Leading Made Simple

5 Keys to Lead a Distributed Workforce Effectively

Leading a distributed workforce has its own set of challenges and won’t be successful in utilizing a traditional leadership approach. A great example is an organization that created WordPress, a website development platform used around the globe.

Matt Mullenweg, the co-founder of the WordPress Foundation and its parent company Automattic, believes anyone–and everyone–can pull off remote work successfully. He oversees from his home in Houston a fully distributed team of roughly 1,100 employees across 77 cities worldwide. Recently Mullenweg confirmed in an Interview with INC that the experience has taught him one thing:

The people who never adjust to post-office-life (a.k.a. distributed workforce) are the same as the ones who don’t try.

The same can be affirmed for any leader: The sustainable success of a remote workplace depends on the willingness of the respective leader to be flexible and adapt. Mullenweg stressed the dangers of “false proxies”- i.e. indicators that employees in traditional office environments use to signal hard work, like showing up early and staying late.

Mullenweg says: “It’s way easier to slack off in the office as opposed to home. When you are working from home, and all your colleagues are seeing the results of your work, if you don’t do the work, it’s very obvious.”

On a factory floor, leadership has successfully focused on results for a long time. Of course, it is easy to measure results there as we are typically dealing with physical parts, units, and systems.distributed workforce

In today’s business and office environment, the leadership is typically focused on the activity being displayed as the results are often not so obvious to identify. This dilemma is also the beauty of the issue at hand. There are real opportunities to be seized for significant improvements in the traditional office environment and a significant part of my work with clients is focused on just that. Here are some ideas for reflection:

  1. Clarity of expectation, 9 out of 10 times lack of performance is rooted in a lack of clarity of expectations. Effective leadership will eliminate that problem as there are tools and techniques to be employed.
  2. Effective goal setting combined with a goal achievement system. Deploying a systematic planning tool to set SMART goals and a measurable execution plan throughout an organization will generate a quantum leap in measurable outcomes.
  3. Creating employee engagement and target buy-in on all levels of the organization through effective communication minimizes the perceived need of micro-management. In turn, there will be less stress on the organization as well as the leadership, and the organizational performance increases.
  4. Effective leadership communication is based on emotional intelligence, not just a smooth talk or brilliant PowerPoint presentation. Again, there are leadership tools and techniques that can be acquired by any intentional leader. Consider the fact that effective leadership is creating results THROUGH people.
  5. Leading by example (self-leadership) is a key tool to establish a solid environment of accountability for results.

So, what does all this have to do with leading a distributed workforce successfully?

working from homeIt is amazingly simple, the suggestions above are some of the key features a leader could employ to enhance current performance in the traditional office environment.

In a remote work environment, a leader MUST get good at these features to generate successful outcomes.

Activity-based measurements are out, result based leadership is the solution, a sustainable and very cost-effective solution. Instead of working harder the “novel” idea is to work smarter.

A distributed workforce in a virtual environment has many economic advantages for the employees as well as the company. Let us explore some areas that can create attractive cost savings and have a positive ecological impact at the same time:

  • Reduced need for office space
  • Simplified office infrastructure
  • Reduced peripheral office cost (i.e. snacks, coffee, certain supplies, etc)
  • Reduced commuting time and cost between the office and home
  • More time efficiency and flexibility for employees
  • Increased employee wellness
  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced employee turnover
  • Better access to top talent acquisition
  • Reduced need for re-location cost
  • More efficient meetings

Of course, there are still some challenges that we must evaluate and address. What comes to mind immediately is the IT-network and connectivity security which is critical in a distributed workforce environment. Another area is the human side of a desirable team and office environment. How can we substitute and enhance the personal interactions, the belonging to a “tribe”, the emotional component of “being in this together”?

I would entertain this to be another facet of leadership development, required to make remote work a sustainable success. Leadership is the key to make this work well and it seems to be worthwhile to pursue excellence in leading a distributed workforce with tenacity!

Good luck, lead well, stay safe, and help your team to succeed! If you would like to explore additional ideas of effective leadership let’s talk!

Manfred Gollent

Manfred Gollent is a certified business coach and the founder of QLI International LLC. He works with a variety of clients from Fortune 500 executives to small business entrepreneurs on leadership and strategy development since 2006. Prior to founding QLI International, Manfred has been a turn-around executive in a Fortune 500 company with global operations. During his 30+ years in the corporate world, he led the rebuilding of underperforming subsidiaries in the United States, Europe, and Asia by developing their leadership team and organization, restructuring their market portfolio, operations and efficiency to improve results toward meeting investor’s expectations. Aside from his international corporate career, Manfred has served on company boards in the UK, Belgium, Norway, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Singapore, Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, and the United States.