The 3 myths of remote leadership

The co-founder of a culture-change business that’s never had an office shares some tried and tested lessons.

by Daniele Fiandaca
Last Updated: 01 May 2020

Anxiety and COVID-19 curves are exponential, and understandably so. For employees in the relatively new working-from-home world, there are tech tips and WFH productivity webinars galore.

What’s arguably being overlooked though is the human element. We’re social creatures - with social isolation comes the stress of staying connected in an increasingly unconnected workscape.

After lifetimes of the now-traditional office setup, WFH feels wrong for many leaders on levels that transcend tech failures and the exhausting nature of back-to-back Zoom calls. Maybe that’s because from an emotional intelligence perspective, we’re doing the WFH thing wrong.

Here are some of the misconceptions about leading remotely:

We're all in the same boat

Some employees need support to help make the adjustment, from both an emotional and a practical standpoint. Don’t assume everyone has the luxury of stepping seamlessly from work office to home office - use this chance to understand your team’s dynamic and help them adapt.

The usual 9am all-team catch-up is fine for the old-normal. But for parents with kids also at home, it’s a stresspoint before their work day even begins. The Joe Wicks live workout (also 9am) doesn’t matter to me, but to my colleagues and employees with young kids, it makes a world of difference, and sets them up for the day.

Then consider people who live alone, people who care for loved ones, people with bad Wi-Fi at home - even think of something like Zoom, where perhaps more introverted people will struggle to thrive. Here, something as simple as splitting into smaller Zoom groups, then reconvening in the main group later, can make a huge impact.

Your main task is to maintain productivity

Studies show that many senior leaders struggle with empathy, yet it’s probably the most important skill right now if you want to support your people. Some employees will take to lockdown better than others, but they all need to feel valued and listened to. This requires you to put yourself in their shoes every day, check in more than usual and invite queries and chats. 

That empathy ultimately comes from realising it’s alright to not be alright. You have to accept that people have ‘off’ days. They will worry about money, their families; on the day following the lockdown announcement, we let one employee have the day off because he just needed the time to process everything. That’s not me letting him off the hook, or giving him preferential treatment. It’s just understanding what he needs to actually function, both personally and at work. 

There is a right way to lead from home

It's up to you to create belonging and reshape your leadership role. However you approach it, creating and maintaining a proper workplace culture remotely is hard. We’ve had to do it with Utopia for nearly three years as we’ve never had an office, and are constantly testing ways to make working remotely even better - it takes more than just good bandwidth. 

Besides the regular team calls and updates, you need to create a community without falling into presenteeism.

We’ve set up several extra-curricular activities for our team and wider network of Utopians (our associates who regularly work with us). One is called Belonging Hour. The gist is simple. We invite people to sign up and share a song with us; the only rule is it must represent the moment when they most belonged. Then we convene on Zoom and chat about why it matters so much. Why it makes you smile. Why a fourteen-minute jazz odyssey puts a spring in your step. Whatever.

Note of caution, though: forced fun is worse than boredom, so it's not compulsory - in fact, it’s open to anyone! But it’s a thoughtful thing that bolsters that sense of solidarity; an opportunity to connect, rather than the only way. 

I won’t deny this has had an impact on me as a leader, too. I’ve always considered myself to be quite frank and open - turns out I didn’t know the half of it. 

Now, if I’m having a bad day, I let people know. But if I’m having a great day, I need to be upbeat. Yes, these are weird times, but you shouldn’t feel guilty about being happy. If I’ve pulled off a great piece of work, I’ve had an uplifting family call, or something interesting turned up in the post, I share that. 

This extends to the business, too. It’s important to be as open as you can with the team. We’ve already updated them with last quarter’s financial results, and will update them every month so they understand what progress we’re making. They’re being kept in the loop so we can work together to ensure we all come out of this crisis stronger. As a leader, my mantra has been to plan for the worst and expect the best. 

I’m trying to lead by example, and hoping my attitude rubs off.

Daniele Fiandaca, co-founder at culture change business Utopia 

Image credit: Buyenlarge/contributor via Getty Images

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