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InfoQ Homepage Articles Moving from Collocated Management to Remote Leadership

Moving from Collocated Management to Remote Leadership

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Key Takeaways

  • Remote-first culture is required to create truly inclusive work environments
  • Cultivating culture in a remote environment is deliberate and needs expertise
  • Executive managers must acknowledge the complexity of change management involved with a move to a remote organization
  • Asynchronous management of work (not the workers) and remote leadership are key skills for any leader in the new era of remote work
  • Any tool or practice that aims to control remote workers steals the essence of remote work, i.e. freedom 

Most organizations were forced to work from home in 2020 due to the pandemic, and to their surprise, the majority saw an increase in productivity for many months. The downside however was that after several months of days filled with online meetings, a large number of people started experiencing burnout. Some companies took initiatives to combat burnout in their organization, for example, LinkedIn recently introduced a week-off-work for this purpose.

As the world suddenly moved to remote working with no prior strategic plan, a lack of education in remote work, remote communication and remote leadership combined with the fast adoption of new tools had most new remote leaders replicate as much of their in-office processes and behaviors in their new digital workspaces in hopes of creating a similar culture remotely. However, most organizations discovered sooner or later that simply copying in-person interactions to digital tools does not cultivate a great culture nor does it contribute to better collaboration. 

Remote work experts are an essential factor in succeeding to secure an advantage for employers as organizations move from collocated management to remote leadership, not only with regards to tools and processes but also mindset and culture. This article aims to give you an idea of what this move entails and why it is essential for the success of any business in the remote work era. 

Defining remote work

Let me first clarify a common misunderstanding about remote work. I don’t believe remote work is a mindset, a methodology, or a framework. It’s simply the reality of work. 

Just like the move from cubicles to open-plan offices, remote work is how people work together, and it has the power to impact the culture of a company.

Remote work is not new. People have been communicating remotely since the invention of the telegram and later the telephone. Even video conferencing is not new. The first two-way video call took place in 1956.

Many aspects of our lives and particularly our work life has been affected by the rapid growth of technology since the dot com era. However, management as a body of knowledge has not kept up with the speed of this evolution.

In the meantime, many companies have become geographically distributed and thousands of businesses have adopted agile ways of working. Influenced by the in-person management practices, agile thought leaders have been promoting collocation for nearly two decades too. Collocation as a prerequisite for agility is so deeply rooted in the agile way of thinking that when I started Remote Forever in 2016, most of those who later became customers and partners joined my movement as skeptics.

If you accept that remote work is simply the reality of how organizations work, there are two distinct approaches to leadership in distributed organizations, each of which comes with its own mindset. These two different approaches are remote-friendly and remote-first.

Work processes created through a remote-friendly approach assume people normally work in a collocated fashion from an office and occasionally one or more people may be situated in other locations and might need to collaborate with the people in the office. In this approach toolset, processes, access to opportunities, etc work to the advantage of in-office personnel.

A remote-first approach assumes that people have everything they need to do their jobs from anywhere in the world. This approach is inclusive of all people, regardless of their location, which means no one feels left out and access to opportunities are independent of location.

Remote-first is different from remote-friendly in every way. A remote-first culture fosters individual freedom and empowers collaboration through actual inclusion and equity in all parts of the work process, while a remote-friendly approach finds ways (usually the bare minimum such as video conferencing or a chat tool) to create the illusion of inclusion and collaboration, while remote workers often feel excluded, not-trusted or left out. Remote workers feeling left out in hybrid teams is a familiar concept for many, but this emotion can also be felt when the team is fully remote and operates with a collocated mindset, i.e. a remote-friendly approach.

Some organizations have begun using the term “hybrid” to describe an environment in which people have a mandate to go to an office from time to time. However, the location from which people work is an entirely different topic than the operational implications of building a strong remote-first culture that is inclusive of all people regardless of their location, whether it be in an office or not.

Adopting remote working without adjusting your mindset

There are many arguments for going remote. Cost reduction was the biggest driver before the 2020 pandemic forced many companies to become remote. This is mostly seen in western companies offshoring to lower-cost Asian countries such as India or China. Some other reasons include:

  1. Lack of talent in certain subjects in the city/town of the office. For example, telecommunication companies hiring talented people who are skilled in coding in the C language in countries other than their home country.

  2. Scaling and opportunities for expansion (new markets). For example, a French gaming company opening a new game studio in Japan or China to be able to adapt to deliver products for those markets.

  3. Unprecedented events such as a pandemic or a snowstorm.

Executives often operate from a position of excitement when faced with the prospect of lower cost and new market opportunities, or go into crisis management mode in the face of unprecedented events. All of these examples require a deep understanding and high levels of preparedness for remote work. But unfortunately adopting remote work, which is quite possibly the biggest change a company faces, is handled with little to no strategic planning or change management, and often without even considering getting external expert help in handling this major change. As you probably have seen in 2020, most executives left company culture to chance as they asked everyone to work from home; many adopted tools and technologies without fully evaluating their effectiveness, and the most terrifying of all was that people’s calendars got filled with video calls… all bad practices in remote work.

