Remote leadership (also: distance leadership) is by definition the management of employees from a distance. Employees, (virtual) teams and managers are physically located at different (company) sites.

Our working world is changing significantly under the influence of Corona and the energy crisis. Workplaces and work environments that were technically possible even before the pandemic have been “forcibly” realised, especially due to Corona (home office, online meetings, etc.). Skills and labour shortages require a different approach and new ideas for implementing tasks.

Many companies have now had positive experiences with the new world of work. Virtual communication and virtual collaboration are the rules. Home office saves employees long journeys to the workplace and enables time flexibility:

  • As part of its “New Normal Working Model”, Siemens intends to rely heavily on home offices in the future.

Other companies and employees want to return to the old working worlds:

  • Elon Musk, the boss of the electric car manufacturer Tesla, wants to see his employees in the office at least 40 hours a week. Otherwise, he would have to assume “that this person has left the company”.

One thing is certain: with the changes in the environment, “leadership work” is also changing. Remote leadership will play an important role in the future.

The focus of leadership is no longer on excellence in content, but on enabling people to achieve common goals in social interaction.

(Céline Schillinger, Dare to un-lead, The Art of Relational Leadership in a Fragmented World)

In the future, leadership will no longer mean power, domination and orders, but motivation, clear agreements and intensive exchange (virtual and face-to-face) with the employees. The challenge is to overcome the physical and social distance that arises. “Out of sight” must not mean “out of mind”.

Many employees would like to see, among other things

  • Understandably communicated tasks and goals
  • clear and unambiguous instructions from their manager.
  • Being able and allowed to act on one’s own responsibility without permanent control
  • Exchange with and feedback from managers and colleagues
  • Appreciation and trust.
  • Possibilities for discussion even beyond one’s own task.

Leaders should

  • Accept changes in oneself and in cooperation
  • lead the way in change
  • Create the necessary environment
  • Adapt or completely redesign organisational structures together with the staff.
  • Giving trust and freedom
  • Encourage initiative and independence.

What are, among other things, elements or supporting components of this changed world of work and leadership?

Resources and empowerment

First of all, the necessary functioning work equipment must be available in the company and at the external locations. This includes hardware and software, but also stable connections with corresponding capacities.

Both the manager and the staff must acquire the know-how to operate the system and the motivation to use it. Support through coaching and exchange of experience between managers and teams is also beneficial. For the manager, the question also arises: “Can and do I want to lead remotely or hybrid?

Clarity of tasks:

The focus should be on communicating the goal or the result.

Staff can be given security of action through clear and unambiguous rules and agreements and communication of the “what for”. These include rules on accessibility, presentation of higher-level work processes, and agreed interfaces. These should not be prescribed but worked out together.

At the same time, employees must be given the freedom to organise their work processes independently. This also offers the opportunity to contribute existing potential and ideas.

Contact with employees

Managers are often uncertain whether the strategic orientation of tasks is clear and whether the assigned work tasks are correctly fulfilled. Likewise, there is uncertainty about whether employees are unclear or uncertain about their own work tasks, but do not express this.

First of all, managers should know their employees, their personal characteristics, their previous experience, their qualifications, their understanding of their role, their values and goals and also their expectations of “leadership”.

The manager should continuously find out where there is a need for action on the part of the manager. It is a great challenge to get a feel for the current needs of the employee, where there are uncertainties or fears and whether there are other private stress situations in the home office via e-mail, telephone or video.

Feedback on rules should be obtained through appropriate staff interviews and surveys, not every rule and procedure works for every staff group and every situation.

Maintaining the relationship between the managers and the people in the team is one of the most important tasks. The usual exchange, which used to be facilitated by physical proximity and interaction in the office, including break conversations, must be ensured differently.

Contact with colleagues

By involving them in the design of work and work processes, existing potentials can be used.

For this, staff members need time and space for discussion and the implementation of experiences, including a permitted margin of error.

This should affect their own team, but also neighbouring colleagues and work processes.

Emotions and empathy

For employees and managers, getting to know each other physically should not be underestimated. It is easier to communicate with people online, by email etc. who have seen and met each other in person.

In addition to goals and tasks, the leader should not lose sight of empathy and emotions.

It should create and allow space for informal exchange so that topics that are not directly work-related are also exchanged. This promotes cooperation, the “we” feeling, enables networking and creates space for new ideas.

Even in the new world of work, praising a person’s good performance in the team and celebrating successes is an important motivating factor. Incentives can also promote employee loyalty and motivation in the home office.

Larger companies now offer their employees and managers accompanying health programmes, for example.

There will hardly be only remote leadership in the future. But that makes the challenge even greater. Some of the employees are in the office, some in the home office. For managers, this means that they must be present, hybrid and willing to lead remotely.

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