The teams of the future will be distributed all over the world. They’ll be fluid, quickly spinning up to tackle new challenges and often including gig workers, which are projected to make up as much as half of the U.S. workforce in the next decade. The rise of virtual work will bring widespread demand for work-life balance, and it will also lead to a more inclusive world with opportunity open to talent no matter where they call home.
That’s a lot of change to take in, but one thing is clear to me: The old-school model of corporate leadership will no longer work. If we insist on an outdated, hierarchical, in-person style of management, we will not be able to compete in the war on talent. Recent global surveys show that most employees want a hybrid workplace and many are looking for new opportunities with organizations that offer flexibility.
As leaders are putting together their hybrid workplace strategies, we should also work on cultivating the following skills:
Get Personal To Build Trust
Although it can be tempting to try to keep tabs on virtual employees the same way you could if everyone were in an office, this violates the No. 1 rule for effective virtual leadership: Trust. You need to hire good people, and trust that they’ll get their work done. Evaluate them based on what they achieve, not how many hours they’re staring at their computer.
Employees who feel trusted feel more engaged, more energized and less stressed, which in turn leads directly to better business results. Instead of tracking every movement of your virtual employees, put metrics in place to measure their output and schedule regular check-ins to evaluate their work product.
Of course, building trust takes more than avoiding the temptation to track remote employees’ work. It also requires leaders to be vulnerable and human at work, sharing their personalities, passions, mistakes, uncertainties and more. When you can model vulnerability not only will you build trust quickly, but your employees will also follow suit, resulting in deeper relationships and more trusting bonds across the board. Learning to be vulnerable and quickly establish trust is especially important if your teams include gig workers.
In other words, bid farewell to the business playbook that says leaders must present an unwavering strong, stoic, face to the world. The new world of work is much more personal and real than the old.
Foster Connectedness, Inclusion and Belonging
When you’re in the office, you automatically build relationships with those around you through bump-ins on the way to the conference room or in the lunchroom. That doesn’t happen when you’re virtual. As a leader, it’s your job to bridge this gap and change how you operate to encourage connection and prevent remote workers from feeling lonely and disconnected. For example:
- Carve out time at the beginning of virtual meetings for friendly non-work conversation.
- Check in on employees regularly – one-on-one meetings with your staff are more important than ever. Do they feel connected and inspired by their work? How is their life outside of work going? What are their triumphs and troubles?
- Encourage team members to connect with one another, such as through an online affinity group. Centric, for example, has channels for veterans, runners and other groups to virtually hang out.
- Include freelance or gig workers in the above activities so they feel like valued, equal members of your organization.
- Design meaningful occasional face-to-face interactions to strengthen relationships formed virtually, reinforce culture and strengthen employee connection to your company mission.
It’s also important to make sure that remote and non-remote workers have the same experience and the same opportunity for advancement. You don’t want to unintentionally create two employee classes.
Be The Model Virtual Employee
One of the reasons employees love working remote is it gives them some control over their schedule and better work-life balance. However, many people overcorrect when they’re remote and end up working too much, the boundary between work and life dissolved until it’s all work and no life.
As a leader, it’s your job to model how to be a great virtual employee and keep those boundaries intact. Show employees it’s OK to take breaks and that they’re not expected to answer emails and chats at all hours of the day. For example, I do an annual digital detox where I go on vacation and turn off all notifications. I’ve also done a stint as a digital nomad. This signals to my employees that it’s acceptable if they likewise disengage from work.
Unlock Discretionary Effort
Discretionary effort – when employees go above and beyond the basic duties of the job – is what happens when employees feel excited about their work and the organization. Discretionary effort is what separates so-so teams from those that knock it out of the park, and it’s totally possible even when you work with freelance or hourly workers.
The biggest mistake companies make is treating anyone who’s not full-time as an afterthought. Instead, provide freelance and hourly workers with great support, the necessary tools for the job and recognition for their efforts – just like you would if they were full-time.
It’s also important to connect all workers – no matter their status – with the broader company mission. When employees feel their work has meaning, they put in more effort and feel more satisfied with their jobs, leading to greater productivity and retention.
Invest in Quality Tools to Improve Efficiency and Culture
The biggest mistake I made as an executive of a remote company was skimping on tools. I’ve since learned that it’s critical to use the right tools to improve efficiency, enable asynchronous work and reinforce culture.
As a leader, your job doesn’t end with investing in these tools. You also must set an example and use them. For example, you should make yourself available on chat as a kind of virtual “open door.”
Tools can also help you keep tabs on your culture and employee happiness – if you’re not seeing your teams in person every day, it can be harder to spot problems early on. At my company, we use a combination of anonymous and pulse surveys.
Leading remote, distributed teams requires a new model of leadership, one based on trust, real relationships and unwavering dedication to connection, inclusivity and work-life balance. Leaders who don’t actively pursue the skills needed for the new world of work won’t be prepared to inspire their teams to future success.