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Digital Leadership: Be compass, not big brother! 

Since March of this year, Digital Leadership primarily means Remote Leadership. Companies are discovering that being able to work from any location comes with many advantages, but also with new challenges. Ultimately, they all lead to one big question: How much physical proximity does leadership need?

At Tandemploy we also ask ourselves this question again and again. Our 30-person team has been working in many different locations, not just since Corona. At the same time, we have a strong home base with our Berlin office. However, this is not used by all employees to the same extent. How does that affect the team dynamics? How do team leaders manage to make all employees feel involved? And how can digital communication tools promote good leadership instead of hindering it?

Here we summarize our top 5 learnings from seven years of Tandemploy (and ten weeks of lockdown) for you.

1. Less management, more leadership

Does Remote Work mean more management? – In our opinion: no! Remote Work means, above all, more intensive leadership. It’s not about controlling employees even more, but rather about giving them a common direction to work towards. What is the next big goal? How do we want to achieve it? What do we need from every single one of us to achieve it? Regular video updates from the team leaders or the management have proven valuable in this respect. Also, weekly short jour fixes of the different project teams provide orientation. But leading remotely also means adopting a certain attitude and adjusting the team to it. Clear rules of conduct create a framework in which everyone can act independently all the while being able to rely on each other. Since nuances and subtle vibes, which are easily noticeable in the office, are eliminated at a distance, managers are required to play the role of the questioner: How is everyone doing? What challenges are they facing? The answers must not only be noted but dealt with. What form of support is needed? Which colleague can help? How do we solve conflicts at a distance? Cultural work and networking are the core of Digital Leadership, which is even more important in remote teams.

2. To-the-point meetings and space for cat videos

Weekly video meetings with the whole team (we call them: “Monday Moments”) get everyone in the mood for the new week and create space to celebrate the successes of the previous days together. As nice as this is, the rules must be very clear. It just takes one of the 30 people to start “rambling”, and soon enough half the meeting time is over. Good preparation and fixed speaking slots prevent this. At the same time, this “rigid structure” allows for very  little “virtual proximity” in the online meetings. This should definitely be compensated for elsewhere! A “random” channel in communication tools like Slack, where there is room for gifs, cats and hearts, is the least you can do to allow for exchange outside of professional topics. Even thematic groups that have nothing to do with work strengthen the “we” feeling.  

3. Avoiding the formation of communicative hierarchies

Using chat tools? – Everyone knows how to do that! Or so you’d think. Everyday communicative experiences in which the text message or the seventeenth e-mail from one and the same correspondence starts with “Dear Ms. Tepe” proves the opposite. Meaning: Not every tool is equally intuitive and easy to use for everyone. If employees have varying degrees of familiarity with a heavily used communication channel, this can quickly lead to the formation of a “communicative hierarchy” in which a few people set the tone. Companies that use a particular tool to handle the majority of their communication should, therefore, ensure that everyone can use it. Getting to know the tool should be an integral part of the onboarding process. Ideally, there is one person in the company who knows the channel with all its tricks and functionalities, synchronizes it with the corporate culture, and derives a guideline for communication from it – with clear rules that apply to everyone.

4. Remote Recruiting: Communication as a super-skill for all

Companies, where remote work is an integral part of their everyday life and culture, should keep this in mind when searching for and training new employees. Excellent communication skills are not only important on the management side, but also for each individual team member. Therefore it is advisable to ask them these questions as part of their application: How well can someone formulate a problem? And present a solution clearly and to the point? How reliable, straightforward, personable, and friendly does someone appear in the (video) interview?

5. Being culturally authentic: Practice what you preach

Digital and remote leadership are easier to achieve if they are not only implemented in the  company culture but holistically all the way down to the product level. In this regard, we have it easy at Tandemploy when it comes to implementing digital leadership concepts. Due to the nature of our product, we are constantly thinking about the positive work experience, how it can be improved and advanced with the help of digital tools in the best possible way. We, as agents of change, have to walk the talk, in order to get important impulses for what we offer our customers. This “Practice what you preach” principle ultimately works for everyone who is seriously interested in New Work (not only because it is trendy or currently necessary due to Covid-19) and is willing to focus on the “human factor”. Companies that successfully implement this cultural change, will find that the products they create in the process are also much more aligned with the customers and their needs.

In conclusion: Does leadership need proximity? – Yes. Does it need spatial proximity? – Not necessarily. If you want to lead in a human way, you can absolutely do so in the digital space. Managers, who want to ask questions, listen, observe, be empathetic, and make connections with their team, will be able to do so virtually with the right tools at hand. In the end, a good digital leader is not the one with the best data transfer rate, but the one with the best cultural transfer rate.


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