval”.
Difficult also for the employee
I am pretty much convinced that remote management is often more difficult to handle for the remotely managed employee than for the manager. Many remote employees, especially when joining a new company or still being young and unexperienced in general, would like to see closer guidance from their managers. Especially when times get a bit tough and rough, a lot of people prefer the more personal face-to-face conversation. I need to agree that a small video window on your screen with sometimes even very low picture quality does not really substitute the personal discussion in an office or a meeting room. But what can you do in a global business world? I am not talking here about the extreme situation we face since March 2020. I am talking about the simple and normal fact that your team is spread across five continents and twenty time zones.
Remote management always existed
Remote management always existed, especially in companies with international sales organizations. But for example also software development teams, which several years back were typically organized centrally at the company’s headquarters, are today very often distributed across the globe to take advantage of talent (and cost) in other parts of the world. More and more of these people also work from home and not in an office environment. What some people today like to call the “new normal”, was always normal work life for a lot of others. At WebSummit 2020, which was held virtually last year, Job van der Voort, CEO of Remote.com, talked about how so-called “distributed companies” without any offices might become the standard in the future. This is probably not realistic for all types of industries, but definitely not a weird idea at all, especially after the experience of 2020.
So, as stated in the headline, what’s new then about remote management? Nothing! At least for those who have practiced that for years already. If you want to lead your remote team effectively, simply use technology. People often refer today to the personal chats in the hallway or at the coffee machine. Or the quick discussion after somebody came by your desk, asking “do you have five minutes?”. All this was never possible for those employees who sit 5000 miles or more away from each other. But there are simple solutions available like the chat function in tools like Microsoft Teams. Just allow your team to ping you there and ask the same question: “Do you have five minutes?”. And if your team is spread around the globe, just block an hour early in the morning for your Asian colleagues and another hour later in the afternoon for those from the American continent. When you talk to each other, switch on your camera on both ends, so that you can build some kind of a personal connection. You should be able to see your facial expressions and more importantly also confirm whether the other side is really paying attention and not reading emails while you speak. Unfortunately the latter happens a lot.
I already mentioned lack of confidence, micro-controlling and micro-managing. These are the strongest enemies of remote management. The foundation to successfully lead and manage a remote team is simply trust. I repeat: trust! But it is not as simple as it sounds. Hiring somebody in a remote location, whom you do not know and who is new to the company culture, is always risky. I very much trust my gut feeling during an interview, but you also need a very sophisticated multi-stage interviewing process with several people involved to provide you with the maximum confidence that you hire the right person. If this process is then followed by a thorough onboarding program, there is a good chance that your new remote team member might survive the probation period.
Use the colleague of your trust
But real trust only grows over time, and if you want to seriously expand your business into other countries and continents, there is a very simple but also very efficient way to kick that off without running the risk to transfer this responsibility to an unknown local hire. Just find a colleague of your trust in your current organization and sell him or her the adventure and unique opportunity to develop the company’s business in new territories. Then communication will be relatively easy across continents and time zones. You have somebody who can build the bridge between the new country or region and your home base. You have somebody who can hire, train and lead local staff. And last but not least, you have somebody who is able to develop and grow someone else at his or her side to take over the job after two years. I received such a proposal myself in the 1990s and I never ever will regret having accepted that offer. From then onwards it became my passion to work in international environments and to develop new business in new territories. I learned to work remotely, then later manage remotely, and I basically built my whole career on that.
From physical to mental bonds
Last but not least, remote management does not make employee retention easier. The remote worker definitely does not have the same tight relationship with the employer like the employee who works in a modern office building, maybe located in a nice area, with a fantastic bistro or cafeteria, free coffee, fruit and chocolate and other little things you get used to over time. The remote employee today, and in the future even more, might not even have to change his workplace when changing the employer. It will become much easier and more convenient to just change companies but stay in the same physical work environment. As a manager with a remote team your challenge is to substitute the bond of an attractive workplace with strong mental bonds. This mainly means being accessible, providing true leadership and creating an environment of empowerment and trust. Actually… nothing new.