With the increase of digitalisation, flexible working hours and international projects, and the Corona pandemic driving them all, traditional office work as we know it is increasingly being replaced by virtual workforces. Contrary to popular belief, these too require leadership.
Coordinating employees across different time zones and keeping them motivated is one of the main objectives of modern leadership—and one of its biggest challenges. Over the past months here at Bechtle, we have learnt hands-on how well decentralised remote working and leadership can work. But there’s always room to grow.
So what do we need to do to meet our employees’ needs during their transition to remote working even better? We believe the following points are crucial:
We need a new understanding of leadership, because leadership is Management as a Service.
Elke Reichart, CDO of the TUI Group and member of the Supervisory Board at Bechtle
In this time of rapid change, principles and guidelines are more important than ever before, as they provide direction and can be used as a reference when in doubt. Bechtle covered this aspect by reworking the Leadership Principles in 2019. Now, five new principles set out the way of leaders at Bechtle, not to split hairs, but to inspire leaders while giving them the leeway they need to make individual adjustments. It's all about being fair, respectful and professional. It is up to leaders to set a scene in which each and every one at Bechtle can embrace their role in an effective team environment. This applies to “classic” leadership as well as remote leadership. Elke Reichart, CDO of the TUI Group and member of the Supervisory Board at Bechtle since 2017 summed it up nicely at the first virtual Bechtle Competence Day: “We need a new understanding of leadership, because leadership is Management as a Service.”
Recent studies have shown that a lot of leaders are still very behind in this regard. Organisational scientists Florian Kunze and Sophia Zimmermann from the University of Konstanz started an empirical longitudinal study in March 2020 on remote working, which yielded some sobering results: 78 percent of employees expect their leaders to address them individually when working remotely—and quite rightly so— but only 57 percent of leaders meet these expectations. This brings us to our next point.
Leaders should lead the way in proactive communication by orchestrating the right calls.
Ascan Collier, member of the board of directors at Bechtle L&S GmbH
No communication is not an option. This is nothing new, but for virtual teams, communication is make or break. Leaders have to create a sense of community across a distance. Remote leadership demands structure, clarity and the honest communication of expectations as well as the willingness to contact all employees more frequently, also one-on-one. This has to be a priority for leaders while motivating the team to communicate more with each other plays a very important role in this process. Or in other words, more is more. More private exchanges, more communication to avoid misunderstandings, more discussions about purpose—all with the goal of boosting motivation levels.
In the highly successful leadership training for the Leadership Initiative at Bechtle, trainer and coach Jork-Raimar Gutsmuths underlined the importance of the right means of communication, be it through regular meetups or quality time spent among colleagues. His message is that good leaders need to ask questions and listen to their employees proactively to create a sense of closeness when working across a distance.
When managing a remote team, it’s even more important for leaders to pay attention to detail and to show interest, intuition and empathy. If you sense that an employee is in doubt about something, then call them right away.
Ascan Collier, member of the board of directors at Bechtle L&S GmbH is a prime example. To avoid relations between employees getting too sterile, he introduced “coffee talks” where business matters are strictly off the table. He also lays his focus on proactive communication with colleagues and manufacturers to compensate for the lack of physical closeness. “Leaders should lead the way by orchestrating the right calls”, says Ascan Collier. His credo: If we breathe life into our Leadership Principles, we have a positive impact on our corporate culture.
Why not draw on the resources provided by your employer? Bechtle offers a three-hour webinar on “remote leadership” as a part of its Leadership Development programme. Participants are invited to work intensively on the challenges that come with leading virtual teams. The Bechtle Academy also allows them to gain qualifications for other important topics: “conflict management”, “conducting performance reviews” and “management communication” are all on the agenda. And not to forget the leadership page that went online in February 2020. This internal platform is not only aimed at leaders, but explicitly at employees. Because one thing’s clear: Leadership only works with collaboration.
Besides regular communication, trust is essential for leadership—whether on-site or remotely. Research has revealed that the location you work is secondary to your motivation. And this is actually exciting: Modern neuroscience has shown what actually drives people to work. People are motivated to work—becoming “active volunteers”—when they feel accepted and part of a group.
This is only possible if you show empathy, trust and self-determination. But how can leaders work on more trust and self-determination “virtually”? An observation made by neuropsychologists might help: Emotional resonance during video calls is an important factor for trustful collaboration, as it is a means of conveying validation and respect. Emotional resonance entails imitating your employee’s facial expressions, displaying affirming gestures, listening actively and holding friendly eye contact. The employee’s brain will then associate a positive experience with the leader, because they feel respected—and this will strengthen the relationship.
This is why regular video calls are crucial: The more often we see someone, the more likeable we perceive them as. This seeps into our memory, which in turn makes us trust them more. On the one hand, trust signalises an equal relationship, but it also serves as a starting point for collaborating successfully across distances.
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