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Remote Leadership: Which Style Suits You?

October 25, 2021 Leadership
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

Remote work is here to stay. According to a 2021 survey of employees and business executives conducted by professional services firm PwC, 83% of employers said the shift to remote work has been successful for their company.

While organizations large and small continue to grapple with the right mix of remote and hybrid in-office work, the bigger picture has come into focus. Remote and distributed teams will be an essential part of the flexible and increasingly digital future of work. So that begs a question: What is the best way to lead remote and hybrid teams?

Leadership styles vary widely, and there is no one right way to lead a team. But the style a leader chooses will significantly impact their success as a leader. In today's business environment, leaders need to understand the impact of remote work on operations and retool their leadership style to match the reality of the remote and hybrid workplace.

What Is Remote Leadership?

Remote leadership is a growing concept in global companies. Its definition is flexible, and can take in elements of traditional leadership styles alongside elements of Agile methodologies to lead distributed teams.

Given the events of the last couple of years, our understanding of remote leadership has grown substantially, yet many leaders still aren't sure how to approach it. To reap the benefits of distributed work, leadership needs to be tackled as a foundational part of the hybrid and remote workplace. 

"Remote leadership is a never-ending learning journey," said Molood Ciccarelli, CEO at Stockholm, Sweden-based Remote Forever, a consulting firm focused on remote work. "The more you invest in up-leveling your remote work skills, you also get to practice new ways of empowering your team. Nevertheless, the single most important skill for a remote leader is the ability to communicate clearly and effectively in writing and never lose sight of creating inclusive experiences for career development."

Communication is a big hurdle for remote leaders. Leaders used to being co-located in offices and managing via in-person interactions can struggle with asynchronous communication. The fact that they can't always get instant replies from a remote worker is a source of frustration for some.

A successful remote leader learns to be accessible when working asynchronously, and tries to build a safe environment in the digital sphere, regardless of the physical distance. When communication happens asynchronously, "information fidelity" is lower and there's a greater risk of miscommunication due to the lack of body language, said Thibaud Clement, CEO at Los Angeles-based marketing technology firm Loomly.

"One good practice is to compensate for this shortcoming by always bumping the courtesy level of what you write two tones up to make sure the warmth of in-person relationships is not lost in instant messages and emails," Clement said.

Related Article: Collaboration and Communication Platforms to Improve Employee Experience

The Qualities of an Effective Remote Leader

The skills that are valued in remote leadership center around active listening, remaining in touch with a team, being around for informal moments, and making room for discussion amongst the team.

"For both remote and on-site leadership, the core to modern leadership is valuing transparency and clarity around common, laser-focused goals that are communicated loud and clear," said Olivier Pailhes, CEO at New York-based Aircall, a provider of call center software. "This is how co-workers will feel included and understand how their contribution fits into the wider company goals."

Here are some of the qualities of an effective remote leader:

  • Dynamism: Virtual teams follow leaders who actually do the work of getting projects done. Dynamic remote leaders help other team members with tasks and keep the team on schedule and focused on goals.
  • Motivation: Successful remote leaders understand they need to take a different approach to make things happen. They use collaborative, communicative approaches to improve accountability and transparency.
  • Flexibility: Remote leaders need to be flexible enough to accommodate uncertainty and the changing requirements of different workers. Successful remote leaders are also capable of nimbly adjusting their leadership approaches to multiple situations.
  • Trust: Remote work isn't possible without trust. A successful remote leader trusts that workers will complete their job and they will be able to communicate if there are roadblocks or issues with the project.

Related Article: How Workplace Leadership Shifted in the Last Year

Effective Leadership Styles for Virtual Leaders

There are some common characteristics among effective remote leaders. They motivate individuals and teams to excel, and use their communication and people skills to drive business goals.

However, not all leaders are created equal, and companies can help those struggling with the transition to the remote and hybrid work environment by identifying different remote leadership styles and which ones work best for their particular business and operating model.

Here are some of the most effective virtual leadership styles:

Participative Leadership

Participative leaders create a collaborative environment where every voice is heard, and employees are invited to provide input about business decisions or tactics. Participative remote leaders ensure every person gives input when it comes to setting goals and making decisions for the team.

"Participative leaders are the tortoise, not the hare," Aircall's Pailhes said. "They take the time to listen to their employees and tap their brains to find their answers. They use what they learn to analyze different portions of the business to create long-lasting solutions."

These are some of the characteristics of a participative leader:

  • Enthusiastic.
  • Encourages group activities.
  • Asks for input from workers.
  • Minimizes competition between workers.

Transformational Leadership

Transformative leaders have a greater sense of purpose and set the vision for where a company should go. Transformational remote leadership emphasizes leadership by example and uses the leader's personal magnetism and positivity to drive results for the company by creating a culture of growth and trust.

"Transformational leaders make sure that workers always have as much context as possible to make decisions on their own; and most importantly, the ideal work conditions and key information," Clement said. "This includes getting out of the way to let them work because they empower collaborators to do their best work."

These are some of the characteristics of a transformational leader:

  • Sense of purpose.
  • Big-picture thinker.
  • Works alongside the team. 
  • Encourages emotional openness.

Related Article: What Is Transformational Leadership Theory?

Situational Leadership

Situational leaders thrive in remote settings. A situational leader understands there's no single leadership style for every worker or situation. Dan Flowers, CEO at Norfolk, Va.-based workflow management specialist Issuetrak, said it's necessary to understand that there's not a one-size-fits-all.

"Different leadership styles work differently for different people," he said. "You need to adapt to the group you're leading. It's crucial to have self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and recognize how individuals respond to directions and coaching."

Situational remote leadership requires adaptability to work with different personalities and cultures, and situational leaders are often very good at understanding people and how they work. These are some of the characteristics of a situational leader:

  • Use other remote leadership styles in conjunction with the situational approach.
  • Good eye for processes and ways of improving workflows.
  • Sociable and self-aware.
  • Solid communicators.

Servant Leadership

Servant leaders inspire growth and development. Remote servant leaders often emphasize the well-being of workers and promote mutual respect, honesty and non-competitive teamwork. 

Servant leadership puts emphasis on one-to-one conversations, motivation, regular feedback and leading by example, said Tomek Mlodzki, CEO at Warsaw, Poland-based PhotoAiD, a service that provides at-home passport and ID photo software.

"I believe that honest communication, paying attention to what we do well and what needs to be improved, listening to coworkers' ideas — but also critical comments — creates a sense of community and authority as a leader," Mlodzki said.

Servant leaders offer remote workers the tools and guidance they need to perform their jobs well. They are also good at listening and spotting visual cues about their workers to uncover potential problems and address them. These are some of the characteristics of a servant leader:

  • Capable of working with other team members as an equal.
  • Active in group brainstorming sessions.
  • Empathetic and caring.
  • Active listener. 

The Essentials of Remote Leadership

There's not a cookie-cutter for remote leadership. An effective style depends on the individual and what the team and industry need. For example, participative leadership may not be what's needed for a team that doesn't need input from everyone on every decision to move business forward. What's important is knowing what works and what doesn't for a team.

Encouraging collaboration, communicating effectively and being flexible are the most important things to keep in mind. It's harder to connect and collaborate in a remote setup, so leaders should make an extra effort to encourage a team to get together through collaboration tools, team huddles or virtual parties. These are all effective ways to foster a strong relationship.

These methods can also be an effective way to communicate with a team, but it's important for leaders to remember that communication also means listening to what a team has to say. Ultimately, what matters is the welfare of both the business and the team.

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