The Surprising Traits of Good Remote Leaders

Strong in-person leadership skills don’t necessarily translate to being a good virtual leader. Instead, organisation and competency reign supreme.F

Fifteen years ago, Steven Charlier, chair of management at Georgia Southern University in the US, had a hunch that in-person charisma and leadership skills don’t translate virtually. “Before I became an academic, I worked for IBM for a number of years on a lot of virtual teams,” he says. “I had a boss who was a wonderful guy and great manager, and he drove me crazy trying to communicate. He was incredibly slow and unresponsive.” 

This seed of professional vexation has borne fruit, with new data showing that the confidence, intelligence and extroversion that have long propelled ambitious workers into the executive suite are not enough online, because they simply don’t translate into virtual leadership. Instead, workers who are organised, dependable and productive take the reins of virtual teams. Finally, doers lead the pack – at least remotely.

The study shows that, instead of those with the most dynamic voices in the room, virtual teams informally anoint leaders who actually do the work of getting projects done. “They are the individuals who help other team members with tasks, and keep the team on schedule and focused on goals,” says lead author Radostina Purvanova, an associate professor of management and leadership at Drake University in the US state of Iowa.

The ascendance of worker bees to remote leadership roles may provide validation – and even relief – to the legions of hard workers who have, for generations, watched charming colleagues rise to the top.Instead of those with the most dynamic voices in the room, virtual teams informally anoint leaders who actually do the work of getting projects done (Credit: Alamy)

Instead of those with the most dynamic voices in the room, virtual teams informally anoint leaders who actually do the work of getting projects done (Credit: Alamy)

‘Doers’ getting their due

The study, published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, tracked 220 US-based teams to see which team members emerged as leaders across in-person, virtual and hybrid groups. The researchers conducted a series of in-lab experiments with 86 four-person teams, and also traced the communications and experiences of 134 teams doing a semester-long project in a university class (students are commonly used as proxy for workers in leadership research). The study was carried out pre-pandemic, focusing on emergent leadersthose perceived as leaders, and whose influence is willingly accepted.

As expected, the face-to-face teams chose leaders with the same confident, magnetic, smart-seeming extroverted traits that we often see in organisational leaders. “The people who portray themselves as organised, dependable and reliable look to us like effective leaders,” says Purvanova. But those chosen as remote leaders were doerswho tended towards planning, connecting teammates with help and resources, keeping an eye on upcoming tasks and, most importantly, getting things done. These leaders were goal-focused, productive, dependable and helpful.

The ascendance of worker bees to remote leadership roles may provide to the legions of hard workers who have watched charming colleagues rise to the top

In other words, virtually, the emphasis shifts from saying to doing. This discovery is timely, as most of our workplace in-person teams are now all or partially digital operations in the wake of the pandemic.

“In face-to-face interactions, most of us are very easily swayed by the power of personality,” says Purvanova. “Virtually, we are less swayed by someone’s personality and can more accurately assess whether or not they are actually engaging in important leadership behaviours. People are more likely to be seen based on what they actually do, not based on who they are.”

Georgia Southern’s Charlier is not surprised to find a wide gulf between the behaviours of in-person and remote leaders. “In any leadership role, you’ve got to establish that trust. It’s trusting that the person is going to do things, and trusting that they’re telling the truth and being up front and honest. But how you go about doing that virtually is a little different – it’s a different skill set.”

Laying important groundwork

Studying leader emergence is complicated: teams are rarely strictly virtual or face-to-face, and instead operate on a hybrid continuum (for example, teams that work in-office, yet communicate by Slack). Meanwhile, leaders’ behaviours and personality traits have different effects along that continuum, and need to be tracked and measured – both as reported by teammates and self-reported, all in real time. This is the first broad study to trace all those threads.Even though face-to-face colleagues choose gregarious leaders, new research shows that those who get down to executing tasks are better virtual leaders (Credit: Alamy)

Even though face-to-face colleagues choose gregarious leaders, new research shows that those who get down to executing tasks are better virtual leaders (Credit: Alamy)

Nataly Lorinkova, an assistant professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, says that the research opens the door to further exploration of virtual leaders’ interpersonal relationships and emotion management.

“To me, this is half the story,” she says, pointing out that though the study data touches on interpersonal relationships, it more heavily measures task-oriented actions, which are only a portion of what drive leadership. “The next logical step is [to study] how team members manage interpersonal relations and behaviours and who emerges as leaders. We don’t really know that.” For example, a follow-up study might explore whether doer leaders maintain interpersonal skills over time.

In the meantime, gregarious types who naturally assume in-person leadership roles shouldn’t despair. Transforming into a winning remote leader is feasible, but the adjustment might be rocky, and “could be frustrating to people who are used to emerging as leaders on project teams, and suddenly find that people aren’t paying as much attention to them”, says Barbara Larson, executive professor of management at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, who is a leader in virtual team research. She finds the study’s implications meaningful, including the need for widespread workplace training in virtual social dynamics.

“It’s kind of exciting, if you think about it,” says Larson. “Suddenly it’s not just about who talks the most, but rather, who is actually getting stuff done.”

