Updated: Aug 15
Leading a Strong Organizational Culture Remotely Through the Pandemic
Working alongside leaders for over twenty years in the corporate world I have gathered an array of experience with some of the finest executives in the financial, healthcare, legal, hospitality and pharmaceutical industries, some at fortune 500 companies, working remotely and on site worldwide. Witnessing an immense amount of knowledge and expertise on strong leadership and then also observing poor leadership at its finest and providing my perspective as an experienced coach working with executives on leading a strong organizational culture remotely through the pandemic.
The finest leaders are those that inspire their employees to work hard and work well for the organization they represent. The difference between the average and an outstanding one is a one that inspires employees to complete a broader mission. The characteristics that turn an average or good Executive/ Leader into a phenomenal one, are: trust, honesty, integrity, empathy, listening and even a bit of tough love, with a high level of emotional intelligence now a days, are all essential ingredients to strong leadership in today’s world. They define a strategy and create a culture that drives employee behavior in their absence.
Organizations have quickly pivoted to a remote working environment, forcing an accelerated response to provide their employees with the tools and resources required to do their jobs effectively from home. This is no small task when you consider many employees not only had to adjust to working remotely, but also had to do this in addition to homeschooling their children, often sharing office space with their significant other.
Today’s Executives and Leaders need to be agile, resilient, and transparent, thinking beyond the box, moving themselves and their business’ forward during challenging times. Organize your workforce efficiently navigating unforeseen changes along the way. Strategically implementing the changes necessary for you and the organization to succeed in the future.
In large organizations through the uncertainty of the pandemic executives need to fast track their ideas, empowering decisions at lower levels of the organization. Creating an agile working environment. Balancing at the top, including their leadership team.
Agile leadership demands that executives create a carefully balanced system that delivers both stability and agility, a system that runs the business effectively, changes to the business’ efficiency, and merges the two activities without destroying both elements.
Leading remotely can be challenging for many leaders that have not remotely lead their team in this environment. Assuring your organizations team is setup appropriately for efficiency is required.
Harvard Business Review conducted research during the pandemic that demonstrated a large number of Leaders were struggling with managing effectively remotely with their individual teams working from home, later transitioning into issues of un trust and feelings of micromanagement by their direct reports. The consequences of poor management for workers, families, and the economy suggests an urgent need to help develop Leaders’ skills remotely in this area. Based on Harvard's research it was suggested to:
Begin at the Top of the Organization.
Provide Practical Support for Remote Workers.
Provide the Education Necessary to Work Effectively in Remote Working Environment and include it Benefits.
Train Leaders to Entrust Job Autonomy.
Manage for Results.
During the pandemic, some leaders are having a hard time adjusting to managing employees that are not within their sight. Many employees are feeling the negative effects of close monitoring and distrust from their bosses. These Leaders can be supported and trained to provide trust and delegate more work appropriately.
Building a strong organizational culture:
The traditional lunch with colleagues or even having it delivered when leading remotely may not provide the same results. As a past colleague of a worldwide line working remotely was the name of the game, you needed to use your time wisely at home, setting boundaries (read more on Ack Professionals blog on Setting Boundaries for Remote Working Professionals), time management was essential, so when the pandemic hit and people were required to lead remote teams, it was evident if they had no prior experience prior to the pandemic many were not prepared or equipped and found it challenging to lead and shift accordingly. A small nonprofit organization that I support was not prepared to shift easily to the ever changing requirements of the pandemic and remote work requirement to move forward through the pandemic requiring face to face interaction with little funding for incorporating the changes required to move forward safely and securely for their employees and clients. Coaching clients I have witnessed the remote requirement setting at two different ends of the spectrum. Suggestions for those leaders who have concerns with the productivity of their team working remotely can assure they are set up for success and not failure during this time that is currently labeled the new norm:
Share the mission with your team:
A powerful mission can inspire remote employees to stay motivated even when no one is watching.
Communicate your expectations:
Provide effective communication to your team and how to communicate effectively as a team moving forward. Clarify goals and expectations. Relaunch the team aligning goals and talents when needed.
Exchange ongoing learning and knowledge:
Allow your team to lead sessions where they present on topics, they are most passionate about. Provide opportunities for feedback and self-reflection:
Hold one of the team members accountable for keeping a running journal of actions, wins, questions, and upcoming ideas meetings.
Provide actions from each of the items from your meetings: Meet at least weekly as a team or separately with each of your direct reports.
