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How can I adapt my leadership style for a half-remote world?

Questions from long-term charity leaders

This series shares some of the challenges 12 long-term leaders have been exploring together over the past 18 months, in regular sessions facilitated by our co-founder Director (and long-term leader himself) Ben Cairns. Convened by Pears Foundation, most of the group have been in their senior leadership post for 10 years or more, and many are also founders, or were instrumental to the founding of, their organisation. 

The group started meeting before the Covid-19 pandemic, and then continued remotely, so their discussions spanned both pre- and post-Covid contexts. And while this series explores questions that were raised by long-term leaders, we believe that many of their considerations will resonate with all social sector leaders and professionals.

This blog series forms part of our work on Leading in uncertainty.

How can I adapt my leadership style for a half-remote world?

Many have been grappling with new styles of leadership and questioning how best to support and lead their teams remotely. Holding teams together without the ‘richness of the chitchat’ is a real challenge. How do you maintain the glue? How do you replicate and sustain ‘unplanned relationship building that would usually take place by the coffee machine’?

As we all begin to transition to a blend of ‘in-person’ and remote working, we share a number of approaches and features that people have experimented with:

  • Decisiveness: one leader ‘moved from being more democratic to having to make decisions early on during Covid’ as they had a clear vision for their interim strategy and took a more prominent role at a time when there was a need for reassurance and speed.
  • Visiting the team in person: one leader spent a week cycling around London to have one-on-one conversations with their team: ‘This changed the game for me – I felt less anxious about other conversations that I needed to have’.
  • Renting a space for team meetings: one team met in an office space designed for social entrepreneurs: ‘Having our first in person team meeting was a real lift for everyone’.
  • Explicit lunch hour: between certain hours, one organisation won’t ring one another (unless essential). This encourages staff to use the time to be absorbed in a task away from emails, or to have time outside exercising in daylight.
  • Distinguishing between a team meeting and a tea break: making sure not to blur the two. ‘Coffee conversations’ are short and frequent at one organisation, and they are clearly labelled to avoid confusion.
  • Showing the workings out: being more intentional about this for new members of the team. For example, having more informal calls and sharing screens to work through a task together.

Different working styles

Leaders reflected on their teams’ preferences or working habits while remote. Home working may have been ‘exposing’ for some team members whose ‘performance is very related to the day-to-day relationships in the office’. The group spoke about the challenges of assessing how well people have managed in this strange environment, and the need to avoid ‘penalising’ people for not being able to step up, into a place that they’ve not had any expectations or preparation for.

Legitimising working preferences

There were conflicting feelings about returning to an office working style: ‘What is it that everyone wants to maintain, what do we miss and then let’s come up with some kind of formula’. All team members need to be included in those discussions so their preferences are being listened to. The group acknowledged the different working environments across teams, and felt it is important to ‘legitimise the school pickups and being trusted to get the work done’, even if this means moving away from the ‘old world strict working hours.’ One leader questioned whether there will be an ‘unconscious pull back to a more traditional model where people judge non-work daytime activity’. Some leaders in the group discussed the dangers of inbuilt expectations on themselves – ‘to work the maximum at breakneck speed’ – and the importance of trying to unlearn certain habits. Flexible working practices need to be formally acknowledged and endorsed – ‘let us know your working preference’. As one member of the group said: ‘this isn’t school, there’s no bell’.

Are you leading in uncertainty?

Join us for some time to pause, reflect and share, connecting with other charity leaders who are adapting to and coping with prolonged uncertainty.
We provide  free and facilitated peer support sessions for voluntary and community sector leaders to share what’s front of mind in the current context of sustained uncertainty. During these online sessions, we are listening – so we can learn about and make sense of the live challenges leaders are facing, and help funders to understand how they can best respond.
Find out more

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