The transition to remote leadership can be rocky, to say the least. It’s much easier to exert authority, either formally or informally, when everyone is together in the same location. The physical location itself enforces the rules of status, and people are basically forced to show up to work. Whether we realize it or not, there’s a lot of butts in seats. And that creates tension.

There’s a huge challenge as we move to a remote environment where suddenly leaders find the skills that they had for the in-person situation are no longer adequate in a remote environment. When people are at home in their own space, suddenly the constraint and the enforcement of the organizational system isn’t there. People have so much more freedom to do or not do the work. As leaders, we need to actually learn a new capability to lead through influence instead of leading through authority. 

Learning to lead in a remote environment is actually a great opportunity to develop the skills needed to lead high performance in any environment. While in person you can lead moderate performance by exerting authority, in a remote environment you’re practically required to learn to lead through influence by inspiring people – a style of leadership that ultimately has better outcomes regardless of the environment.

Woman working on her laptop in a coffee shop

3 Quick Tips to Unlock Your Teams

If you’re struggling with a transition to a remote working environment, here are some practical steps you can take right away to increase psychological safety and performance. 

Keep Video On

Wherever possible, have video on during meetings. What does that do? When people see faces and have that visual connection, they can get extra information. They can actually communicate a lot of other things and have much higher bandwidth. Someone can be talking about something, someone else can give a thumbs up, and people can wiggle their fingers to show gratitude or appreciation. 

Having video on creates a much richer channel for connection. Plus, when we can see people, it supports a sense of safety and trust. Having video cameras on is a key element for increasing levels of psychological safety.

Use Tools that Support Co-Creation

The other element for remote work is to make sure that you have effective collaboration tools where everyone can contribute and communicate simultaneously. It’s called co-creation and it’s a hallmark of high-performance teams. 

Woman taking notes during an online conference call

For some organizations, that’s a Google Doc where all the people can type in their ideas simultaneously. For others, it’s a Mural board where everyone can write their own sticky note to contribute their ideas. 

What that does is it says, “Everyone here is equally important.” If everyone is equal in their contribution, you’re equaling out the status. When that happens, people feel more psychologically safe and secure. 

Very simple things like effective collaboration technology, where everyone can share their voice simultaneously, are very, very powerful for developing psychological safety. And they’re even more critical in a remote environment.

CodeBreaking Emotion

Small-Group Interactions

Create small spaces for people to talk and communicate. Avoid large meetings because people won’t feel comfortable talking and only the most senior people will end up contributing. Try to limit meetings to the people who really need to be there. 

Sometimes you’ll need to have bigger meetings, in which case you can use technology like breakout rooms to have people in smaller groups coming up with discussions. You might need to be more of a facilitative leader to create that kind of structure. 

Woman working on her laptop on psychological safety in business

Meeting in small groups will support people in having equal voice, which will give them the psychological safety that they need to function most effectively.

3 Steps to a High-Performance Remote Culture

While the above tips are useful to get started with immediate results, changing the structures of your working environment alone can only do so much. The root of high performance rests with the organizational culture and its ability to support psychological safety. Building an effective, high-performance culture in a remote working environment takes more deliberate effort than doing so in an in-person environment. With that in mind, here are the top three new interaction patterns for working in a remote environment.

Reach Out and Connect

To borrow a phrase from an old commercial, “Reach out and touch someone.” Which just means, talk to people for no reason whatsoever. You used to do this all the time when everyone was working in-person. You’d just bump into someone and have a conversation. When you’re working remotely, you’re not going to bump into them, but you can still have a random conversation – you just have to be intentional about creating time for it. 

Say, “Hey I just got my coffee, why don’t we just sit down and chat for a bit? I’m not here trying to accomplish any work, let’s just connect. What’s up with you? How are things going?” 

Woman with earphones smiling during a video call

What happens is after a while of chatting, you’ll start talking about work, and these spontaneous things that you never had time to talk about will come up. You’ll have time to address things that employees might not have bothered you with if they’d had to bring it to you during formal working time. 

Even if you don’t connect about work, you’ve just made an investment in their psychological safety, and their health as a team member. And you can always use that time to check in with them about how you can support them better. So it’s showing that, as a leader, you care and that you’re there to support them.

Be Authentic

The second thing you can do is be open and authentic with what is going on with you, as a leader, with working remotely. Just be honest. What are your challenges? For example “My kids keep coming in and distracting me.” 

Just be open and authentic about what’s going on with you. When you’re authentic with the people on your team, they’ll respond in kind. It will signal to them that they’re in a safe environment.

Man working from home with his baby in front of the computer

The main challenge of working remotely – lack of human connection – can be solved. It’s really about taking an extra step to lean in as the leader, to show who we are as a human being, to make space for others to show who they are as human beings. 

Model that it’s okay to show kids in the background, or a spouse, or whatever’s happening. It’s fine to say, “Oh yeah there’s some guy working on my dishwasher because it needs to get fixed.” Normalizing things like that means you understand that people are human beings with lives beyond work.

Lead Through Influence

Oftentimes, because leaders aren’t in the room with employees and there’s not effective reporting on whether people are doing work or not, leaders feel a lot of insecurity. They have this fear of,  “How can I stay in control? How can I make sure that I’m doing my job? How can I make sure my team is successful?” 

Being in a remote situation can actually bring up a lot of fear for leaders that, of course, will cut off the blood supply to the frontal cortex and impair their ability to function. Thus, the starting challenge for most leaders in a remote situation is actually overcoming the fear of lack of control.

Cheerful woman smiling on a video call on her phone

The great thing about this challenge is that it’s actually an opportunity to learn to lead through influence. This is based on what we call the Paradox of Power. Ultimately, the Paradox of Power is about understanding that you can’t make anyone do anything. You can use your authority to try to convince or coerce people into doing things. However, high-performance teams are made up of people who are positively engaged, who are excited and passionate about what they’re doing. 

Leading through influence actually requires an inner shift, where you’re comfortable sharing power and recognizing that your success depends on the people around you. What high-performance leaders have discovered is that control is just an illusion, and they realize that they only have influence over what happens. It allows them to become much more laser-focused on how to influence effectively. 

Putting It All Together

Working remotely can actually be the biggest gift you have ever received. It’s a chance to evolve your leadership in the workplace. What we have seen with our leadership training programs is that this leads to a ripple effect that impacts all aspects of our lives. Sometimes the most touching and profound benefits that people report are from the new ways they relate to their partner or kids.

CodeBreaking Emotion

It’s time to stop focusing on the challenge of being remote and dive into the opportunity it presents for you to evolve to greater levels of connection, impact and an inner sense of peace. It may be time to get on with the work of evolving your leadership so you can sleep better at night.

What we are sharing here is a small part of the SHIFT314 Evolutionary Leadership Framework™ (SELF) that provides leaders an integrated framework for developing the evolutionary capabilities needed to support new ways of working and being.