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6 Personal Leadership Learnings from Working Remotely

When the opportunity to work remotely turns from a benefit to a challenge, it’s important to learn how to lead and motivate a team without being physically connected.

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Working from home on occasion is great. More and more companies are giving their employees the flexibility to regularly work remotely, in order to increase productivity and to allow better work/life integration.

Now – April 2020, in the middle of the global coronavirus crisis – many of us are facing a situation where we are working from home. It’s now gone from something we maybe did once a week to having to do it every single day. It’s not just a challenge for regular employees, it’s also one for leaders who just like me are also having to adapt and learn how best to guide their teams while also having to work remotely.

Are you facing that challenge too? Then keep reading.

Nobody is perfect – good leaders always listen and learn

I have the pleasure to lead a team of very talented and passionate content creators here at adidas. As a team, we have a pretty well-established way of working together which is trustful and productive. When it became clear that we all had to work remotely for an indefinite time, I suddenly got scared. Scared that I might lose control. That I wouldn’t be able to give the team everything they need. That I don’t have immediate solutions for the challenges this new situation brings.

But then I realized that I don’t need to have all the answers right away. Nobody is born as a perfect leader. Leadership is a skill that is learned, practiced, developed and refined over time.

And that is what I did. I asked my team for input, for their needs and wishes, I spoke to many leadership colleagues about their best practices, mixed all of that with my own experience and thoughts, and here they are:

1. Stay true to your culture

Yes, a new situation such as when you’re all having to work remotely requires you to adapt a couple of things here and there, but you shouldn’t change the basics of your behavior when working together. When you usually trust your colleagues and employees in a normal office working set-up, why would you suddenly not trust them anymore and start micromanaging?

At the core of our company culture at adidas are the so-called 3Cs: Collaboration, Confidence and Creativity. It is a set of behaviors that we want to see in our people and is something that influences the success of our company strategy. As leaders, we must reflect that in our own behavior, we have a huge effect on exactly that culture.

For me, keeping focus on driving – and enabling – collaboration, confidence and creativity within my team is absolutely vital, regardless of whether we’re all sitting in the same office or working remotely.

2. This is not business as usual – show some empathy

We need to acknowledge that this is a not a normal situation. It’s very likely that your team members suddenly have different challenges to deal with: kids to look after, not the right set-up to work from home for a longer period or other worries.

Take some time to ask for – and talk about – those individual challenges. Show that you understand. You can’t have a solution for everything, but a pragmatic attitude surely helps. Maybe it’s just about giving a bit more flexibility to working rhythm or set timelines.

Man at home with children in sports clothes, family, kids, sports, house
While we all need space to concentrate while working from home, it's still important for my kids and I to go for our lunchtime run together.

3. Transparency is key

In a situation where everyone is having to work remotely, you face the risk that necessary information gets lost on the way. Remember that if you want your team to work efficiently and with confidence, they need to know what is going on in the company. They need to understand how they fit into the bigger picture and you probably have access to information that your team doesn’t. You have to know about the decisions taken by senior management and share what might be relevant to your team. Don’t take for granted that they would hear about those things anyway. It’s better to repeat information than to have any disconnects.

4. Stay connected and human

colleagues enjoying the sun outside near Halftime building at World of Sports, adidas, team, colleagues, teamwork, collaboration, GamePlan A
The adidas HQ offers many spots for casual chats during the day. Make sure you also find time for those personal conversations when everyone is working remotely.

One thing you clearly need to double down on is staying connected with your team and staying human. People who suddenly need to work remotely are likely to feel disconnected and lonely. Think about the frequency as well as the formats you use to connect with them.

Having video meetings instead of regular calls definitely helps to fight the feeling of isolation. It is just nice for a team to see each other regularly, even if it’s just on the screen. And it helps to improve the communication too. While just wording or tone of voice can easily be misinterpreted, a smile or a nice gesture makes things much clearer.

For you as a manager, seeing your team on the screen also makes it easier to get an idea of how they are REALLY feeling – to get a sense of what the stress levels are like and recognizing signs of frustration within the team.

But don’t get stuck on only having video conferences. Mix it up with other formats, depending on individual preferences.

It depends on the industry you are working in, your set-up and the seniority level of your team. Again, just ask your team what they need and make sure they understand that you are present and available for them anytime.

And one last suggestion: You don’t always have to put an official catch-up into the diary. Just calling your team to see how they are doing, sending a spontaneous text, or leaving a WhatsApp voice note makes it feel less formal.

5. Don’t forget about the fun side of work

What people usually enjoy in the office are the regular social interactions with their colleagues. The spontaneous chats at the coffee machine, joint lunches or doing sports together at the end of the day.

Figure out how to make working remotely more fun for your team and make sure that there is enough room for the conversations that go beyond just the job.

Think of a fun motto for your team video meetings – like everyone wears his or her favorite football jersey. Organize quick virtual 10-15 min workouts once a week. The team that sweats together stays together.

I am sure your team appreciates your creativity here and it gives them the chance to get creative themselves. Just let them know that you are open to that.

Team wearing football jerseys during a video conference call, teamwork, collaboration, creativity, video, GamePlan A
Wearing your favorite football jersey for the team meeting is just one idea for how to make remote working a bit more fun.

6. More than ever, give clear focus and direction

Good communication is essential for leaders, but when working remotely it becomes of paramount importance. Setting clear goals isn’t as easy as it sounds, even in a normal office environment and it gets even harder when you can’t explain your ideas face-to-face. Make sure that your team fully understands what you expect them to do, as well as the things that they shouldn’t do.

Last – but certainly not least – give your team permission to pause, especially when working from home. Without a commute, your team might struggle to find a natural and official end to their workday.

As an article from the Harvard Extension School explained, “Without the clear boundaries that office life provides, the go-getters on your team may have workdays that never end, setting themselves up for exhaustion and resentment.”

Make sure that your team take time to pause, take a break, work out, put the phone down – not just during the day, but even more so at the end of it.

What do you do to motivate and inspire your team without being physically connected? And what do you expect from your manager when working remotely? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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by Vanessa LeFebvre 29.04.2020
Love this. Thank you for sharing! Well done.
by Tuan Ha 05.05.2020
Working remotely can increase the productivity and creativity sometimes but it also decreases the engagement between team members and loose the bond between them. The managers need more time to engage, connect, and inspire team members to follow with the working flow.
by Nora Wendel 21.07.2020
Thanks a lot for this inspiring article!

First time here?