Mastering digital leadership in the remote work environment

By | 3 minute read | March 8, 2022

Many organizations have become increasingly virtual in the past two years. This rapid and unexpected shift to remote work significantly impacted the employee experience and requires businesses to adapt the way they operate. A focus on leadership behaviors and organizational culture is critical to ensure continued employee engagement and performance.

A challenging employee experience

Debates persist on whether remote working leads to an improved work-life balance because many of us are working longer hours with higher workloads. In addition, client expectations have remained unchanged or increased as many organizations try to offset potential financial losses.

  • Employees often experience the following challenges in the world of digital and remote work:
  • Digital collaboration, communication and technical difficulties
  • Prioritization related to organizational pressure and the increased blurring of home-work boundaries
  • Feelings of isolation due to fewer social interactions, greater task focus and reduced opportunities for team bonding and development
  • Lack of engagement with the wider organization and a perceived disconnect between organizational culture and lived behaviours
  • Reduced performance-management processes such as career planning and less regular feedback
  • Perceived lack of career advancement and limited growth opportunities
    due to reduced visibility to leadership

These challenges may lead to employees believing there’s reduced organizational support, which diminishes job satisfaction, motivation and performance—and may also affect mental and physical wellbeing. To address multiple concerns raised due to this shift, organizations must take action and greater responsibility for their employees’ organizational and personal lives. For example, companies may offer flexible work contracts for caregivers and provide financial reimbursements for setting up home offices.

Refocusing leadership behaviors, skills and traits in the remote-work era
Leading in a fully remote environment requires new leadership behaviors, skills, traits and ways of working, as leaders now need to engage with dispersed and potentially larger, culturally different teams. Leaders should adopt the transformative leadership style and focus on authenticity to combat any negative effects of the increased leadership distance and mitigate the impacts of the challenging employee experience.

Transformative leadership is based on practices that encourage and motivate individuals, foster growth and demonstrate consideration for each person. In the virtual world, building genuine relationships is an additional, critical success criterion for effective leadership and the precedent to effective team dynamics.

What this means in practice

Demonstrate empathy for the whole person
Empathy has long been an important factor for leadership but it’s even more important in remote settings as employees struggle to stay connected with their organizations beyond job-related tasks. Listening effectively and building meaningful relationships by asking personal questions, without prying, are ways to success. On-camera meetings have become windows to our personal lives and make it easier to connect–seeing family photos or books in the background or hearing a dog bark could be interesting conversation starters. Leaders can encourage colleagues to bring their whole selves to work by sharing stories about their own personal lives and being attentive to a colleague’s needs.

Genuine wellbeing check-ins and personal connections are key to keeping people engaged, with leaders taking on a certain level of responsibility for the social lives of employees. The humanizing of employees means caring about people and their wellbeing beyond the impacts it may have on work. For example, agenda-less meetings to simply catch up could replace a drink after work or watercooler conversations. Infusing regular social time into busy work schedules counteracts the strong task-focus of the digital work environment and builds trust, a significant predictor of effective teamwork.

Demonstrate authenticity in all interactions
Mental health has increasingly become recognized as a central factor for successful personal and organizational outcomes, and leaders can empower employees to bring their whole self to work via role modelling. Transparency about relatable challenges of remote work-life and a degree of vulnerability make employees feel more at ease about sharing their own difficulties. This evokes feelings of a shared journey and increases empathy. This empathy may reduce the perceived psychological and structural distance between leaders and employees in the remote environment.

Particularly when building team, an authentic leadership style can be used to create transparent teams and supportive, inclusive cultures. Examples of this include team introductions that focus on preferred ways of working, personality types and communication styles, which helps employees feel encouraged to be authentic and know what to expect of their colleagues.

In my next blog, we’ll explore how to enable digital remote leadership and how organizations can adapt in a virtual-work world.