A lack of an understanding of how important and complex a company-wide change to remote work really is leads to oversimplifications that can damage the collaboration culture. Bad choices with regards to tools and processes (such as asking everyone to connect to the company network via a VPN but not having the technical infrastructure to support every employee working at the same time) can lead to frustration. Workdays filled with video call after video call can lead to overwork to compensate for the work that should have been done during the workday, which then results in burnout. And an inability to nurture a deliberate culture in a remote organization can decrease collaboration and productivity. I’d like to emphasize that remote culture is much more than video call parties or coffee breaks!

Operating a remote business requires skilled remote leaders and well-trained remote workers. Combine that with agile ways of working and you also need to develop great servant leadership abilities. Through our courses at Remote Forever, we help enthusiastic leaders learn online facilitation and remote leadership in order for them to develop the ability to communicate effectively and foster relationships remotely.

Move from a colocated mindset to a remote one

Every time you as a leader want to initiate a collaboration, make sure all individuals have access to all the information required for the collaboration and that they all have equal opportunities to contribute to their collective success.

To be able to do this, you need to learn the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication. Synchronous communication is a method of exchanging information between parties that takes place in real-time, such as in a meeting. Asynchronous communication is a method of exchanging information in which the parties are not necessarily present at the same time, such as email. A collaborative editing tool like Google Docs or a collaborative environment like Slack can also work, as long as the expectation around response times are explicit and people do not assume that the recipient must respond the moment they get a message.  In synchronous communication, the speaker speaks (or writes) when the receiver is present and the receiver is expected to respond right away. In asynchronous communication, the speaker speaks (or writes) when s/he is ready to send a message, but the recipient has the freedom to receive, process and respond to it when s/he is ready to do so. 

A great remote leader defaults their communication to asynchronous and tries to avoid synchronous communication unless it is absolutely necessary. In other words, a remote leader uses meetings as a last resort for communication, not a first choice.

As you can imagine (I’m sure many of you reading this interview have experienced this), leaders who suddenly move their organizations to a remote setup without having acquired the mindset or skills of remote leadership, have not planted the necessities and the foundational requirements (tools, processes, operations, etc) for the success of a remote team. And I often get comments like, “But not everything can wait for long periods of time for an answer” or,“How long should I wait then?” I would point out that those comments are symptoms of a collocated mindset in which you give yourself permission to expect an answer exactly when you think of it without taking into consideration that the person you need the answer from may be having the most productive time of their day and would rather not interrupt that for a meeting. 

The role top and middle managers have in adapting remote working in companies 

First and foremost, top managers, middle managers and agile coaches need to learn how to lead remotely. Remote leadership is not delivering powerpoint presentations over a video call. Remote leadership is not full-day video meetings with no clear structure or facilitation. There are major differences between how humans behave in digital environments and in collocated ones. The skills you use to facilitate collaboration in a conference room where you can assess the energy level of the participants and read the body language of people are not that useful when you want to facilitate an asynchronous collaboration online with as few video meetings as possible. When you cannot see people, you no longer have the luxury of adjusting your next move based on your observations of how people behave, unless you have learned online facilitation. By learning online facilitation, managers can communicate effectively with respect to the essence of remote working, i.e. freedom. Online facilitation is facilitating collaborations that take place online in real-time or asynchronously. There are various psychology and human-computer interaction concepts that need to be learned, as well as the skills for observing, identifying dysfunctions, etc in online environments.

Secondly, in order to create a sustainable remote organization, top managers need to seriously consider hiring a head of remote or a team of remote work experts. Remote work experts such as myself have the skills to help managers set up the operations, toolsets and processes in their organization in a way that creates and nurtures a remote-first culture, especially in the scaling phase or when transforming to agile ways of working in a distributed environment.

And thirdly let’s not forget that management in a remote organization is vastly different from that in a collocated one. Not only do managers need to become proficient in remote leadership and online facilitation, but also need to understand that asynchronous management is dependent on having the right tools, processes and most importantly operational behaviors. Investing in creating the right digital workspace in collaboration with their trusted remote work experts is another important role that managers need to play.

Creating and nurturing a culture of remote working

Remote work in essence is about the freedom to work from anywhere you are most productive.

Reversing the old habits of collocation which have resulted in merely remote-friendly environments at best takes time and requires new knowledge and skills to be learned and clearly lots of practice. Trial and error can only get you so far. The time has come when everyone needs to accept reality and learn how to embrace remote work with actual competence, not just throwing in collocated methods into video calls and digital sticky notes, and expecting effective collaboration and amazing remote cultures to emerge magically.

About the Author

Molood Ceccarelli is a remote work strategist and agile coach. She is often referred to as the queen of remote work in agile circles. She is the founder of Remote Forever and the founder of the yearly Remote Forever Summit, an annual online summit about distributed agile that has been around since 2016 and has attracted over 10k attendees from around the world. Her company Remote Forever helps distributed companies adopt agile ways of working and helps agile companies work remotely effectively. Her work has been published in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post and Inc.com, as well as Scrum Alliance.

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Community comments

  • Useless self-promotion

    by Roman Hatsiev,

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    I want back those 5 minutes I spent reading this.

  • Brilliant article!

    by Thomas Hubbuch,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    “The time has come when everyone needs to accept reality and learn how to embrace remote work with actual competence, not just throwing in collocated methods into video calls and digital sticky notes, and expecting effective collaboration and amazing remote cultures to emerge magically.”
    Spot-on advice, still ignored by many.

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