By Arianne Cohen 9th September, 2020 https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200827-why-in-person-leaders-may-not-be-the-best-virtual-ones

4 ways to design employee experience in the remote work era

Employee satisfaction isn’t just good for the work environment — it also makes companies stronger. Firms rated in the top 25% in terms of employee experience have the best business value, according to researchers from the MIT Center for Information Systems Research, who found that those companies also have higher customer satisfaction rates, are faster and more agile — and are more profitable.Work smart with our Thinking Forward newsletterInsights from MIT experts, delivered every Tuesday morning.Email Address 

Companies that build positive employee experiences enable workers through an adaptive work environment and collective work habits to do the work of today and to reimagine the work of tomorrow, according to Kristine Dery, a research scientist as CISR who focuses on the relationship between technology and how people work. And with widespread disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have had to reimagine experience for employees scattered in thousands of different “workplaces” — their homes.

During a recent webinar, Dery and executives from CarMax and multinational law firm King & Wood Mallesons said longstanding roadblocks have faded during the work from home transition, as even reluctant companies or employees had to quickly embrace communication platforms and other technologies. At the same time, new challenges have emerged as companies attempt to recreate systems and working methods that worked in the office.

Here are four ways to design employee experiences in the coronavirus era:

Shift from survival to redesign

After several months of research about employee experiences during the pandemic, Dery said organizations tend to go through three phases.

During the survival phase, companies are focused on becoming operational and more connected by getting everyone up and running despite disruption, and making sure required hardware, software, and capabilities are in place. Communication often flows one way from the company to employees during this phase.

Eventually, companies move into the recreating and reimagining the employee experience phase — finding out what employees need to thrive again. Things become more chaotic as multiple demands emerge and what seemed to be working might turn out to be problematic. Pre-disruption difficulties become more enhanced, and problems might emerge as new tools and technologies are deployed. The key during this phase is to listen and work hard.

Finally, companies should move into the redesigning phase as they start to implement ways for employees to succeed in the COVID-19 environment and beyond. During this phase, look for data, insights, and stories to learn what’s sticking.

Move from a “culture of heroics” to processes and systems

Companies that deliver strong employee experiences deliberately move away from a culture of heroics, in which employees often have to go above and beyond to find ways to deliver for customers, becoming “heroes” in the organization, Dery said.  

Instead of depending on heroic employees, companies should focus on processes and systems that can deliver for customers consistently and solve more complex problems. “Let’s figure those things out, and then let’s embed those into our organization, either through technology or through behaviors or through new metrics. That connection is much more systemic,” she said.

Implementing systems includes:

-Integrating operations across silos to make it easier for employees to innovate and deliver on the customer experience.

-Allowing seamless access to data and information about customers, putting power into the hands of employees to do what technology can’t do.

-Digitizing work, which allows for employee mobility — especially important now — and employee self-help.

-Using employee platforms, which allow employees to search for information and ideas, easily share knowledge, and reduce duplication.

Companies should also consider a dedicated customer experience team. “That phase where different employee experiences across the company were creating all sorts of quite chaotic decisions and responses was managed much more effectively by companies that had a dedicated [employee experience] team, that were looking at that right across the organization, and able to create more systemic accountability measures,” Dery said. These companies were able to get technology into the hands of employees faster, and could anticipate speed bumps ahead of time, instead of reacting to them after the fact.  

Use empathetic leadership to make connections  

Empathetic leadership is another driver of success, Dery said, as leaders ask employees to share concerns and where they need support. This doesn’t just mean soft caring skills, which are also important right now, Dery said. “It’s really changing the whole dynamic of leadership within organizations and ways of thinking about what great leaders look like, in these more remote environments,” she said.2 5 %Share 

-Integrating operations across silos to make it easier for employees to innovate and deliver on the customer experience.

-Allowing seamless access to data and information about customers, putting power into the hands of employees to do what technology can’t do.

-Digitizing work, which allows for employee mobility — especially important now — and employee self-help.

-Using employee platforms, which allow employees to search for information and ideas, easily share knowledge, and reduce duplication.

Firms rated in the top 25% in terms of employee experience have the best business value, according to researchers.

This was part of the work from home transition for employees at King & Wood Mallesons, which shifted to remote work in March, according to Michelle Mahoney, the executive director of innovation.

While the company first made sure employees had what they needed to work at home, King & Wood Mallesons also saw a significant increase in conversations and check-ins, Mahoney said. The company conducted employee surveys every two weeks — now every four weeks — about leadership, well-being, remote technology, and whether employees were able to continue delivering what was needed to clients.

Teams were eager to recreate line-of-sight management despite being disconnected, Mahoney said, leading to an increase in using digital Kanban boards, which allow teams to visualize work flows. “They love seeing the work for the week, reports of each day,” she said. “They know where it’s going. They’ve had a huge impact around being more in control of what’s coming.”

If anything, Mahoney said, connecting is proving too easy.

“One thing we haven’t been able to conquer … is about people being able to turn off,” Mahoney said. The company might have suggestions and advice about how to disconnect at the end of the day, she said, but people are still struggling with how to turn off “work mode.”

Enable empowered teams

Shamim Mohammad, senior vice president and chief information and technology officer at CarMax, said his company has benefitted from cross-functional product teams — groups of seven to nine people who are given specific outcome goals to accomplish through experimenting, testing, and learning along the way. Every two weeks the teams present what they’ve accomplished to other product teams and members of the C-suite. Management has visibility and transparency into the work being done, while teams know their leaders have a vested interest in what they are doing.

CarMax is still using objectives and key results to measure car sales and company performance, though the smaller teams have specific business outcome goals, which easily aligns with remote work.

“We’re supporting them to go through this experimentation mindset,” Mohammad said. Especially now, “we cannot have all the people locked in a room, right? They’re distributed, they’re all over the place, and creativity really comes from the team, not from the leaders.”

Sara Brown https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/4-ways-to-design-employee-experience-remote-work-era