The walls in my basement home office felt like they were closing in on me.
It was June 1, 2010. I sat at a card table with only my laptop, a phone, and a lamp, and boxes stacked around me. The Memorial Day weekend had just ended, and with it, a whirlwind relocation of my family back to Denver after living three years near Carol Stream, Illinois, where my employer, Christianity Today, is based. We could never sell our house in Denver when I took the job. After the renters bailed, Christianity Today graciously offered me the chance to move back and telecommute.
I was thrilled about the chance to live in a place I love, doing work I love as an editor and team leader.
But there I sat, claustrophobically, that Tuesday morning thinking, “How in the world am I going to lead a team this far away?“
Looking back nearly seven years later, it has worked—and I know it can for other leaders. Now more than ever, they must. The increasingly mobile workplace, along with increased expectations about flexible work situations, means long-distance leadership arrangements must succeed if we wish to see organizations flourish in the 21st century. To do so will require outstanding relational commitments from the organization, the team, and the leader that transcend time, place, and technology.
A Continuing Trend
Telecommuting isn’t new. Writing on the subject dates back several decades. And with each new advance in technological communication has come renewed—and expanded—attention to the topic. The availability of long-distance telephone services in the 1970s and early 1980s teamed with the widespread adoption of the fax machine and the emergence of video conferencing (clumsy as it was) in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, of course, came the mid-1990s, and the introduction of email and the internet to mainstream American culture.
Continued advances in broadband connectivity, internet video, collaborative social networking, and mobile devices have only accelerated the attention, making telecommuting and remote-work arrangements all the rage. It’s hard these days not to find coverage of the subject. Inc., Harvard Business Review, and other outlets regularly publish “how-to” articles and tips.
The statistics supporting the trend are notable, too. The US Census American Community Survey in 2012 estimated about 4.3 percent of the workforce telecommuted the majority of the week. A March 2014 New York Times article says that number swells to 30 percent when self-described “self-employed” individuals are counted. Global Workplace Analytics, a private consulting firm, believes as many as half of US jobs are conducive to remote-work arrangements, and many employers, according to a 2015 FlexJobs survey, now see telecommuting, especially for managerial and executive roles, as a key way to attract and retain talent. Many organizations report higher employee engagement and productivity, and lower real estate costs, too.
But just because these arrangements can—and likely will—happen doesn’t mean they will go well. And most press coverage about the trend typically acknowledge this reality by emphasizing technical logistics, talent selection, and general guidelines for a remote worker to follow. However, this coverage largely ignores a crucial angle. With increased remote arrangements comes an increased need for leaders who must lead effectively from afar. For them to succeed requires many things, but among them is the persistent pursuit to cultivate relationships separated by geography.
Rhythms and Reason
Katherine Chudoba and Martha Maznevski, two university professors, studied three different teams from the same organization in 1999 and drew several profound conclusions about why two of those teams succeeded so much more than the other one. All three teams shared a common corporate culture. All three featured eight or more members based from disparate locations across the globe, meaning each faced similar logistical challenges (e.g. team size, time zone differences, multiple schedules, clunky technology). All three also faced the tasks of navigating language and cultural differences.
The two effective teams, Chudoba and Maznevski concluded, identified consistent rhythms of communication between leaders and team members, and leaders and team members carefully matched the reasons for communicating with an appropriate medium through which to do it.
The professors’ findings mirror many of my long-distance leading experiences.
Through a lot of trial and error, our team uncovered the wisdom of a rhythmic meeting schedule:
Weekly check-ins: one hour each with co-leader(s) and direct reports.
Weekly subteam meeting: one hour.
Weekly team meeting: one hour.
Supervisor check-in: one hour at least every other week.
Face-to-face visits: three to four days at least once a quarter (preferably more frequent, depending on organizational finances).
We also learned the importance of selecting the right communication tool for the conversation at hand:
Simple information exchanges: instant messages and quick emails.
Check-ins, team meetings, problem-solving, and conflict resolution: phone calls, video chats, and team conference calls (phone or video).
Idea generation, strategy-setting, complex conflict resolution, and complex decision-making: face-to-face meetings (video calls if travel isn’t imminent).
“The Conversation is the Relationship”
I know. You’re thinking, That’s a lot of meetings! The list doesn’t even include other departmental and corporate gatherings, or strategic external connections with other individuals or organizations. Such a regimen seems counterintuitive, given the emphasis these days on productivity and fewer meetings, not to mention cutting travel costs.
But here’s the thing: in today’s leadership landscape, we fail to acknowledge that conversations are the essence of our work. Conversations accomplish important tasks and identify new ones. Conversations make or break the professional development of team members and the health and strength of a team. In Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott says “our work, our relationships, and, in fact, our very lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time.”
Scott’s overarching conclusion: the conversation is the relationship. This is certainly true in work settings involving leaders and team members based in different locations.
The listening we do every day as leaders, especially from a distance, becomes a powerful way of creating plans, detecting trouble, identifying patterns, and determining paths forward. It is work—hard work, at that.
Individually, I try to begin check-in conversations by asking one simple question: how can I best serve you during our time today? Some team members prefer to go through a list of what they’ve done and the immediate priorities ahead. Others immediately dive into the issue troubling them the most. Either way, I capture careful notes, which become the basis of my follow-ups and action items, and the foundations of performance reviews and professional development.
As a team, leading a meeting remotely requires a well-planned agenda, developed in consultation with any co-leader as well as those who will be asked to contribute reports or updates. It also requires time for quick personal updates and prayer requests. Finally, the leader should think like a television anchor, as Ross McCammon describes in an April 2015 Entrepreneur column, moving the conversation along, posing questions to the right person at the right time, and limiting his or her own remarks so that team members can contribute and action items get noted.
More Than Meetings
Leadership certainly involves more than meetings, and long-distance arrangements require other important details. For instance, organizations should consider committing budget money to technology, such as the remote leader’s high-speed internet connection and a video-conferencing service (we love Zoom), and regular trips for the off-site leader to the team’s home office. Teams must commit to using an online system of collaboration (we love Trello).
But leadership, especially from a long distance, won’t happen without this rhythmic meeting schedule focused on listening. It sets everyone up for success. Organizations have engaged teams working together. Team members have leaders who support and develop them. Long-distance leaders have teams that thrive. In turn, their own work will thrive.
And best of all, the walls won’t feel like they’re closing in on them.