Management at distance: don’t let the crisis tarnish your leadership!

The issue of remote management is not new, but it has never been so topical. Indeed, teleworking was already becoming more widespread in many sectors of activity as the difficulties of transport, particularly for cross-border commuters, contributed to accentuating the trend.

The very recent health and containment crisis has precipitated the implementation of remote management.

As we all know, periods of crisis present opportunities for managers and teams to reinvent themselves.

The purpose of this article is twofold. On the one hand, it will serve to explain the pitfalls you need to avoid, so as not to risk weakening your leadership style in these troubled times. On the other hand, it will also provide the opportunity to discuss some of the best practices, managers can adopt to take advantage of the crisis and develop their leadership.

What potential impact can distance have on the relationship between a manager and an employee?

Generally speaking, remote working leads to a change in working habits.

When it comes to telework, the effects are felt in the physical working space, the social environment as well as the organisation of working time. This may mean that a manager will have to adapt his/her expectations about the way work is carried out.

Furthermore, distance inevitably reduces access to informal exchanges (a quick chat in the corridor, the snippets of information gained around the coffee machine, etc.). As communication is more mechanised, access to a variety of communication channels is reduced, this in turn may also increase the risk of misinterpretation (especially with regard to the tone of messages). In addition to all of this, the free exchange of communication may also be affected (as flows are less constant and often reduced to formal channels).

In addition, the existence of physical distance can make things very complicated for a charismatic manager whose leadership style depends greatly on presence and aura.

In the long run, putting distance between a team and its manager inevitably has an impact on communication, feedback, checks and appreciation of work carried out, all of which can make a manager feel that he/she is losing control.

What pitfalls should we avoid and what questions do we need to ask ourselves to avoid weakening our style of leadership?

The best way to answer this question, is to take a quick look at the basic principles of leadership.

Several elements combine to confer this status on a leader:

  • Respect of the members of the group (for example, his/her ability to guide the group or for the way (s)he sets a good example).
  • If this person takes the initiative to structure the group (for example initiatives relating to the management of relationships between members, definition of working procedures, etc.).
  • With respect to product activation (the leader stimulates work and enables the group to achieve objectives that it would not otherwise have achieved).
  • Regarding interpersonal sensitivity (a leader is also recognised for his/her ability to identify the needs and expectations of team members).
The four foundations of the leader's role

In short, a leader is recognised as the one who meets the group’s expectations. Similarly, if the needs of the team are no longer accurately identified and taken into account, this may lead to the loss of leadership recognition.

The difficulty is that these needs evolve and even increase in the particular context of remote management. If we take a look at the pyramid representation (inspired by Maslow), we may be able to identify the potential pitfalls a manager needs to avoid.

Pyramid of Needs

It is a great mistake to ignore material issues, i.e. the needs of collaborators to carry out their work at distance under good conditions (you need to ensure that basic requirements are met: an adequate internet connection, access to a computer, appropriate software and telephones which work, etc.).

The manager must ensure that social ties within the dispersed team are not eroded (loss of team spirit, lack of mutual aid, absence of solidarity and increased individualism).

There is a real risk of falling into the trap of exercising excessive control (operating at a distance requires the development of trust, distance should not give employees the impression that they must be available for their manager at any time of day or night).

You need to be careful not to be less appreciative of efforts to adapt and in recognising commitment during this period, especially as it can be difficult to cope with. In this particular context, encouragement and recognition are particularly important.

We can also identify other pitfalls linked to the urgency of implementing telework:

  • Not paying attention to the development of hyperconnectivity among some employees (any behaviour that may generate bad feelings among the team and generally result in counterproductive situations).
  • Letting telework practices evolve in a piecemeal way (if there is a lack of coherence and coordination, such as having one part of the team using Slack software and the other using Skype, etc.).
  • Increasing distances or difficulties. Particular care must be taken when introducing physical distance if there is already a cultural “distance” in the team, as it can exacerbate misunderstandings and tensions. Similarly, the context of physical distance with respect to new or inexperienced employees may constitute an additional handicap to their integration and collaboration.
  • Not adapting one’s remote management style. As the circumstances in which work is carried out change, so the needs and expectations of the teams change and this means that management must also evolve.

What best practices could you implement to maintain and strengthen your style of leadership at distance?

In order to identify best practices that will enable managers to meet expectations and assert their leadership, we suggest dividing them in three categories based on these 3 key words: aligning, supporting and uniting.

Crises are synonymous with challenges, but they also constitute great opportunities to evolve.

The current health crisis is no exception to this rule. On the one hand, it is an opportunity to show the team that it is capable of adapting whilst at the same time strengthening the confidence and autonomy that every manager must have in his/her employees. On the other hand, it gives managers the opportunity to anchor and strengthen their leadership by implementing practices grouped around 3 key words: aligning, supporting and uniting.

It is important to define a framework for working at distance.
The manager must ensure that all team members receive the support they need to deal with the situation (whether directly from him/her or by organising support from someone else).

By encouraging moments of conviviality and celebrating small successes.

If these principles are applied to identify and respond to the needs of the team, then the manager has every chance of emerging from this period, not weakened, but having risen to the challenge, while strengthening his/her leadership style.

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