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The Future of Management Belongs to Those Who Can Manage Remotely

The following post is submitted by our long time board member, John Hollon. Here he talks about the essential leadership skills required to manage remotely.

If I've learned anything from decades in leadership roles, it's this: Managing people is hard.

The challenge is finding the right balance of oversight, support, and guidance, that allows employees to thrive. But, too much of these things and you become the nettlesome micro-manager who stifles initiative, chokes off growth, and kills outside the box thinking.

People do their best work when they feel safe, supported, and empowered. The trick for leaders is how to build that bubble around every person they manage.

That's the hard part, but as difficult as that is, it's even tougher when you're trying to manage people who are suddenly working at home, as so many are today.

Josh Bersin, the well-known HR analyst, recently talked about what it takes to succeed at managing virtually, and he believes that virtual leadership requires four specific and highly important skills:

1. Empathy & compassion;

2. The ability to listen to people individually;

3. Setting rules and standards, as well as holding remote workers accountable; and,

4. Trust.

It's hard to argue with any of those things, but how do you apply them to YOUR newly remote workers? Here are a few suggestions for the two that seem to be most important right now:

Empathy & Compassion

How many times have you heard someone say that they rarely talk to their manager? It's a common complaint, especially since so many managers seem to default to being aloof. Sometimes, it's because they think they're too busy, but what could be more important than communicating regularly with your direct reports?

Communicating well is at the heart of having empathy and compassion for those who work for you. It's ALWAYS important in the office, but even more so with remote workers. As Melody Wilding recently pointed out in a Forbes blog post, “Now more than ever, your team needs you to step up and provide much-needed structure, direction, and support. You can be the manager they need, all without sacrificing your well-being or stressing yourself out in the process."

How do you do this? Reach out regularly and talk with them often. Ask how they're doing and listen closely to what they tell you. And always, ask what else you can do to help. Make those the things you do every single time you connect with them.

And one more thing: to have empathy and compassion you really need to be good listener -- and listening to people “as individuals” as Josh says, is a big part of that.

Showing Trust

When it comes to managing remote workers, this is where the rubber meets the road. Trust is the key to handling any employee who is in a remote location, and it's probably the hardest thing for most managers to do.

It also gets into what creeps into so many managerial minds when workers are out of sight and not easily accessible. "How do I know they're working hard? How do I know they aren't just sitting around goofing off?" I can't tell you how many managers have said something like that to me when discussing the possibility of letting an employee work remotely.

Trust is a hard concept for many managers, and some people are just naturally distrustful, but the Harvard Business Review recently had the very best description of how and why it's so critically important for leaders to trust their remote employees that I have ever seen. Here's how Tsedal Neeley, Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, put it:

"I'll say this to every manager out there: you have to trust your employees. This is an era and a time in which we have to heed Ernest Hemingway's advice: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

You can't see what people are doing. But equip them in the right ways, give them the tasks, check on them like you've always done, and hope they produce in the ways you want them to. You can't monitor the process, so your review will have to be outcome-based. But there's no reason to believe that, in this new environment, people won't do the work that they've been assigned."

Here's the bottom line: Managing people is hard, and managing remote employees is hardest of all because, well, they're remote. It's the real test of a manager because it takes great sensitivity, trust, and most of all, the ability to communicate clearly and precisely with employees that you can no longer talk to in person.

Is this a tough management challenge? You bet it is, but it's pretty clear that remote work is going to be the new normal for a great many employees.

We all need to get used to this - managers most of all. It's time to step up and embrace the leadership challenge ... or find yourself a new line of work.

Like it or not, the future of management belongs to those who can manage remotely.

If you're interested in learning more about how to manage through times of uncertainty, read the latest post from board member Chris Mullen about how to “Help your Employees Thrive in a Remote Work Environment with 3 Simple Steps.”

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