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Why “Okay” Isn’t Good Enough for Remote Leaders

Guest Post by Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel

I’ve been following the work of Kevin Eikenberry for the past six year and consistently find his writing to be high-quality and highly practical. Teaming up with co-author Wayne Turmel, The Long-Distance Leader is no exception. Given today’s highly distributed workforce, leaders are challenged to find ways to connect, build trust, engage, and drive performance across geographies, time zones and cultures. This book delivers actionable, in-the-trenches advice for these leaders, offering everything from 19 Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership to detailed guidance about communicating and coaching. I’d consider this required reading for the remote manager. Enjoy!

In doing the research for The Long-Distance Leader,  we surveyed hundreds of people who lead remote teams, or at least have people on their teams who work remotely. At first glance, the numbers seem encouraging. By their own admission, over two-thirds of managers say “Their  teams work pretty well under the circumstances.” That kind of sounds like good news. But not so fast.

What are the circumstances? And what do we mean “pretty well?”

The good news for organizations and individual managers is that, while the move to “Long-Distance Leadership” may have been haphazard or even unplanned, work is getting done, deadlines are being met, and nothing has caught fire—figuratively or literally.   Only 28% of managers worry whether people are “really working when remote,” for example. That’s all positive.

However, when we ask leaders how they’re making it all work, we see problems that may well become serious over time. Fifty-two percent of managers worry they’re not getting the feedback they need to make good decisions, and 58% seriously doubt their ability to lead as effectively at a distance as they do in traditional work environments… despite the fact they’re “doing okay” so far.

Among the ways managers are making it work are (in their words):

  • Working longer hours
  • Working “harder not smarter”
  • Relying on existing team relationships and dynamics that may erode over time
  • Maintaining an outwardly positive attitude while secretly feeling uneasy and unconfident in their ability to sustain this effort over time.

Let’s look at just a few of these issues, and why they are worrisome over the long haul.

Working longer hours.

Most managers are attempting to overcome leadership challenges through brute force, the most obvious example being working more—and odder—hours during the week. Some of this is due to the demands of time zones and an increasingly international workplace. However, much of it is self-directed. If the work isn’t getting done in the time allowed, working remotely makes it easy to answer emails in the dead of night, or work after dinner, or when the kids go to bed.  While sometimes we need to put in longer hours—as deadlines loom, for example—just continuing to work harder for the same results will have long-lasting consequences. Burnout, lower productivity, rework, and ultimately turnover in both management and the team may be the result.

And it’s not just the managers. A Harvard Business Review study shows that while individuals who work from home get more tasks done than their peers in the office, this is sometimes the result of just working more cumulative hours in a day.

Working “harder, not smarter.”

Since even the best manager can’t defeat the laws of physics by being in two places at once or finding more time in the day, we are relying more on technology than ever before. That is both a blessing and a curse. While many managers say that tools such as email, web conferencing, and collaboration platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams, are “mission critical” to their work, a great majority report that they don’t use the tools as well as they should. The rule of thumb is that 80% of users take advantage of 20% of the features of these tools. This results in managers, for example, sending email attachments vs. using Sharepoint or Google Docs. This is both inefficient and creates a lot of rework (if you have to resend documents before every conference call, even though you’ve sent them before…you know what this looks like). When we have a job like leadership, which has never been simple, complicated by the use of technology that we may not be using well, if at all, it’s no wonder this is a major cause of stress for leaders.

Relying on existing relationships that (may) erode over time.

As organizations move to telework, many managers lead people they’ve worked with before, only they are working from home or a new location, rather than in the office. Good will, history, and  a shared past help keep the team working well. However, as more people telework full time, and new people are added to the team who haven’t got that history, relationships evaporate and are more difficult to build.

Faking it til they make it…. Or breaking.

The survey shows that a lot of managers are holding it together publicly, and suffering severe strain and self-doubt privately. Working remotely means we don’t get regular, positive feedback that tells us we’re doing a good job. It’s no surprise that effective leaders have high standards for themselves. It’s also not a shock to discover that we are harder on ourselves than we are on other people. Being left in isolation can often allow doubts and negative self-criticism to grow and undermine our confidence and effectiveness over time.

The work we’ve done shows that Long-Distance Leadership requires the same leadership and management skills that have always been in short supply, while introducing new challenges (often technology-related) that create new and unanticipated challenges.

Talented and dedicated leaders are “making it work, well enough,” for now. But without training, support and systems that reflect the new way we work, for how long?

About the authors:

Kevin Eikenberry is founder and Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group. He’s been named one of Inc.com’s Top 100 Leadership and Management Experts in the World, and is the author of several books, including Remarkable Leadership.

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder (along with Kevin)  of The Remote Leadership Institute and the author of many books, including ATD’s 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations.

Kevin and Wayne have co-authored the definitive guide for remote leaders, Long-Distance Leadership: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.

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