By Michelle Le Poidevin
August 24, 2020
Michelle Le Poidevin is a CEO who has been working full-time remotely since 2018. She says it’s made her a better leader and shares examples on how other leaders have also excelled remotely.
The year of 2020 has seen many of us venturing to the local Officeworks, splashing out on fancy stationery, snatching up the last ergonomic chair, and hurriedly setting up something resembling a home office. While you might be thinking that this is just temporary while we wait for the dreaded COVID-19 to pass, or worried that it’s going to negatively impact your ability to lead your team, think again.
Working remotely can actually make you a much more effective leader. Here are eight reasons why:
You can more effectively solve problems before they happen
Many leaders suffer from ‘problem blindness’. When we spend our time reacting, putting out spot fires, and dealing with day-to-day issues, we become blind to the real issues at hand. Best-selling author, Dan Heath, describes this as ‘downstream’ thinking and suggests that we need to move our thinking ‘upstream’ to fix the systems that caused the problems in the first place.
Working remotely enables leaders to extract themselves from this cycle of response. By doing this, leaders can move their mindset upstream and more effectively identify and solve problems before they even happen.
You can become a ruthless prioritiser
Reflecting on her career, former General Manager at HP, and highly successful CEO, Patty Azzarello, said that “The most successful people don’t try to do everything”. They apply “ruthless prioritisation”, adding that everyone else becomes “famous for working hard instead of for doing important things and adding value”.
Putting physical distance between yourself and the office allows you to step back and look at everything you do in your day, from strategic projects to what meetings go into your diary. From there leaders can critically question where they can add the most value and what they should give the most energy to, thus avoiding getting caught in the busy-ness hamster wheel.
You can work to your own energy cycles
Scientists have found that we are not all created equal when it comes to our daily energy levels and how they fluctuate. This master biological clock is known as a chronotype. About 14% of the population are Larks – those somewhat enviable folks that have saved the world before 6am each day. At the other end of the spectrum are Owls, who make up about 21% of the population and who do their best work after dark. The inbetweeners are known as Middle Birds.
Once you work out what your chronotype is you can proactively restructure your workday to suit. Owls might not start their workday until midday, and schedule deep thinking time for late afternoon. Whereas Larks might start at 6am and have their cognitively demanding tasks completed by mid-morning.
It may better suit your personality type
Not all leaders are extroverted. In his widely-read book Good to Great, Jim Collins acknowledges that some of the best leaders are “self-effacing, quiet, reserved and even shy”. For more introverted leaders, extended interactions with people require lots of energy and are hard to sustain day in, day out. They crave more solo time to think and reflect.
Working remotely gives you permission to structure your working routines accordingly. It means that when you are physically in the office with others, you can be fully energised and present, knowing that you will have the balance of solo time again soon to recharge.
You will become more focussed on the things that actually matter
One of the biggest challenges when you start working remotely is having a clear end point for your day. Work and life can become blurred together. Overcome this problem by creating a daily shut-down ritual. Set a clear goal at the end of the day, for the next. A helpful way to frame it is: ‘If I get X done tomorrow, it will be a great day’. The next morning, make sure you achieve this goal before you get distracted by emails or other interruptions.
Proactively setting this daily goal will ensure that you are thoughtful about how you spend your days, that you are valuing output over hours, and that your best working time is spent completing the things that matter the most.
It will increase your creative thinking
Research has shown that one of the greatest enemies of creativity is stress. And for many of us, the simple daily routine of working out of an office is the source of much stress! Early starts, making lunches, packing bags, sitting in traffic, sitting next to a frantic coworker all day, and then rushing home late to cook dinner totally exhausted. This only serves to increase the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which has been shown to dramatically reduce our capacity to think creatively.
Being out in the natural environment for as little as 10 minutes has been shown to significantly decrease stress. Working remotely gives you the freedom to get beyond the beige meeting room walls more often. Simply working from your back garden will significantly increase your chances of coming up with creative ideas.
It will force you to become a better communicator
When you spend the majority of the working day physically with your team, it becomes easy to fall into the information “assumption trap”. This refers to when you assume people will learn via osmosis or hear things through standing next to the water cooler. In her latest book, Unleashed, Harvard Professor Frances Frei argues that one of the most important things we need to do as a leader is to make sure that our “impact continues in our absence” and taking things a step further, that “the performance of others even improves in our absence”.
Working remotely forces you to be far more deliberate, succinct, and clear with your communications, to ensure this continuation of impact. This is particularly the case when articulating strategy and culture – everyone in your organisation should be able to simply describe your strategy, as well as core values and behaviours. This is often just assumed knowledge when you are always in a face-to-face environment.
It can increase how connected you feel to your team
One of the biggest concerns many remote leaders face is the potential disconnect between them and their colleagues. This can become an issue, but only if you let it. Research has shown that in recalling an experience, we focus on the best or worst moments (the ‘peak’) and the end. Psychologists call this the peak-end rule.
Taking a more deliberate and proactive approach to creating these peak ‘moments’ between yourself and your team is an important ingredient of remote work success. Behavioural science writers Chip and Dan Heath argue that we can actually deliberately and consciously create moments that are memorable and meaningful. They suggest tapping into moments of pride, insight, elevation and connectedness to powerfully deepen ties and create shared meaning.
While leading a team remotely may still be the exception to the rule, an unexpected upside of COVID-19 is that many leaders now have the opportunity to give it a go, and they may find themselves surprised by its many advantages.