Insight | 27 January 2021

Scaling remote leadership

James Bloor 800

James Bloor

CEO and co-founder


Sacaling remote leadership hero

Remote working has been on a global upward trajectory, with the U.S alone witnessing a 103% increase over the last decade. In 2021, this growth will likely accelerate with organisations forced to limit physical interaction and scale up work-from-home alternatives.

With remote working showing no signs of slowing down, leading and managing distributed teams will be a must have skill for all types of businesses, whether small, medium, or large.

The benefits of remote working are apparent with greater employee satisfaction, higher productivity, and cost savings among the indisputable advantages of this shift. If executed well, remote working can offer businesses a significant competitive advantage.

But, despite the availability of the right tools and the establishment of remote working processes, businesses still face the challenge of scaling their remote teams.

And remote working isn’t great for everyone. Challenger brands, according to The Challenger Project, are just one example where collaboration and physical closeness of teams is critical to success.

Growing trend in remote working

Although often referred to as a ‘trend’, some commentators believe it’s now time to call remote working by its real name; an industry. According to the 2020 State of Remote Work Report by Buffer, 98% of the 3,500 respondents stated their preference to continue working remotely for the rest of their careers, and 97% would readily recommend remote work to others. This is a mind-boggling statistic that business leaders need to think hard about.

And whilst a neutral might question the bias in those invited to take part in the survey, other highlights of the report indicate that:

  • 58% prefer remote working owing to the flexibility of schedule and the options to work from anywhere
  • 20% report the biggest struggle with remote working involves collaboration and communication
  • A similar number cite loneliness as the weakest link in remote working
  • The largest percentage of the respondents, 80%, perform remote work from home while 9% and 7% work from company offices and co-working spaces, respectively

The report's data was collected in November 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic had taken its toll beyond China. Certainly, the 2021 report will capture remarkable shifts as more companies have gone remote in 2020 than ever before. A return to the 2019 normal is highly unlikely.

In the meantime, a survey by 451 Research indicates that 67% of the 575 respondents from IT departments reckon that working from home will likely survive the pandemic and become a permanent way of working.

Similar research by Gartner targeting finance leaders reveals that 74% of their companies will shift at least 5% of employees to remote working permanently after the pandemic.

Some companies are already there and have made remote working a standing policy. Google was the first major US company to announce extended working from home for its employees. In May 2020, social networking site Twitter told employees that they could work from home indefinitely. Hitachi, the Japanese electronics company, has committed to allow 70% of its staff to work from home permanently. Mastercard has allowed employees to work remotely until they are comfortable returning to the physical offices. Nationwide Insurance plans to reduce physical offices and allow most employees to continue working from home permanently.

Why leadership stumbles when distributed

Managing a small business with few employees is easier as you can communicate directly with each other and obtain direct feedback. As a business grows and more employees are onboarded, managing the team becomes more challenging.

Even more complicated is managing distributed teams working from home, co-working spaces, and coffee shops spread across different time zones.

So, what causes leaders to stumble as a business scales or when employees are remote working? Here are some answers.

Poor delegation of responsibilities is an obvious candidate for the stumble. With growth, leaders find it difficult to do everything by themselves hence forced to delegate some responsibilities to others.

When a delegatee fails to fill the shoes of the delegator, problems are bound to set in. Employees who had become used to being led from the front now lack clear direction, leading to conflicts. As conflicts fester, the performance takes a tumble, and employee turnover skyrockets.

Stumbling also comes as a result of miscommunication, which is a direct consequence of delegation gone wrong. As a company grows and new leaders are appointed to lead business units, communication lines become blurred or broken. In remote working, this is a grave concern. The Buffer report cited earlier indicates that communication and collaboration is the biggest struggle faced by remote workers.

Whereas delegation is unavoidable, companies need to invest in leadership development training to prepare future leaders for higher responsibilities. There is also a need to evaluate leaders' hard and soft skills, such as emotional intelligence and coaching skills. Sufficient resources and support need to be provided to help the new leadership achieve set business objectives.

Why an entrepreneurial mindset doesn't always scale

Why do founders flounder? This is a question many have attempted to answer, as an increasing number of start-ups fail to live up to their promise. Among many who have attempted to provide a comprehensive answer is John Hamm, author of the book “Why Entrepreneurs Don’t Scale”.

Hamm hypothesizes that some entrepreneurs’ habits and skills weaken their ability to scale up and lead larger organisations. An entrepreneur who successfully discards these inhibitors can scale their business more effectively than one who sticks to the old way of doing things.

Entrepreneurs need to ask themselves “will what got me here, get me to where I want to be?”

Hamm identifies four tendencies that handily serve small business leaders but become inhibitors when leading large, complex businesses.

1. Loyalty to the early team

Loyalty to your team and band of friends can be an important attribute to a start-up founder. However, as the business grows, blind loyalty to those who have ‘hit the ceiling’ becomes a liability, especially if the leader fails to react to team members’ shortcomings.

2. Task orientation

Small businesses tend to focus on the short-term battle to survive and grow. Therefore, start-up leaders are typically good at performing day-to-day tasks and hitting short-term targets. However, they often fail in re-orienting themselves to the long-term, strategic goals typical of large businesses.

