Leadership Matters | Summer 2020
5 Tools for Mastering Remote Leadership
Effectively leading remote teams is now—and forever will be—an essential leadership competency.
Jon Lokhorst, CPA, ACC
Executive Leadership Coach, Lokhorst Consulting
March 2020 will always be remembered as the month when the coronavirus pandemic
began to escalate in the United States. Professional and college sports paused, many
businesses closed their doors, and organizations sent millions of workers home to work
remotely. A Gartner survey showed that roughly half of all organizations had more than 80
percent of their employees working from home during the peak of the pandemic.
While the new realities of the pandemic are still unfolding, one is certain: an increase in
remote work is here to stay. Nearly half of CFOs surveyed by PwC plan to make remote
work a permanent option for suitable roles in their organizations. And most employees
want more opportunities to work remotely. An IBM survey of 25,000 adults found that 54
percent of them would prefer to work remotely most of the time.
To be effective in this emerging remote work environment, leaders must add these five
tools to their leadership belt:
In most areas across the country, the economy will reopen gradually, meaning many
workers will continue to face dynamics that made the shift to remote work incredibly
challenging. Some are sharing the work-from-home environment with a family member or
roommate who is also working from home. Working parents may have limited options for
their kids this summer—many childcare providers, summer camp programs, and recreational
activities have been cut back or are closed altogether.
Leaders must show empathy toward workers who face these challenges. Daniel Goleman,
a thought leader on emotional intelligence, refers to empathy as the ability to understand
the emotional makeup of others and make intelligent decisions with those emotions in mind.
That compels leaders to focus on their employees’ emotional wellbeing and go beyond
merely asking, “How are you?” I suggest practicing active listening and observation to read
between the lines as you talk with team members about their situations and, when
appropriate, invite a deeper discussion of their needs.
Demonstrating empathy toward your employees will make you aware of the need for an
individualized approach in setting expectations with them. Notice my choice of the word
“with” rather than the word “of”—establishing mutual expectations requires a collaborative effort rather than issuing across-the-board mandates. The work-from-home dynamics mentioned above will vary dramatically from
one employee to the next.
Work style and personality differences also affect how each team
member responds to working remotely versus in a traditional
setting. Some people crave the more structured environment of an
office, while others welcome the flexibility and freedom of working
away from it. Also, the jobs performed by your team members may
differ significantly in their suitability for remote work. For some jobs,
there’s little difference in how they are performed remotely. For
others, there are significant barriers. Acknowledging and navigating
these differences will build trust with your team members.
As you collaborate with workers to establish mutual expectations,
consider these three critical factors. First, how much flexibility they
have in setting work hours and whether they need to be available
during certain core hours. Second, expectations about their
accessibility for meetings, phone calls, emails, and other
communication, internally and externally. Third, deadlines for
projects or important milestones and whether they are recurring or
Performance and productivity coaching was gaining traction as a
leadership tool before the pandemic, especially among early-career
workers. It is even more important now as leaders are forced
to rely less on fixed performance demands and instead must
collaborate with workers on mutual expectations, as discussed
above. Coaching is effective in helping workers not only
understand what work needs to be done but how to get it done
productively—especially since staying productive can be
challenging for employees not accustomed to working remotely.
Research during the height of the pandemic reveals a wide
disparity in workers’ assessment of their productivity while working
remotely. In a YouGov study sponsored by USA Today and LinkedIn,
54 percent of respondents indicated that working from home had
a positive impact on productivity. In comparison, 25 percent said it
hurt their productivity.
Through coaching, leaders can help team members identify
barriers to productivity and explore ways to overcome them. One
CFO coached a struggling employee to reorganize her desk at
home to replicate her set-up at the office, complete with three
monitors (which the company purchased for her). Another finance
leader used regular check-in calls to identify and mitigate common
distractions that were interfering with her team’s ability to focus well
enough to complete essential tasks.
Increasing communication is essential anytime there is significant
change or crisis. A shift to remote work makes this even more true.
The need for more communication starts at the top, as leaders
convey the organization’s vision and top priorities during the
current environment. In my role as an adjunct faculty member for
North Park University, I was reminded by the president throughout
the spring of two crucial priorities: the health and safety of the
community and the successful completion of the academic term.
The best leaders conduct regular one-on-one check-in meetings
with team members. When those team members are remote, these
check-ins should be more frequent. They may be shorter in
duration, but the increased frequency helps to substitute for subtle
communications that we take for granted in the office, like the
informal conversations at the coffee pot, along the cubicle wall, or
in the hallway provide an opportunity for quick updates, questions,
and clarifications. Those in-person interactions allow leaders to
read body language and nonverbal cues to gain a sense of how
their team members are doing that would be lost in a remote
environment. Regular video check-ins are one way to replicate inperson
interactions in a virtual environment.
One executive offers a special Zoom meeting room during specific
dates and times for this purpose. Another schedules virtual
office hours for drop-in conversations with team members. Do not
be an absentee boss, even with top performers who work well
on their own.
According to the YouGov survey cited above, more than half of
employees feel lonely because of remote work, with about 20
percent saying they are lonely all or most of the time. You can
combat the isolation factor by hosting virtual team gatherings. Add
a social element to your team building with non-work events like a
virtual happy hour or trivia contest. When done well, these
gatherings build trust and positive relationships within the team.
Put these five leadership tools to work and the result should be a
healthier, more collaborative, and more productive team when you
return to the new normal—whenever and wherever that may be.