Feedback and self-reflection are especially important for remote teams, since not everyone is proactive or confident enough to send a direct message or schedule a 1:1 meeting with a manager to get the help they need. Keep the lines open and communicate your expectations as a leader working remotely.
Don’t overwhelm you or your staff with virtual meetings allow time for productivity.
Its exhausting going from zoom to zoom to call to text to email to the bathroom. Literally. Allow time for your team to focus. Use the time wisely in your meetings. If a meeting is not essential and the answer can be found via messaging, send a message and save the time.
Celebrate and acknowledge wins. Encourage your team to share wins. These can be personal wins, but especially team wins. This is something the leader is involved in and can interact with the team.
Collecting the wins each month and sharing them in a monthly meeting through your organizations platforms and recognizing your direct reports wins and encouragements will help with the team growth and trust over time.
I encourage nominating an Employee of the Month from the contributions received by your direct reports or colleagues. The employee of the month will be rewarded and receive an acknowledgement such as a gift card, lunch, wherever you believe would be most beneficial for your team. Maybe your company is doing well and can provide getaway or dinner. Maybe you are a nonprofit and money is a concern, a cup of coffee or a promotional cup even a certificate printed from the company will do! People like to be acknowledged for their work. Appreciate your team.
Create a virtual water cooler
A way for your team to create their own language amongst the group. A custom emoji, as well as emoji that are associated with certain circumstances or people. Interact and respond using emojis to express your approval, disapproval, excitement, encouragement, interest, or even disappointment. It may sound silly to the executive, but texts and emails don’t always provide emotion nor a clear message and using emojis can give a bit more out of your team to understand the message and reciprocate accordingly. Just assure your team is not spending more time on it than working. Have a policy in place to assure that all custom emojis are workplace appropriate. I have seen a few that would not have been approved in my times.
Most of all be supportive
Leaders can adapt the way they lead their teams through the pandemic by ramping up support and refining communications in several ways:
Technical: Provide the necessary technological resources for your teams to work effectively. Assure training is provided. Promote team comradery and reduce the fear of failure. Encourage your team to help each other and be creative in finding solutions. Be open-minded and promote creativity out of your comfort zone.
Trust: Now more than ever is the time to build trust within your direct reports. Build trust with your teams by involving them more in transparent decision making. Focus on creating an environment which encourages everyone to speak up openly and comfortable constructively challenging ideas, including yours. Be especially conscious of individuals wanting to protect their jobs which can hold them back from providing open communication.
Creativity: Be creative with your direct reports virtually, find ways for you and your team to connect. Providing the trust essential to delegate the tasks necessary for you as the leader to move on and forward quickly and efficiently through the pandemic. Building the trust necessary to allow your team to work efficiently and effectively. When trust is built, delegation is provided, and productivity is increased.
The pandemic is impacting both Leaders’ and employees’ work, well-being, and productivity with remote working environments especially if they were not working remotely prior to the pandemic.
Many of these leaders are struggling in their roles and would benefit from more support. As suspected, research suggests that better quality management will improve remote workers’ wellbeing and performance.
A large number of workers reported feeling that they needed to be constantly available, such as being expected to respond to email, text and telephone messages immediately, be available at all times, and be responsive after work hours.
From a productivity perspective, it is not logical to believe when people are monitored that they will perform better. There was one leader I worked with that believed if they sent an email and it was not responded to quickly that the individual was not working. I can completely relate to this and believe those that prioritize their day, and manage their time well, will complete more working from home with less unnecessary interruptions that an open space working environment provides in many times with less interruption. Being in emails all day is nonproductive to many environments and you need to provide time management on your priorities and duties throughout the day. As long the employee is self-motivated, and a workplace assigned that is productive and not interrupted.
Micromanagement is not an effective way to get the best out of people. Research has shown that the more a worker feels mistrusted, the lower their perception that they are performing their core tasks well.
Valuing Integrity in the Organization
I. Set the example. Be the Leader Everyone would like to report to
Leadership must openly and directly embrace integrity. The CEO and others senior leaders are the role models who set the organizations ethical standard. If they are not honest, take shortcuts and do not follow the rules or policies outlined for the organization, ignore poor behavior by top performers, it provides a roadmap for others to follow and act accordingly. Leaders must openly support integrity, embrace it as part of the culture, and do what is right for them and the organization personally & professionally.
