Leading Remotely

By Susan Middleditch
Deputy Secretary, Corporate and Regulatory Services
Victoria Police

The human race is a people-centric race. We like physical connections– a handshake; hug; kiss on a cheek; or a catch-up at the coffee shop. We like chatting; debating issues; brainstorming; collaborating; generating ideas, and we celebrate when our team delivers an outstanding result.

As leaders, we’ve been taught (or have come to realise), that personal interactions are critically important. That’s why we have team meetings and one-on-ones. It’s why we work in office space (usually), so we can see each other and chat about issues before they become issues. It’s why we stop in the corridor, have morning teas and it’s why we have lunchrooms and breakout spaces. As leaders, we often pick up on the unsaid things though body language or reactions. We gauge people’s reactions, feelings and emotions through what we see. 

We have heard many times that personal, authentic leadership is when we are present and available. With the onset of COVID-19, many of us are working from home – so what does that mean for us as leaders?

In times of uncertainty it is even more important for leaders to lead

However, that becomes more difficult when you can’t bring people together or communicate as you would ordinarily …. Or does it? Here are my top tips for leading remotely:

1. You can still connect

Connection, at present, is via some form of technology – be it phone; skype; facetime; Microsoft teams or the many social media channels. In fact, we are probably spoilt for channel choice. Many of us may not like the idea of speaking into a camera and being ‘on screen’ – certainly it wouldn’t be my first choice. However, as we continue to social distance, connecting with people where you can see each other is important. The visual of each other, while not perfectly replacing a face to face engagement, does allow for a closer and more personal discussion. 

Here’s how I have adapted to multiple channels:

Video channels – Microsoft teams / skype – I use these channels for my ‘more formal’ meetings, where we have an agenda or need to discuss a particular matter. This allows me to see everyone involved and ensures I can get equal input and varied discussion. I also use video channels for my one-on-one meetings with my direct reports.

Chat channels – Microsoft teams chat / text – for more informal or immediate (easy) questions. I use Microsoft teams chat to check in with my office team most days, even sharing how my day is going, or sharing a photo or emoji. I use this channel to replicate the general chitchat that would happen in a physical workplace throughout the day.

Phone calls – for quick and easy discussions that may need to occur within a short timeframe. I use this channel as it still tends to be the way most of us are immediately contactable. 

2. Listen intently

Although the technology channels allow us to talk to one another, it is much more difficult to gauge people’s reactions, feelings and emotions. People may also be more reluctant to share over a technology channel than they would face to face.

I’ve found that I need to listen more intently to the conversation, to pick up on inflections in people’s voices so I can gauge how they are really going. I’m also asking more specific questions – about workloads, hours of work, time away from work, routines, family/school etc. This allows me to try and ensure my staff’s wellbeing is sound and that they aren’t struggling.

3.  Share fear and concerns

If we know what is going to happen, we can plan for it. However, in this current climate, there is lots of uncertainty. When will we be going back to the office? How am I going to home-school my kids and work at the same time? When will I see my interstate or overseas family again? Is my family economically secure? How long is this going to go on for? 

As leaders, we are dealing with all this uncertainly in our own lives, and our staff will be too. One way to ease the uncertainty is to recognise that it is happening and share our own experiences. By doing that, you are giving permission for your staff to ‘be wobbly’ because that’s OK. You are also opening up a conversation so that staff can share their concerns and even how they are coping. You may even find that by sharing ideas gives people approaches that they hadn’t thought of. It can also give hope and perhaps lend some calmness to the situation.

Be kind. This is an emotional time; people will deal with it in different ways and being kind to everyone will just relieve the pressure on people and hopefully help them feel better equipped to adjust to this new way of life.

4. Don’t overload the email

I didn’t mention email as a connection channel – because it really isn’t. Email doesn’t allow for a connection with the person you are emailing. It is easy to want to document everything when working remotely – it ‘proves’ that you are working, and you get to send things to a broader group of people … but is this really necessary? Use email to document work related issues – documents that need reviewing, decisions that need to be made, guidance that needs to be given. Email those people you absolutely need to. As an alternative, pick up the phone, or press the call button on teams or zoom.

5. Look after yourself

Our role as leaders is to look after other’s wellbeing. We can’t do that well, if we don’t look after our own. Adjusting our normal routine when we are working from home can be hard. However, staying as close as possible to your normal routine helps with our mindset as a leader. Here’s how I’ve adjusted my normal routine:  

  • Getting out of bed at the same time, and doing my morning gym class via zoom
  • I still get dressed for work – blowdry my hair, put on work clothes (I’ve ditched the make-up though)
  • If I have a lunchtime meeting, I meet while I’m walking around the block so I get fresh air
  • At the end of my day (or close to it), I ‘commute home’ – which is usually an hour’s walk in the Melbourne parks or along the Yarra River
  • Reminding myself that chocolate isn’t a breakfast food
  • Before bed, switch off from my devices, read a book or write in my journal.

Whatever your adjusted routine looks like, find it. It will make you feel healthy and then allows you to lead in a healthy, happy and positive way.

These are new times for all organisations and, as leaders, it is our role to keep our teams productive and effective and deliver what our organisations need from us. We are all feeling our way in this new world. We will get some things wrong … but we will also get loads of things right. However, if we all work towards continuing those personal connections, we will get through all of this together.

Author: Susan Middleditch, Deputy Secretary, Corporate and Regulatory Services | Victoria Police

Susan is an accomplished Executive in the general government sectors, a respected leader and has proven ability in the delivery of corporate and clinical services; strategic planning and organisational change. Susan is a former CFO, a strong visionary and excellent communicator.