Working Remotely

Guest post by Scott Edinger

Who is more engaged and more committed to their work and rates their leaders the highest?

A. People who work in the office
B. People who work remotely

If you picked A, you might be as surprised as the investment firm I worked with recently, which found in reviewing results of a 360-degree feedback process that the answer was, in fact, B.

The team members who were not in the same location with their leaders were more engaged and committed — and rated the same leader higher — than team members sitting right nearby. While the differences were not enormous (a couple of tenths of a point in both categories), they were enough to provoke some interesting speculations as to why this might be happening.

It made perfect sense to me, though. Here is why:

Proximity breeds complacency. I’ve worked with leaders who sit in the same office with those they manage but go for weeks without having any substantive face-time with them. In fact they may use e-mail as their primary source of communication when they sit less than 50 feet away. It’s even worse if they sit in different parts of a building — or all the way on another floor. This is not to say that these leaders are in any way lazy — just that because the possibility of communicating is so easy, it is so often taken for granted.

Absence makes people try harder to connect. When I managed a team of professionals in nine different locations, I made a point of deliberately reaching out to each of them by phone at least once a week, and frequently more often. I’m not an anomaly here. Most leaders I work with make an extra effort to stay connected to those they don’t ordinarily run into. They can see that taking even a few minutes to talk about what’s happening in their respective worlds before addressing the tasks at hand makes a difference in maintaining the connection with a colleague. What’s more, because they have to make an effort to make contact, these leaders can be much more concentrated in their attention to each person and tend to be more conscious of the way they express their authority.

Leaders of virtual teams make a better use of tools. Because leaders of far-flung teams have to use videoconferencing, instant messaging, e-mail, voicemail, and yes, the telephone, to make contact, they become proficient in multiple forms of communication, an advantage in leadership that their traditional counterparts could well develop but not so automatically.

Leaders of far-flung teams maximize the time their teams spend together. Having had to make such an effort to get the team together, these leaders naturally want to make the best use of their precious time. They take care to filter out as many distractions as possible so they can focus on the work to be done together. They also typically spend more than an ordinary work day together, socializing at planned luncheons, dinners, and activities. This level of focused attention is hard to replicate day to day. I’ve heard from some employees who work near their bosses on teams whose other members work elsewhere that the most time they spend with their leader is when the others come in for such meetings.

None of this is to say that working remotely is better than coming to the office. Or that virtual teams are better than traditional ones. On the contrary, I’m suggesting that they are exactly the same this regard: Someone working in the same office with their leader needs just as much effective communication as someone located in a different office. It’s just that, ironically, they’re less likely to get it.

Scott Edinger is the founder of Edinger Consulting Group. He is a coauthor of the October 2011 HBR article, “Making Yourself Indispensable.” Connect with Scott at Twitter.com/ScottKEdinger.

The 6 Habits of True Strategic Thinkers

Being strategic is a tough job, make no mistake. “We need strategic leaders!” is a pretty constant refrain at every company, large and small. One reason the job is so tough: no one really understands what it entails. It’s hard to be a strategic leader if you don’t know what strategic leaders are supposed to do.

After two decades of advising organizations large and small, Paul J. H. Schoemaker, Founder and Chairman of Decision Strategies Intl, formed a clear idea of what’s required of you in this role. Adaptive strategic leaders — the kind who thrive in today’s uncertain environment – do six things well:

Anticipate Most of the focus at most companies is on what’s directly ahead. The leaders lack “peripheral vision.” This can leave your company vulnerable to rivals who detect and act on ambiguous signals. To anticipate well, you must:

  • Look for game-changing information at the periphery of your industry
  • Search beyond the current boundaries of your business
  • Build wide external networks to help you scan the horizon better

Think Critically– “Conventional wisdom” opens you to fewer raised eyebrows and second guessing. But if you swallow every management fad, herdlike belief, and safe opinion at face value, your company loses all competitive advantage. Critical thinkers question everything. To master this skill you must force yourself to:

  • Reframe problems to get to the bottom of things, in terms of root causes
  • Challenge current beliefs and mindsets, including their own
  • Uncover hypocrisy, manipulation, and bias in organizational decisions

Interpret Ambiguity is unsettling. Faced with it, the temptation is to reach for a fast (and potentially wrongheaded) solution. A good strategic leader holds steady, synthesizing information from many sources before developing a viewpoint. To get good at this, you have to:

  • Seek patterns in multiple sources of data
  • Encourage others to do the same
  • Question prevailing assumptions and test multiple hypotheses simultaneously

Decide– Many leaders fall pretty to “analysis paralysis.” You have to develop processes and enforce them, so that you arrive at a “good enough” position. To do that well, you have to:

  • Carefully frame the decision to get to the crux of the matter
  • Balance speed, rigor, quality and agility. Leave perfection to higher powers
  • Take a stand even with incomplete information and amid diverse views

Align– Total consensus is rare. A strategic leader must foster open dialogue, build trust and engage key stakeholders, especially when views diverge. To pull that off, you need to:

  • Understand what drives other people’s agendas, including what remains hidden
  • Bring tough issues to the surface, even when it’s uncomfortable
  • Assess risk tolerance and follow through to build the necessary support

Learn– As your company grows, honest feedback is harder and harder to come by. You have to do what you can to keep it coming. This is crucial because success and failure–especially failure–are valuable sources of organizational learning. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Encourage and exemplify honest, rigorous debriefs to extract lessons
  • Shift course quickly if you realize you’re off track
  • Celebrate both success and (well-intentioned) failures that provide insight

Do you have what it takes? Obviously, this is a daunting list of tasks, and frankly, no one is born a black belt in all these different skills. But they can be taught and whatever gaps exist in your skill set can be filled in. Learn more here, and in the comments below, let us know how your strategy has developed throughout your career.