II. Support those that show the highest standards of integrity.
As a leader you cannot expect integrity will naturally occur. Leaders must talk and walk with integrity openly, honestly, and regularly about its importance. When orientating your employees this is a great place to start but continue communicating and setting the example for you and the organization. Set a day aside that the whole organization can join in and celebrate. The CEO should be setting the tone while the senior leaders support that tone and represent the company accordingly. Provide the companies mission, and how that mission intertwines with the values and ethics, using real examples from employees and organizations career.
III. Be sure any violations can be reported and are investigated thoroughly.
Create a culture that is not afraid to have people raise ethical questions and welcomes exampling doing the right from the wrong for themselves and the organization they represent. Assure that reporting system is easy to navigate for you and your team.
IV. Provide the consequences for non-ethical behavior.
Leaders and top performers cannot enjoy immunity. Ethical violations must be investigated, and when they are substantiated, fair and reasonable consequences must be handed out. Even in companies with a robust reporting and investigations protocol, employees may be skeptical that reports will be acted upon and may skeptically assume nothing happens. Many believe they are not important and will not be listened to. That sort of culture eats away the trust and discourages employees from reporting. Be sure to include a no retaliation policy and provide the standards for your employees to openly communicate their concerns.
Leading Remotely Moving Forward
While many companies may already be in a good position to fully support remote work, others that have built their culture around a centralized workforce may not be there just yet, and are struggling to provide their employees with tools that allow them to be effective, efficient, and collaborate anywhere.
Providing secure, remote access to core business systems allows employees to remain productive and engaged during this shift to a remote work environment that happened within days and at an unprecedented scale. Each organization and business are different in the requirement, some that come to mind include:
1. Video conferencing
2. Shared file storage drives
3. Secure, remote access to essential business systems
4. Ideally, an assigned workspace at home
5. Company phone
6. Laptop and/or iPad
Equipping employees with the proper technology, providing the infrastructure they need to work effectively will allow them to connect and collaborate remotely efficiently.
Effective leaders will recognize that there is not a one size will fit all approach for helping employees adapt to adversity, and continuously need to ask for feedback on the systems and strategies to assure everyone in the organization is adapting well to the new normal environment.
Their are several benefits of leading remotely in an organization. The first being money as the most obvious advantage for the organization to allow their employees and leaders to work remotely, eliminating the need for office space and associated costs. In addition to this retention remains high for those employees that work remotely; they are less likely to leave and may also work for less money for the convenience and increasing the employee's overall satisfaction.
In a recent article by Forbes on “The Remote Office is the New Normal” working remotely also increases recruitment attracting talent of remote workers while increasing satisfaction and retention.
Climate change is another top concern to many corporate organizations and their leaders, and the cost consumed. This should be an added advantage for everyone. Although transitioning to a remote work environment will not magically fix climate change, it is a step in the right direction.
Many large organizations that had not adopted a remote working environment prior to the pandemic are moving forward with remote working through the pandemic for the foreseeable future.
Remote working is not for every company but given the uncertainty of the pandemic all need to make their best effort for the safety and health of their employees, clients and customers, minimizing the contact to flatten the curve. What the past months have shown us is that working remotely can serve far more organizations than most leaders previously imagined.
Todays pandemic has also raised concerns and increased numbers with mental health. Leading a strong organizational culture through the pandemic is essential. Assuring your teams mental health is intact is critical to success. Develop a strong organizational culture. Communicate effectively and often remotely with your teams meeting as a group but also your team and leader is meeting 1:1 with direct reports. Have a clearly communicated policy and procedure in place to confront and follow-up with those that are exhibiting mental health issues such as signs anger, denial, depression, detaching from the group, anxiety and/or irritability beyond the normal. Watch for signs of burnout in your staff and leader. As a leader take the time and effort to hire a coach, psychologist and/or therapist for your organization to work with you and your employees through this challenging time.
For leaders that are finding this environment challenging and overwhelmed with the stress and often leading to burn out, trying to build a team remotely, breath and take a moment to complete our Leading Remotely Effectively and Burnout Questionnaire:
As a new or acclimated leader working remotely do not over obsess in leading your team. The new normal changes daily and so do the priorities in today's working world. Embrace it. The benefits are likely favorable for you and the organization in a remote working world. Offering your support as a leader during the pandemic helps to create a vision for your team to move forward. When challenges are evident on meeting deadlines and productivity, then address the concerns and communicate effectively. Instill comradery and value integrity, trust in your team and build your organization through this uncertain time moving forward to the future.
Interested in learning more on our leadership development programs in remote work settings? Please visit www.ackprofessionallifecoaching.com and schedule a complimentary confidential 30 remote discovery session today and build your remote team to greatness.