Eight months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic altering the course of work, I joined one of the world’s largest all-remote companies as head of remote, and knew of no-one else being appointed with a similar title. In 2022, some of the world’s largest companies are investing in remote work leaders to help evolve not just their workplaces, but their whole company culture to align with the permanent shift to remote and flexible work.
We’ve reached a point where the ability for an organisation to thrive remotely is too important to leave to chance. Every remote organisation must appoint one person whose role is to chart a path forward.
But who is that person? What should you look for when hiring someone as head of remote? And what does a great remote leader actually do?
Many traits found in the best remote managers are also found in managers of co-located teams. However there are nuances to serving, leading, and guiding when managing teams remotely.
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Traits of a great remote leader
Self-awareness is critical for relationship building and trust, particularly in an all-remote setting. The reality is that people prefer to learn, and to be managed, differently. GitLab’s CEO goes so far as to publicise his communication preferences and flaws, which requires a high degree of self-awareness, a low level of shame, and a penchant for transparency.
Empathy and kindness are core to being a great remote manager. It can be challenging to put yourself in the shoes of a direct report using text communication and Zoom calls. In-person interactions allow for body language to be more easily read. In a remote setting, managers must instead be proactive in asking direct reports how life is going and what their learning preferences are.
Working to have no ego, recognising that people are not their work, and having short toes will go a long way to building trust as a manager.
The humility required to be a servant-leader is of great importance in a remote setting. Particularly for reports who are acclimating to their first remote role, managers may need to go above and beyond to lead by example.
Great remote managers will devote time to writing things down. GitLab’s handbook-first approach to documentation encourages managers to contextualise thoughts in text.
Transmitting expectations, updates, and feedback through text is highly respectful. It enables a direct report to ingest information at their own pace, and it removes margin for misinterpretation.
To be a successful leader of remote teams, one must develop a level of trust. A trustworthy leader of remote teams consistently provides feedback to enable team members to feel included, valued, empowered, and respected.
Being a remote manager means building a support system for your team, while at the same time striking a balance to hold them accountable. Building trust and maintaining transparency, frequent and open communication, and ensuring a safe working environment are critical skills.
How a great remote manager operates
Translating these skills into action as a head of remote should involve the following.
Be visible and approachable
Not everyone is capable of going fully-remote or mentally prepared to go days without human interaction. Remote leaders should set up regular video chats and be sure to make space for intentional informal communication.
Maintain constant communication
Maintaining contact is crucial for remote leaders. At GitLab we use Slack. While it enables real-time communication, we are also careful to remain true to our asynchronous mindset, suggesting that GitLab team-members set “do not disturb” and not expect real-time answers from others all the time.
Prioritise one-on-one time
Sometimes the best way to connect with someone is to jump on a Zoom video call or pick up the phone. Leaders should schedule regular ask me anything (AMA) meetings so team members can meet a new leader, learn more about an existing team member, or gain clarity on a recent change.
Challenge thinking, not schedules
All-remote settings empower team members to live and work where they’re most fulfilled. Leaders should implement asynchronous workflows to increase efficiency and decrease dysfunction. Increasingly, operating asynchronously is necessary even in co-located companies when multiple time zones are involved, removing time zone bias and enabling global team members to be on equal footing.
A strong leader will enable each report to design their work around their life — not the other way around — creating a more inclusive culture. Destroying the epicentre of power as it relates to working hours is the only way to put people on a truly equal footing.
Make it fun
Informal communication complements in-person interactions and matters in an all-remote culture. It’s natural that working remotely leads to mostly work-related conversations with fellow team members, so leaders must be proactive to encourage dedicated social calls and time for group activities — and be more creative than just team happy hours! Community impact outings are a great alternative.
Onboarding is critical in equipping a new report with the tools and understanding they need to thrive at a company. There is always work to be done, but a manager must make a conscious decision to allow a new hire to focus on onboarding instead of work during the critical early weeks.
With no cookie-cutter resume to look for, hiring a great remote leader is about striking the right balance of personality, soft skills and operational finesse.