Participating in a panel-discussion at the latest sharing and learning event of the European Society of Association Executives (ESAE), I was asked to elaborate on a potential scenario where a business organization comes into a situation where the current Covid19 imposed state of teleworking is defined as a well-considered forward model of operating …, and what the specific leadership considerations are in that case.

As this scenario is perhaps not so hypothetical for several companies (or business associations) designing their way out of Covid19, I decided to summarize some thoughts around this theme.

I will not elaborate here on the pros and cons of teleworking versus on-site operations, but I want to give some thoughts on the question that was raised “what about leadership requirements when moving into a more structural format of teleworking?”

For sure, a lot of organizational leaders can rightfully evaluate their performance on managing the sudden change towards a new imposed teleworking model as successful. However, this appreciation is somewhat biased by the absolute and unprecedented Covid19-crisis that we are all living. In this extreme context one can and should be excused for some temporary shortcomings and deficiencies.

On the other hand, when organizations decide to institutionalize (a kind of) teleworking modus as the new post-crisis ‘business-as-usual’ standard, this changeover needs to be reassessed. At that instance, we are discussing a fundamental organizational and leadership change project, and it should be handled as such. It would perhaps be an overstatement that new leaders are needed when teleworking becomes the rule, but for sure, it requires at least attention for new leadership skills and styles.

Seven key leadership attention points when moving to permanent teleworking and remote team operations

  1. The leaders themselves are ready to change their way of operating
    In general, if the leadership (team) stays in the old routine (pre-change), this undermines the total believe in the change project and the credibility of the management. If (some form of) telework is proclaimed as the new reality going forward, but the management systematically works in office-modus, this will create fundamental doubt within the organization about the real objectives and expectations of the move to telework. Here also leaders should walk-the-talk.
  1. Moreover, the leader embraces the change with confidence and optimism
    It remains important to explain why telework has been chosen as structural solution. In a first instance, people want to be convinced from a rational point of view. Hereby it is key to speak up about the pros and the cons of the chosen direction in a candid and transparent way. But then, the leader needs to be prepared to promote the pros and to present oneself as firm believer of the chosen direction.
  1. He is helping to bring down the key obstacles within the new reality
    At the same time, it will be important that the leader is enabling to bring down some key barriers within the teleworking reality. A plan is needed, including adequate communication about it. Technical / ICT issues might still be the first to deal with as the provided solutions were often scoped to serve a temporary need. This seems a no-brainer, but if not properly dealt with, uncontrolled negative spirit may rise (e.g.: “management only thinks P&L, but does not give proper tools to do our work in a professional and efficient way”).
  1. The leader brings an inspiring vision for the change journey and its objectives
    Beyond the practical, technical barriers, it will be important to respond to the emotional needs of the people. It will be of utmost importance to create engaging, inspiring life connection moments, quality moments that people will warmheartedly remember, and which bring emotional and cultural cohesion within the organization. In such context the Teleworking solution for example could also be given an important positive reputational dimension: “yes, we have chosen as organization to move towards telework as new standard and this is a conscious choice for people and planet … to help bringing down the commuting traffic … to allow our employees a better overall management of their working hours …”
  1. His communication is authentic, his listening is empathic
    Anyhow, leaders should be very much aware that they are missing out on lots of informal connection moments by moving into remote team operations. Effective leaders will proactively compensate for this by managing their own agenda’s. It will be important to keep this authentic, but a potentially good practice could be to plan timeslots for informal meetings without formal agenda (either in 1-2-1 or with random groups). Another approach could be to install ‘how-do-you-feel’ slots before weekly/monthly team-meetings. More important than talking will be the true listening of the leader during these sessions.
  1. He combines trust and empowerment with clear guidance
    Clearly, with the loss of the ‘management-by-walking-around’ benefits (see informal checks and alignment opportunities), the leader loses several implicit controls. Some leaders might here be tempted to overcompensate this by imposing their attendance to lots of digital team meetings totally disturbing hereby agendas and effective operations.

Initially, the mutual trust of leader and employee could be challenged under these remote team operations. And this is where empowerment meets accountability. An adequate way for the leader to organize for this new team management context is by providing clear and more explicit rules on how he expects this ‘freedom within a framework’ to be exercised.

  1. And he will give more attention to formal coaching
    Finally, as the opportunities for informal seeking and giving feedback at the coffee corner or watercooler have disappeared, a need arises for integrating more formal one-to-one coaching. This attention point should be embedded somehow in the different layers of the remote team operations.

Obviously, this list of leadership attention points, when structurally moving into Telework, is not exhaustive. Please feel free to share with us your personal thoughts or experience on this topic to enrich the discussion.

On a more general note, don’t hesitate to call one of the High Touch partners when you are looking for some sparring on specific organizational or leadership matters. We are not proclaiming we have THE answer, but we are passionate to share our personal experiences and leverage our networks when it comes to Leadership Matters.