What remote workers teach us about leadership

faceless black lady working remotely on laptop near dog

I do a lot of thinking about new ways of working. Firstly, because of the focus on organisational issues during my Masters, and working for over a year for the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne. Secondly, because of the work with Freelance Australia, and curating content for our community. Thirdly, because that’s how I work now, and we’re always most interested in what affects us directly, aren’t we?

I like the Zapier blog, as they write some good pieces that support people working in ways that are not the nine-to-five in an office at the same desk every day. The latest from them is entitled “The 7 Biggest Remote Work Challenges (and How to Overcome Them)

This section particularly leaped out at me:

One of the reasons many managers don’t approve of remote work is they fear employees will slack off without that physical, in-person oversight. But, in fact, the opposite tends to be the reality–remote workers are more likely to overwork.

Having worked in a large organisation for 20 years – and now working with several clients in big organisations – it strikes me that this lack of trust is at the heart of so many issues that suck the productivity and creativity out of them. I have seen so many instances when people with the interests of the organisation at heart have been slapped down, not allowed to grow or be creative because of this lack of trust. And I find it perplexing. Why would you have people working with you that you didn’t trust?

It comes back, I suppose, to the issues raised by Frederic Laloux (and others), highlighting how work is changing. This distrustful, controlling attitude falls firmly into the idea of the organisation as an army, with ranks and hierarchy and the role of those in leadership at each level up is to control and watch those at the level below. Increasing contractualisation of workforces mean that this command and control structure is no longer tenable for many organisations. Change has to come about.

When I was a Spokesperson at the European Commission, our team operated in a very flat manner, especially compared to the hierarchical way other parts of that organisation were structured. And we worked out of our skins. At the time I attributed this to a few things-

  • we had a very clear goal for our work – getting more media coverage, reducing inaccurate coverage
  • we stood or fell by the quality of our work – if we messed up or didn’t do our work properly, that was patently clear for everyone to see. That’s a great motivator!

This is also true for remote workers, especially when they are freelancers. They usually have a clear role within a project and parameters have been established. They know what they are there to do. They do it because they enjoy it and are good at it. And they also know that their future prosperity stands or falls on how well they perform. Do badly, particularly in a tightly knit location or industry, and you risk negative publicity. In a form of work where so much quality work can come about through personal recommendations, that’s a very important consideration.

It seems there are also lessons for leadership in more traditional organisations. If your staff understand what their goal is at work, and how they are contributing to the bigger picture, and then are also given clear indications as to what is expected of them, that can provide space for trust to grow, trust that is so crucial to people getting meaning from their work.

This post originally appeared on 25 March 2017.

Published by Antonia

I'm a British citizen and European Union official, who lives in Brussels again after 6 years in London and 8 in Melbourne. My blog(s) reflect my interests in the EU, yarncrafts, organisations and dog ownership.

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