Remote leadership: 9 ways your style may backfire

As CIOs and IT leaders adapt to leading fully-remote teams, they may inadvertently adopt bad habits that could hurt culture long term. Watch out for these behaviors
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Fostering a positive IT culture can be difficult in the best of times. In challenging and downright weird times, it can be particularly tricky. 

CIOs and IT leaders who never intended to lead remote and hybrid teams are adapting their leadership and management styles on the fly. In doing so, it’s important not to forsake progress that was made during more stable times. 

We asked our community of IT leaders and experts to share habits that managers may have inadvertently adopted during the pandemic that could hinder their culture long term. From asking too much of staff to being too rigid about meeting times, here are some behaviors that may corrode your culture if you don’t correct them now. 

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

1. Managing through command and control

"Managers who previously led in traditional command-and-control environment need to get comfortable with a new way of measuring productivity. If you previously walked around the office and measured productivity by the number of butts-in-seats, you’re learning that won’t cut it anymore when you and your people are remote. Those who led in this type of environment tend to micromanage in a remote world, which leads staff to feel like they’re not trusted. Your people will not have the psychological safety they need to be successful in this remote environment, where they are now socially isolated from their manager and their peers." 

From what I’ve seen, an antidote is changing how you measure productivity.

"From what I’ve seen, an antidote is changing how you measure productivity. Start measuring the outputs as opposed to the inputs. Instead of measuring how long the person is sitting at their desk, measure what their output is. Not only will this ease your anxiety about whether your people are getting their work done, but it also allows your people to associate more purpose with their work. This is especially helpful when newly-remote employees are working from home, sitting alone at their computer, and wondering if what they’re doing is really making an impact. If you can say, “Hey, these are the outputs that are important,” that’s something that everybody can not just measure but also celebrate." David Egts, Chief Technologist for North America Public Sector, Red Hat

2. Mandating routine check-ins

"One common mistake I’ve seen leaders make is trying to take their in-person work style into their remote work, and that isn’t very productive. For instance, when working in the office, managers may start their day with routine check-ins, and through the day they may periodically walk around the floor talking to people. While working remotely, they might try to recreate these interactions by scheduling blocks of meetings, both as a group and one-on-one with each individual. Soon, this can get overwhelming for both the manager and the team members. Frequent, scheduled check-ins might make a team feel micromanaged and not trusted. This becomes inefficient for the manager as well, leaving them with very little time for thinking and problem solving."

"Remote managers should get comfortable checking in with their team through asynchronous communications channels like email and messaging. Managers should also set the expectation with their teams that they don’t need to respond instantly – unless the matter is urgent. This liberates your team to prioritize their work and time in a way that best suits their schedule, while attending to the numerous demands of a typical home, during the pandemic. Ultimately, this leads to better productivity and trust for managers and the teams they lead." – Ganes Kesari, co-founder and chief decision scientist, Gramener

[ How do your team meetings stack up? Read also:  Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]

3. Failing to informally check-in 

"In the remote world, we’re becoming too transactional. The informal connections that we would have made if we were co-located aren’t readily occurring anymore. When people don’t feel that their managers care about them, their productivity, commitment, and comfort level drops, and we all know where that leads – there’s truth to the old adage that people don’t leave organizations, they leave managers."

The informal connections that we would have made if we were co-located aren’t readily occurring anymore.

"It’s important that leaders maintain the one-on-one conversations they would have had informally in an office environment. One way I’m doing this is to use one-on-one email to periodically check in with people, asking less about the work they’re doing and more about how they are doing as individuals. Not only do these informal check-ins show you care, they also help you gauge what impact challenges outside of work are having on their ability to get work done right now. For people who are facing challenges, ask how you or the team can help them. Keeping these informal communications alive and avoiding becoming too transactional will go a long way toward making your remote colleagues feel connected." Bob Kantor, Founder, Kantor Consulting Group, Inc.

4. Overcommunicating and not engaging

"At the beginning of the crisis, a lot of managers were told they need to communicate more. And while a regular stream of communications is important, it is easy to cross the line of too much broadcast and not enough dialogue. When this happens, it can actually be corrosive to the culture because people feel as if they’re being spoken to all the time and they’re not engaging."

"Communication shouldn’t always be about feeding out information. Leaders should be having dialogues with their teams. One way to watch out for this is to set yourself a target ratio of how many responses you’re receiving from your communication. If you’re not getting a certain amount of feedback, that could signal you’re doing something wrong. Be a little more thoughtful and intentional about creating engagement and dialogue by asking people a question at the end. Or maybe just make the communication a question. If you set up deliberate mechanisms for dialogue, your teams will feel more engaged and connected." Melissa Swift, Global Solution Leader, Workforce Transformation, Korn Ferry

5. Falling short on hardware needs 

"This is a time when your employees need to feel invested in – and having wonderful work-from-home equipment can make a world of difference right now. There’s a significant opportunity for IT and HR executives to partner and enable the workers who are now sitting at home with great technology, be it quality headsets, laptops, or remote identity management. Identify ways to reinvest the savings from not operating a physical office at full capacity to enable your remote workforce. This will ensure loyalty and lower frustration, especially for employees who are already making a lot of sacrifices by working at home when they’re accustomed to having all the tools they need at the office." Eveline Oehrlich, Chief Research Director, DevOps Institute

Read on for more ways managers may be unintentionally harming their IT cultures while leading remotely. 

Ginny Holden is an independent consultant who brings the practice of IT to life through memorable storytelling.