The curious case of leading remotely

28 Sep 2020

Remote working arrangements provide a whole new set of challenges for our public sector leaders. But by leading with purpose and cultivating a culture of trust, Dr Wesley Payne McClendon says remote leadership can create unique opportunities for employees to work harder and feel safe ‘failing bigger’.


Much like the plot behind Benjamin Button, the character portrayed by Brad Pitt in the American fantasy film, many of today’s real-world leaders have regressed in their approach to and practice of leading remotely. Instead of building trust, autonomy and confidence among their teams, pandemic-inspired remote working arrangements have prompted some leaders to revert back to their worst child-like instincts. Unnecessary oversight, overbearing communication, incessant questioning, and unreasonable expectations have become by-products of leaders’ unfulfilled needs to get their way.

In the absence of leading on site, many leaders have tried to retrofit old habits of face-to-face command and control into virtual reality. What was once a rare micro-managed occurrence has evolved into an unapologetic ‘new normal’.Recent Gallop research suggests that 54% of office workers say they’d leave their current job for one that offers more flexible work time¹. New ways of working including flexible and smart working and an increase in demands for greater work-life balance have outpaced leaders’ willingness and ability to thrive in a remote networked workplace. Even though the impact of COVID-19 has begun to wane in some geographies, its lasting effect on flexibility, remote working, leader capability and expectations, will remain long after the virus subsides.Leading remotely offers a self-revealing leadership opportunity. It provides a unique lens through which to observe your employees from a wide leadership angle, and a clear reflective space in which to reimagine ways of supporting and uplifting teams and direct reports. Unable to take for granted random in-person face time, leading remotely offers novel possibilities for co-discovering meaningful ways of mutually agreed engagement, supportive reflection, and genuine collaboration.Remote teams find ways to explore and prioritise new ideas, manage planning and outcomes against the realities of employees' domestic responsibilities - and forgo petty office annoyances that can short-circuit thinking, decisioning and innovation.Pre-COVID-19, a 2017 workplace survey of nearly 200,000 employees found remote working led to higher productivity, lower environmental impact, and lower staff turnover¹. In June 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, a Roy Morgan study found 4.3 million or 32% of Australians were working from home². In August, an ABS study noted that 70.4% of Victorians were working from home compared to 34.2% of the broader Australia workforce³.

The unintended consequences of distance

The pressure on Victoria’s leaders in recent months suggests that there will be a significant increase in the expectations placed on our public sector leaders over the coming years. With the workplace changing at such a rapid pace, leading remotely will become increasingly important – and have greater consequences. Good intentions risk being undermined by leaders’ preoccupation with control, resulting in self-inflicted leadership wounds likely to lead to low trust returns, employee dissatisfaction, and poor retention rates.

Purpose: The most immediate challenge to remote leading is the absence of proximity to purpose. Leaders accustomed to seeing, touching and feeling the daily machinations of their purpose through directly-reporting staff often struggle to find the same level of comfort leading purpose from a distance. For these leaders, meaning and value come from tangibly engaging and witnessing first hand their purpose fulfilled through others.

In the new remote normal, however, leader fulfilment comes from intangible commitment and engagement derived from purpose. When purpose is compelling, it prompts followers to self-commit, engage and align to fulfilling a common purpose regardless of their work location.

The outcome of leading purpose thus has a multiplier effect on a team’s common purpose. The measure of effectively leading purpose remotely is the extent to which a leader’s purpose becomes the lived experience of an entire team or enterprise.

Control: When leading remotely changes the tangibility of engagement and symbols of authority, leaders naively equate micro-management with leadership. Like comfort food, micro-managing is a reactive practice that often fails to satisfy a void that has little to do with hunger.

The paradox of control is the false sense of security generated by distance. Leading remotely can unintentionally exploit silos and isolation through which control is exacerbated. While the tendency of leading remotely may be to squeeze harder or push further, the opposite desired impact may be realised.

Contrary to intuitive reasoning, leading remotely is an opportunity for leaders to relinquish control and delegate authority. Letting go and allowing reporting managers and teams to take responsibility and ownership of processes and outcomes can have far more developmental upside than the downsides of remote control.

Trust: Too little attention on building a common purpose and too much emphasis on unnecessary control can galvanise a culture that breeds discontent, disengagement and mistrust. Trust is the cultural fabric on which meaning, symbols and relationships of expectation are reliably assessed, beliefs formulated, decisions made, and actions taken. Cultivating a high-trust culture is not only an essential element of remote working arrangements, but a core capability of high-performing organisations.

When employees trust an organisation’s culture, they work harder, stay longer and feel safe ‘failing bigger’. When employees trust leaders, they expect to be given the autonomy to optimise their potential and leverage what they know and do best. Conversely, when culture is trust-challenged, independence is limited, common purpose unravels into chaos, and control mechanisms are inserted into previously ‘open’ spaces.

While there is significant research denoting a relationship between trust and profits⁴, other researchers have found a direct correlation between trust and leader⁵. Given the raised threshold of trust required in new working arrangements, leading remotely has a higher probability of return when high trust is deliberate and actively maintained. Similarly, when trust is thoughtless and left unchecked, the probability of low trust return increases - along with the likelihood of disengagement and exit.

Five tips for leading remotely

Leading remotely is more than repositioning face-to-face leadership practices and applying them in a virtual environment. Instead, leading remotely requires leaders to reimagine leadership, and the core capabilities and competencies specific to communicating purpose, giving up control, and cultivating trust.

Here are five tips to ensure success in leading remotely in our ‘new normal’.

1. Define and communicate purpose

Leading remotely requires a clearly defined and regularly communicated purpose that not only confirms understanding and buy-in, but provides a compelling platform on which to develop and align a common purpose.

2. Establish a set of princip les for working remotely

Co-designing a set of principles for working remotely with directly-reporting staff and teams aligns a common purpose and establishes agreed upon standards, assumptions and ways of working.

3. Let go

Step away and trust the commitment and engagement of a common purpose and ways of working principles to guide the proximity of leadership required, and the support necessary for others to perform well in their own work spaces.

4. Cultivate trust

Cultivate trust as a deliberate and active pursuit. Build and nurture a high trust culture in which employees workharder, stay longer and feel safe ‘failing bigger’.

5. Listen. Repeat. Question. Purpose

Coach by listening intently, repeat what you hear for clarity, and ask questions aligned with purpose to provide development in support of achieving goals and aspirations through experiential knowledge, perspective and guidance.

1 State of the American Workplace Report, Gallup, 2017. 2 Nearly a third of Australian workers have been ‘#WFH’, Roy Morgan, 29 June 2020. 3 Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, Australia Bureau of Statistics, 31 August 2020. 4 Roman, Sergio (2003), The Impact of Ethical Sales Behaviour on Customer Satisfaction, Trust and Loyalty to the Company: An Empirical Study in the Financial Services Industry, Journal of Marketing Management. 5 Covey, Stephen R. (2006), The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything, Simon and Schuster.

Dr Wesley Payne McClendon is Executive Director of the McClendon Research Group, a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Victoria Graduate Business School, and Independent Director and Chair of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects’ People & Culture Committee. He is the author of more than 30 articles, including “Seven habits of leaders in crisis”, and two books including Strategy, People and Performance.

Tags: COVID-19