remote learning

Meaningful Leadership in the Age of the Remote Workforce

Written by Scott Wilson

It’s a question that had been creeping up for a while, but the COVID-19 pandemic really turned on the lights and sent it scurrying out into the open: can you forge an effective team from individuals who never see one another except in the occasional Zoom meeting?

For many leaders today in organizations large and small, there’s no real choice but to forge ahead and find out. Although the jury is still out on whether or not the American office complex has a future in the world of business, one thing is clear: it’s not going back to the way it was.

Leaders in every sector and industry will have to find ways to both manage and lead off-site teams—often halfway across the country or on the other side of the world.

Working out how that will happen and what the best practices will be for managing a more or less remote workforce is already going on. And it raises a question that leaders in most organizations are going to have to answer sooner or later: what does meaningful leadership in the age of the remote workforce look like?

Looking to the History of Remote Work for a View of the Future

history remote work

It’s important to realize, for starters, that managing a remote workforce is not an entirely new problem. In certain industries and in certain forms, it’s been done—and styles and techniques have evolved to do it well—for decades.

Government agencies and the military, of course, with far-flung responsibilities and outposts, have long had to deal with the requirements to maintain consistency and control even while out of direct contact with subordinates. And the technology industry was an even earlier adopter of remote work than most people realize. As much as 40 percent of IBM’s workforce have been remote workers at times, beginning as far back as 1983. Some new tech companies, like GitHub, have started off and remained 100 percent remote ventures… and found success in doing so.

You find a lot of the same methods and systems emerging in these examples.

Taking Remote Leadership Cues From Businesses That Have Mastered the Process

construction worker on phone with bossOne of the industries that has had a long history of dealing with a distributed workforce is homebuilding. With infill projects that can be scattered across a city or around a country, leaders in construction management have had to come up with ways to motivate, inspire, and instruct teams remotely for decades.

Diawa House is a Japanese firm that has got the leadership process down cold. Common standards and processes followed on every site include a check-in routine on arrival, a daily remote morning meeting complete with stretching and exercises to reduce job site injuries. The remote meetings aren’t just streamed between HQ and sites, but between sites, so every worker in the country is connected.

Project leaders double-check safety and daily activities individually with each worker, ensuring that everything remains on schedule and according to plan. Everything is updated with corporate systems back at the main office. Standard forms and procedures keep everyone on the same page. Modular components even ensure that most teams are working with identical materials, no matter what site they are on.

Diawa must be doing something right — with operations in Australia and Asia already up and running, the company is now on the way to becoming one of the top 20 builders in the United States as well.

So there’s a solid history of leaders figuring out how to get the job done with remote teams. You’re not dreaming the impossible dream. In fact, in the technology world, where the challenge of leading a remote workforce didn’t just roll out of bed last week, you will find that coursework developing your virtual leadership skills has already been integrated into technology leadership degree programs.

But a laundry list of techniques doesn’t get the job done. Finding the right processes for managing remote teams is one thing. Finding ways to make them happen is another.

Real Leaders Rise to Every Challenge that Comes Their Way- Including Remote Leadership

Making sure your team is equipped and informed is all part of the job, but that’s basic management and administration. Inspiration, connection, and relationship building has to go above and beyond those basics. Remote teams don’t just happen because they are plugged in to one another.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one other thing seems to be key to creating strong, coherent, effective remote teams: leadership itself.

The tenets of organizational leadership are crucial to building and leading remote teams.

All the best practices for managing a remote workforce aren’t worth much if you can’t actually put them into play. Just creating a Slack channel doesn’t make it useful. Someone has to show the way forward.

Maybe the entire question is backward: what kind of remote workforce could you possibly build without meaningful leadership? Coming at the problem from another direction, it becomes clear that the issue of leadership for remote teams is one that the practice of organizational leadership already offers some answers for. Out of the best practices suggested for leading and managing remote teams, the Venn diagram with a typical OL degree curriculum includes a lot of overlap:

So it’s not surprising that organizational leadership programs offering specializations or focus areas on leading virtual organizations are becoming increasingly common.

But what exactly does those degrees add above and beyond the essentials of organizational leadership?

How Virtual Organizational Leadership Degrees Are Enabling Meaningful Online Leadership

sharing work online

While the essentials of organizational leadership aren’t going to change with virtual teams, there are going to be a lot of new issues to deal with and new ways to fulfill old leadership needs. That’s where degrees that recognize remote workforce challenges really come into play.

Organizational leadership programs are meeting these challenges by studying the underlying elements of cohesive leadership and offering practical techniques for virtual leadership.

Learning How to Choose the Right Tools

The internet can seem like magic sometimes, but that all depends on the wizard casting the spell… a leader who picks out a hammer when a wrench is needed is going to look like the sorcerer’s apprentice rather than the sorcerer themself.

Degrees in organizational leadership today can help you sort through the wide array of remote management tools on the market so you can find the ones that match your organization’s needs. You will need to fit the capabilities of your team to the tools you give them before anything can happen remotely.

Reinterpreting Benefits That Work for Remote Teams

Remote teams appreciate different types of support than an in-office workforce. Many companies put a lot of money into making office spaces attractive and exciting, from free food to toys and exercise rooms scattered around.

Thoughtful leaders will consider what they can do to make the remote work life a little easier, whether it’s stipends for updated office furniture or equipment, or paying for local gym memberships. Organizational leadership degrees today can help you sort through the latest ideas for keep your team comfortable and productive.

cloud communication

Taking Communications to the Next Level

It takes extra effort not just to keep your remote team all on the same page, but to provide the same level of interaction and connection as they would achieve in a face-to-face environment.

Organizational leadership training helps you come up with ways to not just share, but overshare, developing communication channels that sample not just the substance of messages but also the tone and subtlety that would be conveyed person-to-person.

Sharing a Vision Across Timezones

You can skip a lot of misunderstanding and disagreement if you just start out with everyone on the same page. There’s a concept in neuroscience called flow state, something that occurs in sports teams, bands, and dance groups, where the entire unit experiences a high degree of focus, all while sharing the same rhythm and synchronicity.

It happens when close relationships develop and when the entire group has a unifying vision of what they are trying to accomplish. It’s the role of leaders to share that vision with each member of the team in a way they can understand and embrace, and then get them all in sync like a conductor. It’s when great things happen, whether everyone is sitting side by side in a conference room or working from half a world away.

In a way, it’s this last skill that is the special sauce that comes with leadership training. Having the ingredients to shake into the stew you are brewing up with your remote team is the only way to make it a masterpiece.

Because leading remote workforces is going to be such a common challenge for leaders in every sort of industry, you will find this kind of curriculum being integrated into degrees with almost every career specialization in organizational leadership.

Whether it’s something you had planned to pursue or not, chances are that you are going to have to exercise some virtual leadership skills at some point in your career. And in doing so, you will become part of the answer to the question of what meaningful leadership in a remote workforce will look like.