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Leadership in remote working

16 Dec 2022 / Employment Print

Take me to your e-leader!

What should leadership look like in the era of remote working? Dr Melrona Kirrane examines ‘e-leadership’ in the context of corporate democracy, and how to establish a satisfying social climate where team spirit and a sense of unity prevail.

As remote working appears to be here for the long haul, the pressure is on for leaders to rise to the challenges of this new world order. While the essence of leadership is the capacity to influence others towards achieving organisational goals, these days, that influence process is made a little more difficult due to the hybrid nature of many work environments.

Additional skills are required of leaders to remain influential and maintain a sense of unity in their now often-dispersed teams. What is needed is called ‘e-leadership’.

While the behaviours of leaders across contexts have been identified to include influencing, inspiring, and engaging others in a manner that considers both the wellbeing of others and task accomplishment, e-leadership embodies all these features, and just a little more.

E-leadership emphasises democracy and rests on the establishment of a satisfying social climate, where team spirit and a sense of unity prevails. In practice, this means that e-leaders demonstrate a number of key behaviours.

Getting the work done

At the operational level, e-leaders need to ensure that team members have access to all the information and training they need to get their work done. For example, support staff may benefit from paralegal training, while your junior team members might benefit from case intake and management training.

Time should be allocated to provide team members with clarification and explanations where necessary. As an e-leader, it’s important to review work procedures and think about how work tasks could be made easier to complete. So try to eliminate unnecessary procedures that complicate or impede goal accomplishment.

Resist the temptation to over-manage team members and, instead, provide staff with a little more autonomy. Focus on output rather than working hours – and clearly articulate your belief in the integrity of staff members to perform at high standards, regardless of their location.

Team spirit

Ensuring work is done to the highest professional standards does not only rely on efficient operations management. In this hybrid environment, e-leaders are called upon to demonstrate excellence in communication, along with a solid set of sophisticated personal and interpersonal skills to help bridge a divide that may open up between people working in the office and people working at home.

Thus, e-leaders need to carve out extra time to connect in a more personal manner with their team. This will help to address and overcome feelings of isolation and disconnection that are common among those who do not work in the office – who can feel left out, unimportant, and even lonely.

To counteract this, e-leaders should schedule social check-ins with staff where the topics for discussion are not necessarily about work tasks, but are more informal casual chats where each can share some personal exchanges.

This is a great opportunity to hear what individual staff members have to say, and for e-leaders to demonstrate their openness to new ideas. It also helps to keep the social bond between staff members alive and well, and connects people together in a meaningful sense.

These occasions of more informal chat can be used to encourage and praise all firm members, and to communicate belief in the capacity of members to deliver on their objectives. Investing in these activities will serve to enrich the bond between leaders and team members, and create a positive work atmosphere that promotes a sense of connectedness, community, and belonging among all concerned.

Psychologically safe

Engaging in this type of casual interaction helps you build what is called a psychologically safe work environment. It is one where people will speak up about mistakes they made, gaps in their knowledge, and even disagreements with you.

This is highly desirable, as it means that errors can be addressed rather than brushed under the carpet, and people can freely speak their mind rather than self-censor. In this way, the collective body of knowledge is enhanced, which not only drives performance excellence, but also cements meaningful relations between team members.

One important skill that supports e-leadership is emotional intelligence, as it acts as a stabilising force within the uncertain environment of hybrid working. Emotional intelligence (or ‘EQ’) concerns developing a high level of self and social awareness and applying that insight to building relationships with others.

Self-awareness really means ‘knowing thyself’. In practice, this translates as having a clear grasp of one’s own personal preferences and idiosyncrasies, and using this insight to deliver one’s best self in all situations.

For example, maybe you know that your general response to stress is dysfunctional – maybe you panic, put on blindfolds, or get unnecessarily aggravated by it. By developing emot-ional intelligence, you can acknowledge these are default reactions, but refuse to allow them dominate your response to the matter at hand.

Constructive response

EQ helps you identify a more functional and constructive response. Such responses include calming down, taking a moment to breathe – even counting to ten. Recalling your track record of competence is particularly helpful here, as it acts as a means of self-reassurance.

Taken together, these tactics allow the issue in question to be tackled constructively and productively, rather than having destructive stress-endowed responses dominate.

The second aspect of emotional intelligence is social awareness. This means being able to pick up social cues and use them to enhance your interactions with others. In practice, this translates as a strong capacity to ‘read the room’ and identify intangible yet informative signals about what is going on underneath the surface. It means listening and observing rather than always talking, and noting the emotional states of others.

For example, noticing a team member showing changes in their usual behaviours (such as missing regular video-call check-ins) may suggest that they are struggling and may appreciate you reaching out to offer support.

It may be helpful to know that – unlike cognitive ability, or IQ – evidence suggests that emotional intelligence can be enhanced by undertaking a personal-leadership development programme.

Building unity

One important contextual feature of effective e-leadership is trust between each member of the team. Leaders have to be perceived as trustworthy by staff members, while staff members have to be trusted by leaders to perform according to work standards. There are four things leaders can do to enhance their trustworthiness:

  • Demonstrating competence: in practice, this means being on top of their game with respect to professional standards and practice. It means getting quality results, resolving problems, developing professional expertise, using their skills to help others, and being the best at what they do. It means being able to give full and open answers to questions, as well as comprehensive and clear explanations of complex matters. But staff have to see all this in practice, so leaders need to find ways to exhibit their competence on an ongoing basis.
  • Acting with integrity: to build trustworthiness is to act with integrity. In practice, this means keeping confidences, admitting when you’re wrong, honesty and sincerity in communication, and respectful non-judgemental engagement with others. We expect that professionals embody these values, but leaders need to be explicit in how they demonstrate them. So, speak up when you’ve made a mistake, don’t divulge secrets, and apologise if offence has been caused.
  • Openness to sharing: being open to sharing more of yourself than just your professional self is the third ingredient of trustworthiness. Rather than centring law and the legal sector in all conversations, how about telling people about your hobbies and interests? What about recounting an event like a recent hike up a mountain, or a family birthday celebration, or your thoughts on a film you watched? These activities help you to come across as more than just a ‘legal eagle’ to your staff, but a ‘real live human being’ that people can really relate to. When people realise that, of course, you are just another human being, exchanges are more authentic. The fabulous consequence to this is that people reciprocate with similar personal disclosures, and thus the trust bond is strengthened.
  • Being dependable: finally, leaders have to demonstrate clearly that they can be depended upon. In practice, this means showing up on time, doing what you say you will do, being consistent rather than unpredictable, and following up on all matters raised rather than leaving things hanging. People then have faith in you as someone they can rely on, and someone they can trust to be as good as their word. 

When leaders commit to these behaviours on a day-to-day basis, it strengthens the trust bond between themselves and their team members. Taken together, while research in the field of e-leadership is still in its infancy, the ideas shared here should support leaders’ transitions to the e-leadership space.

As leaders commit to building skills in the competencies outlined and become more proficient in demonstrating them in their behaviour, the wellbeing of their teams and organisations can be enhanced.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Dr Melrona Kirrane
Dr Melrona Kirrane is associate professor of organisational psychology at DCU Business School and professor of leadership at Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University. She is academic director of the Executive MBA and academic director of the Leadership Development for Women Programme at DCU Business School.