3. Single-mindedness

The laser-focussed habits of founders serve them well early in their journey. But, single-mindedness becomes a liability when the leader fails to listen to diverse opinions and handle different emerging issues faced by a mature business.

4. Working in isolation

For founders, protecting a start-up business is the norm rather than the exception. As the business grows, isolation ought to cease to give way to networking and taking the lead in marketing. Entrepreneurs who continue working in isolation impede their business growth and scale-up.

Challenge of scaling leadership

Few things are harder to scale in business than leadership. As a business registers growth, leaders find it difficult to align, monitor and motivate their staff, unlike in a small business. Scaling leadership entails two key activities:

  1. Spotting and coaching potential leaders, and;
  2. achieving seamless internal communication.

Coaching leaders starts with spotting emerging talent in an organisation and exposing them to a series of training and challenges to enhance their skills and awareness. Developing leaders is continuous and gradual, but the earlier it is started, the better for the organisation.

Effective internal communication entails a leader’s ability to solicit new ideas and communicate their plans across the organisation. Implementing major plans begins with seeking stakeholder consensus, creating internal alignment and fostering continuous reinforcement.

The challenge of scaling while sustaining accountability and communication becomes even more pronounced in remote working.

So how can we develop accountable leaders in remote working?

  1. Foster an atmosphere of accountability built on a set of core values.
  2. Develop a unified communication infrastructure such as an intranet that allows staff participation, real-time messaging, access to documents, and disseminating news to the concerned staff.

Impact on hiring, onboarding and career development

Managing teams in a physical office is tough enough but certainly not as challenging as one posed by remote working. Scaling your business remotely is daunting due to the hiring process of new workers who will fit perfectly into the system.

Some of the sticky issues to navigate include fostering company culture, staff training and development, compounded by physical separation, cultural diversity, language differences and time zone barriers. How can business leaders successfully steer the remote hiring and onboarding process?

  • Look beyond core job skills and consider the candidate with the right personality and temperament
  • Seeking candidates with a customer-centric mindset and high emotional intelligence (EQ)
  • Provide in-depth and continuous training during onboarding to allow seamless collaboration
  • Make remote leaders available to answer questions and give support and resources necessary for effective teamwork

Career development of remote workers is essential to retain your best staff for longer. In addition to a company’s standard professional development initiatives, organising regular physical meetings where staff collaborate can further enhance their development. Face-to-face meetings also allow remote managers to delegate responsibilities more easily to employees showing leadership potential.

Scaling remote leadership body

How can business leaders successfully steer the remote hiring and onboarding process?

How remote working can increase discrimination and decrease inclusion

Inequality and discrimination have been notable flashpoints in recent years. Women, persons of colour, and ethnic minorities have borne the brunt of systemic discrimination for years having to contend with skewed recruitment, promotions and equality. Despite some progress being made in levelling the playing field, much more remains to be done.

According to research by the Woolf Institute, with remote working lauded as the next normal, there is a real danger that workplace misconceptions will resurface, partly because without workplace interactions, those working remotely tend to socialise within their own ethnic groups, enabling discrimination and rolling back inclusivity. So business leaders need to take proactive measures to ensure all team members, especially minorities, feel part of the remote working team and contribute meaningfully.

How to scale leadership successfully

The sooner leaders come to terms with remote working, the better for their organisations. Building an efficient business model that incorporates seamless remote working will hinge on leaders navigating four key challenges:

1. People

Humans will remain the most important asset for businesses. Managing people in a distributed model demands imparting different skills and providing a safe working environment in terms of relevant support, motivation, and shared values.

2. Structure

The structure of remote businesses demands a move from large silos to lean, cross-functional teams focused on outcome-based objectives. There also needs to be more clarity on business objectives as remote working will only magnify current misnomers and structural ambiguities.

3. Technology

The success of remote working rides a great deal on technology. Remote leaders should provide employees with the necessary technological support to enable them to perform their work. Cybersecurity measures should also be in place as attacks on a remote system can be devastating to the entire organisation.

4. Process

Remote leaders need to establish clear workflows for the remote working teams. The clarification of remote working processes is crucial to forestalling unnecessary back and forth that might result in conflicts. Leaders should also be ready to deal with emerging issues brought about by the transition.

Dealing with the above challenges demands a high degree of ingenuity and innovation. Business leaders must summon their best thinking caps to avoid losing grip of their distributed teams. Consider these four techniques to get started:

  1. Establish what is expected of employees. Set clear goals, responsibilities and policies of remote work to guide employees of what is expected of them.
  2. Give employees access to all that they need to do their work. This can be achieved by introducing smart user permissions so employees can collaborate without bottlenecks.
  3. Besides access to resources, leaders should ensure employees are able to share resources and collaborate securely without compromising the company’s data or repeating tasks already done by others.
  4. Remote workers need to have safe, fast, and secure channels to keep in touch with colleagues. Communication among distributed workers allows for seamless collaboration as answers to questions are swiftly provided.

Remote working is here to stay, and business leaders need to put in place mechanisms of making it work for their organisations. Losing grip of distributed teams is too grim to be contemplated and entirely avoidable.