How can the board successfully lead a remote workforce?

Jun 3rd '20

During the coronavirus pandemic, many of us have become used to working remotely – and at the moment, remote working looks to be the foreseeable future for large numbers of employees.


For the board, this creates a challenge. While many firms have adapted to remote working in the short term, and have been able to cope, making this work longer-term requires more than a sticking-plaster approach.


What role does the board play in ensuring the success of the remote workforce? And how does successful remote working over the long term differ from executing short-term tactics?


A recent Linkedin article explored the challenges of managing a remote workforce, short- and long-term. We share some of the insights here and focus on the ways the board can lead an organisation to remote success.


1. Establish a remote leadership team

The first step the article highlights is one where the board plays a pivotal role. The shift to remote working can be a huge change, and one where employees need clear leadership. Cited in the article, Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab, a company that operates the world’s largest all-remote workforce, recommends that organisations ‘rally a team of experts who have remote work experience’ and who can communicate the nuances of the change, and answer inevitable questions.


Identifying, documenting and prioritising key challenges, and then assigning individuals to manage them, will be a core role for this team. As this is an area where the board should be skilled and experienced, it stands to reason that you will be central to this.


When it comes to shifting to a long-term remote working organisation, Sid Sijbrandij, GitLab’s cofounder and CEO, believes that getting leadership buy-in and a top team that leads by example is a pre-requisite.


The article notes that ‘Simply telling employees that they’re allowed to work remotely may not be enough to break old habits and overcome anxieties around not being present. But when they see their leaders working from home or from a coffee shop, this can strongly signal permission’.


As a team often comprised of people based in different locations, the board can be a great testing ground when it comes to remote collaboration. In many cases, boards will already be making the most of technology to manage their responsibilities and collaborate across offices.


2.  Create a handbook

The Linkedin article calls this a ‘single source of truth’; answers to the pressing questions your employees are bound to have. It should answer FAQs on things like tools, systems and processes when people are unable to share information face to face.


Longer-term, this emergency handbook can be expanded upon to create a comprehensive guide to all the organisation’s processes and procedures. This can be invaluable, the article explains, as the person with the answer to a particular question may be in a different time zone – but the handbook is available 24/7.


3.  Find a good means of communication

The adjustment to totally remote working may be a culture shock. The article suggests creating an ‘always on’ conference room for each of your teams, where people can communicate and connect.


This doesn’t just help employees to acclimatise to working alone, but also sets out the corporate stall when it comes to communication style, emphasising the desire to maintain the informal communications that naturally occur in an office setting. Again, the board’s role in initiating and championing communication initiatives is key here.


Not only that, the board and executive team should be visible and open in their own communications. In a constantly shifting landscape, leadership should, in the words of the article regularly ‘iterate on their communication plan in real time’.


If you’re eyeing up a more permanent move to remote working, this is even more essential; ‘boosting transparency and communication across the organization’ is Linkedin’s #2 tip for longer-term remote collaboration.


Fewer informal channels mean a need for more contrived communication. The article cites Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work report, which found that communication and collaboration are among the biggest challenges of working remotely. Employers need to provide tools for collaborate and communicate to their staff, and managers should be reminded of the need to check in on their teams.


4.  Don’t go overboard on tools and tech

Or, as Linkedin puts it ‘minimize your tool stack’. Don’t make the mistake of overdoing it when it comes to supporting technology. The article suggests that one company-wide chat tool, one video-conferencing platform and one document-editing tool should be all you need. Using a single vendor for tools in a category will reduce confusion, and more users may be leveraged for volume discounts.


Rather than the tech itself, Darren Murph suggests that for many firms, it will be the discipline of documenting processes that forms the biggest challenge. Companies without an existing culture of documenting in writing will need to change the way they do things; as the article says, ‘You’ll want to proactively solve for mass confusion when it comes to finding things — policies, protocols, outreach mechanisms, messaging, etc.’


Any organisation – and any board – with prior experience of managing documents online will have a head start here.


Boards that have made use of portal technology, for instance, will understand the benefits of being able to access meeting packs and other corporate documentation at the click of a mouse, and can act as evangelists across the organisation. Read more on the advantages of the digital board here.


5.  Drive cultural change

Another step where the board is key. Humans have a natural resistance to change, and never more so than when that change is driven by crisis or necessity. The board and senior leadership need to recognise that remote working is something that employees will need to adapt to, and this may take some time. Clarity and transparency around what works and what doesn’t will be essential as the new way of working beds in.


6.  Make it clear who makes decisions

A culture of problem-solving is great, and one of the benefits of a remote workforce is its potential for you to tap into the best talent, wherever they’re located.


But when it comes to working remotely longer-term, the article recommends designating a ‘directly responsible individual’ to make decisions and ensure that debate leads to action. Combining the best elements of ‘consensus’ and ‘hierarchical’ cultures will deliver what you need.


7.  Work in small steps

Plugging away remotely with a project or idea, before getting the feedback that might come organically in an office environment, can potentially waste time.


Work in small steps, getting regular feedback as you go, and there is more opportunity for you to refine your approach with the help of others. Breaking projects into smaller steps is something that GitLab sees as crucial to success. Again, collaboration tools can help here in enabling people to work together across time zones or locations.


Remote working can be a challenge, particularly in the early stages, or as you move from remote work as an emergency measure to a longer-term cultural shift.


Hopefully, the steps outlined here will give you an idea of how to approach this challenge. As a board of directors, your role in leading from the front is a crucial one that you can embrace from day one. Setting a good example around digitalisation is one key element of this.


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