Remote working and leadership styles

As I write this, the UK is being prepared to go into lockdown. The government's message is to stay at home as much as possible and avoid all unnecessary travel and it's being advised that the most vulnerable (over 70’s) go into self-isolation for 16 weeks. Schools and offices are closing around the country and mass gatherings are being postponed or cancelled. 

So, what does this mean for businesses’ and will this require a change in management anleadership styles? The short answer is yes if you currently manage a team that is usually based in an office, retail or restaurant – if you’re normally all under the same roof, then things are about to change.  

Leadership styles and behaviours come in all shapes and forms, however, when managing a remote team, some styles will work more effectively than others. Remote working isn’t a new phenomenon. Flexible and remote working has been a part of our working lives for many years now, meaning that employees can work outside of the normal 9-5 and the standard office setup. However, if you’re used to having your team by your side, then the next few weeks or months may require you to do things differently as a manager. 

For some leaders and managers, remote work leads to a variety of concerns. It can lead to a lack of trust, driven by the manager, for several reasons… Are my remote employees really working? How do I know what they’re doing and if they are doing it right? Will everyone still be working toward the same goals?  

While these are all valid concerns, with some effort and planning they can all be avoided. 

In 2012, the Quality of Life Survey conducted by the MIT Sloan School of Management’s Executive Education Department found that if an employee has a supervisor who is open to flexible work, that employee is more likely to stay. Inspired by these results, Dr Peter Hirst, Associate Dean at MIT Sloan’s Executive Education department, piloted a flexible work program for his group. 

One of the most surprising things Dr Hirst discovered was an increase in trust between manager and employee. More than half (62%) of employees reported feeling more trusted and respected by the end of the pilot. Dr Hirst suggests this improvement happened because of a change in the cultural perception of work: 


We went from a culture of assuming people were working because you could see themworking to having a clearer understanding of what outcomes we’re trying to achieve and trusting everyone to be a professional.… The [employee] engagement that we got from that change of management relationship was really tremendous.’ 


We use big data and psychological insights from our Vibe technology platform to measure stress, trust, empowerment and passion in the workforce. Levels of trust (particularly towards the line manager) in those organisations that encourage home working versus those that don’t are often higher.  

So, if you are going to have to change up your leadership style in the next few weeks to accommodate for Covid-19, let’s explore what type of leadership works for remote teams. You could have some special circumstances that should be considered when thinking about what type of leadership works best for your team. 

Daniel Goleman, the author, psychologist, and science journalist best known for his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence identifies six styles of leadership. Goleman says ‘There’s no one ‘best’ way to lead a team or an organisation. Rather, the most effective type of leadership depends on the context. However, it can be hard for a given leader to change their style. That’s why understanding these different modes of leadership can be a key to matching your approach to the situation at hand’ 


The Six Leadership Styles 


Commanding – ‘Demands immediate compliance’.  

heavy-handed approach, using the commanding style probably doesn’t work well with a remote team. The nature of remote working demands a certain level of trust and using a command and control style will not build a trusting relationship.  

Affiliative – ‘Creates emotional bonds and harmony’. 

When successful, this leadership style can build team loyalty and cohesion, which can help when people are not spending a lot of time face to face. Just remember that one danger of affiliative leadership is the risk for the leader to have favourites. This can be a disaster on a remote team because people can fall through the cracks and become essentially invisible. Be on guard for that when using this approach to leadership. 

Democratic – ‘Builds consensus through participation’.  

In a remote work culture, communication can be a challenge. That doesn’t mean remote teams can’t have great communication, and it doesn’t mean that teams who work together in one office automatically have smooth communication all the time (far from I!). 

Taking the time to introduce some democratic leadership on your remote team can help everyone stay engaged and involved. When people know they have a say in decision making, they tend to stay motivated.  

Coaching – ‘Develops people for the future’. 

If your team is strong, a coaching style of leadership can work well remotelybeing able to trust your team to do their jobs even when you can’t see them. Socreating a work culture where people are expected to demonstrate a lot of independence can be effective for a high performing team. It’s worth bearing in mind that if this isn’t your natural leadership style, you can try out coaching questions with your team on the phone. Some leaders find this easier than asking challenging or direct questions face to face.  

Pacesetting – ‘Expects excellence and self-direction’.  

Although a pacesetting leadership style isn’t always the best way to lead the most creative and innovative teams, it can be efficient and effective especially in this current climate. Whilst the waters might still be slightly muddy in terms of what the future looks like, operationally, if you know what you want your team to do, and have strong measurement processes in place, pacesetting leadership can work well for a remote team. If you have a system that works, where you aredoesn’t matter as much. 

Visionary – ‘Mobilising people toward a vision’.  

What we are currently experiencing is outside the norm, people may not naturally want to ‘do things differently’ and upholding the status quo could seem like the best option. The vision you offer as a leader, if coherent and well communicated, can sustain the sense of belonging a team has, even when they aren’t physically close together. Remember, most people will be sliding up and down the emotional change curve, so a one size fits all approach to a visionary style is not recommended.  


Top Tips  


Create Face to Face Connections 

Use video (Zoom, Microsoft teams, Skype) to create virtual, face to face meetings. Don’t lose the human touch, particularly if people are used to having social contact in the office every day. Self-isolation might be a lonely place for a lot of people, so make more calls and have conversations rather than email.  

Reach Out  

Check-in on your team’s emotional wellbeing, not just the operational stuff. Many people may be understandably feeling scared, vulnerable and like their world has been turned upside down. Be mindful of this and demonstrate empathy and understanding in all interactions.  

Ask Questions  

Use this an opportunity to flex your coaching style that can build trust and accountability. Also, asking questions means that we listen more, a great way to make people feel safe. Understand that your teams may also want to ask you lots of questions (what does the future hold, is my job safe, what happens if I get sick and need time off? link in with your HR teams or other senior leaders and discuss your companies approach to answering the important questions.


Stay safe, stay sensible and stay sanitised. 


Stephanie Corking  

People Director  




The Emotionally Intelligent Leader by Daniel Goleman  

Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman

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