Three keys to leadership presence in remote work

By guest writer Amy Laski
President and Founder, Felicity PR: Inspiring Communications

As the head of a virtual PR agency, I’ve championed flexible work and investing in brains, not bricks, for a long time. I have been leading a remote team since well before Zoom became a verb. When Jenny asked me to share my approach to leadership – one of the skillset modules in The Propeller Experience – I was thrilled to offer my experience.

Nine years ago, I founded Felicity PR as a digital-by-design communications and content agency focused on the well-being space. Creating a virtual agency that would enable me and others like me to do the work that we love in a flexible way, was an opportunity to start with a blank slate and build the processes and culture from the ground up.

When the pandemic struck, I took some of our best leadership practices from Felicity and across other industries to create Felicity Works, where we partner with leaders as either fractional chief remote officers or in a consulting capacity to help them thrive in this remote world.

As an entrepreneur, I’ve become comfortable leading a virtual team and being agile – building the plane while steering it, and course correcting along the way. One constant in our organization is that we’re always looking for opportunities to adapt to change based on what our clients or our team needs.

Leading a remote and dispersed team takes an entirely new skill set. Thanks to the pandemic, these skills are now an essential part of the leadership toolbox. We can’t do what we used to do in the office and replicate it online.

Your leadership presence is one important tool in the box.

Being present as a leader without being present in person

Even if you’re not there in person, your visibility and presence as a leader is key to being effective. Your team needs to see you and feel your enthusiasm and insights.

How can you adapt your leadership style so it meets the needs of your distributed team? How can you capitalize on the nature of virtual work so that your team feels even closer to you and to one another than ever before? 

There are three keys to building your leadership presence: two-way transparency; an awareness of biases; and making feedback happen.

Key 1: Ensure two-way transparency 

If the pandemic has made anything clear, it’s that the lines between work and life are completely blurred. To be an effective virtual leader:

  • Lead by example without guilt: Let your team know when you have personal, family, or health commitments. Assure them that this is OK for both you and for your team, so long as the work gets done. Being transparent about this builds trust between you and your team, and among team members.
  • Understand what’s going on in people’s lives: I know my team’s childcare arrangements, their caregiver obligations, other work commitments that they have going on or other time commitments that they’re undertaking and so that we can be perfectly transparent in distributing work and getting it done to the highest level.
  • Listen and dialogue: Leadership is not always about telling and conveying your leadership presence. By sharing some of the context of your life and your role within the organization, your team can come together and ultimately optimize your output.

Key 2: Identify your conscious biases

As a leader, are you aware of what biases you may have?

The shift to virtual work has stripped away some biases that can occur when working in an in-person environment, like a person’s appearance, their working styles or their overall presence. On the downside, we may find ourselves equating responsiveness to results, when in most cases they’re really not the same things.

  • Define your version of success: What does success look like to you? And what results do you want from your team? Identifying this can help you discern whether a team member is in line with that definition or not.
  • Separate responsiveness from results: Leaders naturally favour someone they think is always available or responsive; pulls long hours or prioritizes work over other things. We’ve been programmed by society and by work – as we’ve known it in the past – to associate these things with results.

In a virtual work environment, leaders need to detangle responsiveness and results. People may be working at different hours, working really well during those hours, and achieving the results you want. Provide feedback that rewards the types of qualities that you’re looking for, instead of the reflexive qualities that we’ve traditionally accepted as the gold standard.

  • Communicate your expectations: There are, of course, roles that require an always-on responsiveness, like tech support or client liaison, for instance. When this comes up, make sure you’ve communicated to those taking on those roles that responsiveness is an expectation of the job and distribute this responsibility evenly among team members, so they can act and succeed in line with that expectation.

Key 3: Providing feedback

Feedback is a critical aspect of your leadership presence. It can happen formally, such as in annual or quarterly reviews, and less formally.

Informal feedback, which comes in off-the-cuff moments while a task is underway, happens much more naturally in person. Interactions are more comfortable when you have visual and body-language cues to gauge how your feedback is landing.

In a virtual work environment, feedback can be miscommunicated when left to digital mechanisms like e-mail or messaging. Instead, set up a quick phone or video call for two-way communication when you’re delivering a point of feedback. You can nip the matter in the bud and work on it right away, rather than holding off until a more formal opportunity such as a review time.

Challenge: Explore your digital leadership presence

Grab a pen and notebook and journal on these prompts to contemplate your vision of leadership presence. 

1.     What does a digital leadership presence look like to you?

2.     Who, in your experience, is really good at this? Write their name down and note the specific qualities you feel make them strong digital leaders.

3.     Design your digital presence: What are some of the ways that you could be present for your team that are uniquely you?

Need support leading yourself through your next steps in work and life? We’ve got you.

Whether you’ve lost your job, your industry, or your direction right now, we’re here to help you take control over your career, opportunities and life in a safe and supportive environment. 

The Propeller Experience is a digital program and community for women that will equip you with the mindset, skill set, and network to find or build work that is worthy of you… in our new normal. It is a direct response to the gendered impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on your career.

This course will stretch your thinking, challenge your assumptions and inspire you to be the person you were born to be: yourself. Learn more.