Science of People Leadership in a Remote Work Environment- Helpful Insights

By Phil LaCorte

October 18, 2021

Blog

Reading Time: 9 minutes

While the science of people leadership may end up being as much art as it is science at times, particularly in a remote work environment, there are some core principles that emerge. Read on to find out more.

Science of People Leadership in a Remote Work Environment

People leadership in a remote work environment is a critical topic in our current moment in history. Leaders are shifting their leadership posture from reacting to the uncertainty of a pandemic to dealing with new work paradigms. We are grappling with questions like: “Is it crucial to have this employee present physically?” and “Can we operate as a team without seeing each other regularly?”. As the pandemic recedes, many organizations will never return to a fully in-person environment- if they ever were. Many will have to shift towards, or shift further towards, some type of hybrid approach.

Some have done away with the physical workspace altogether. As leaders, it is important to lead our people purposefully through these momentous decisions which at once affect the lives of many individuals as well as the success of our organizations. Because of the rapid onset of the pandemic, many of us entered the remote work paradigm in a reactionary posture and have not shifted towards purposeful leadership in the new context. It is time to adapt our thinking to leading purposefully in this new norm. The leadership challenges surfaced by this new reality present not just challenges, but also incredible opportunities for leaders who can be in learning mode.

It’s been well established that the benefits of remote working can be significant. Many employees deeply appreciate the flexibility of the remote work option including the ability to work from anywhere, and in some cases, even to choose their own schedule. Employers can also benefit significantly due to lower infrastructure and capital costs. Employers can also gain the benefit of a larger pool of qualified job applicants if they are not limited only to the group of potential applicants in a geographical radius.

And yet, due to many of the circumstances that for most forced the quick change to remote working, some of the key leadership questions related to leading a remote workforce are often not thoughtfully and purposefully addressed by organizational leaders. Because of this, the significant potential benefits of remote work are not materializing for many organizations or for their employees. It is vital that leaders lead well– and also that team members follow well– in the hybrid or fully remote workplace.

What is missing by nature from the remote work environment are many of the seemingly insignificant, often non-verbal, reassurances and directional nudges that an employee and leader may be accustomed to for communication and direction-setting, realities that are more commonplace in the physical work environment. To counteract this, leaders must pursue intentional and explicit expectation setting, as well as leveraging every opportunity to proliferate organizational values, as well as maintaining the discipline of regular cadence calls for teams and other key interactions such as performance reviews. Leaders must then trust the right people to do the job without physically seeing them perform in their role.

In this article, we’ll look more deeply at how to pursue people leadership in a remote work environment most effectively, using our own learning, research, and results.

people leadership
Critical Elements to People Leadership in a Remote Work Environment

The following are the core principles that have emerged from our research in this area, but they are also principles that have held true in the Graphable work environment.

Set Clear Expectations for Remote Team Members

Setting clear expectations is a key role of every leader, but in a remote work environment, expectations must be communicated in a way that overcomes the additional communication barriers between a remote team member and their leadership. Many of the items discussed here are not revolutionary, they simply are a return to the fundamentals of leadership. But in this new and emerging leadership context, it is important for leaders to return to the basics. Some of the elements required for setting clear expectations are:

  • A clearly defined, well communicated, and accessible job description. A relevant job description should list primary duties – items critical to the success of the employee. Secondary duties, areas where an employee can contribute – if listed, should be clearly indicated as secondary duties. Key performance indicators (KPI’s) (see description in item #3 below) of the role should be clearly noted for the primary duties in the job description. The job description must be published in a place where the employee and their front-line manager have immediate access to it and it should be referred to regularly – particularly for newly hired or promoted employees.
  • A clear line of accountability for the employee. This includes an organizational chart that denotes accountability relationships within the organization that is easily accessible to all employees. In a remote work environment, it is critical to keep these relationships simple since it can be difficult or impossible to determine how much an employee is being tasked with or burdened by other team members.
  • Defined key performance indicators (KPI’s) that clearly define employee success. KPI’s should be listed on the job description, and from both the employee’s and their leader’s perspectives, these should be easily measurable (e.g. numeric) and they should be the most important driver or drivers that define their success in the role. It is also critical that these metrics and their statuses be easily accessible and updated regularly (idealy on an automated basis), and even better accessible from one’s mobile phone).
    • Here are just a handful of examples of specific, measuable employee KPI’s:
      • Number of cold calls made
      • Service tickets processed
      • New sales opportunities opened
      • Sales opportunity progress through pipeline
      • Units sold
      • Minium billable hours target for a given period
Tracking and reviewing key performance indicators for remote employees

While it is important that expectations are clearly communicated via the job description, publishing and regular review of the key performance indicators (KPI’s) is just as crucial to enabling remote employee success. Employees and front-line leaders should meet on a regular schedule and review employee performance as compared to the defined key performance indicators. Why? As Gino Wickman states in his book Traction, “What gets measured gets done.” (pg. 122).

This (virtual) meeting should occur weekly and the review of the KPI’s should be the first item covered in that meeting. Situationally, a leader should respond in a timely way to lagging performance or stellar performance in a way that is simultaneously beneficial to the employee and to the organization.

This has several benefits. First, a manager can assist a struggling employee with overcoming the difficulty they may be having in succeeding with their KPI’s. Secondly, if the KPI’s are regularly impossible for the employee to meet, a manager should identify this and reset KPI expectations or identify rapidly that the employee is not the right fit for the role. Thirdly, if an employee is regularly overperforming the established KPI’s, they may be in line for a promotion or raise.

To take the accountability a step further, KPI’s, where appropriate, can be made accessible to an entire team of peers. This can provide, when done in a healthy way, mutual accountability within a team, and make performance around KPI’s part of the normal team construct, and in addition, can create healthy competition within a team context.

At Graphable we utilize KPI’s in the Domo platform (see our Domo consulting page for more info) using Domo dashboards to track the performance of our team members as compared to the defined KPI’s identified in their job descriptions. The Domo platform is always available to the Graphable team so that they can view their performance, and they can also see the performance of their peers where appropriate. Front-line managers review the performance of employees in one-on-one meetings with employees in a regular weekly cadence.

Build Policies and Processes on the Foundation of Organizational Values

The documents governing the direction and day-to-day running of many organizations are often a disconnected smorgasbord of components containing aspirational values, company goals, as well as rote policy and procedure. This landscape can resemble a flea market of ideas and concepts as opposed to a coherent, purposeful paradigm based on adopted organizational values. While this is too often the case, it is a significant lost opportunity for many reasons. In a remote organization, it is even more critical that every opportunity be leveraged to build organizational culture because fewer opportunities to do so exist.

While policies and procedures clearly must be in place, they should only be developed and shaped through the specific lens of the organizational values. This is because policies and procedures need to be:

  • Foundational – If organizational values are truly the bedrock of the organizational culture, then leaders should leverage every opportunity to build on them, including in our policies and procedures,
  • Consistent – If policies and procedures are not based on organizational values, they sometimes can inadvertently end up being created counter to stated values. In a remote work environment, this can contribute to an erosion of culture that is self-inflicted and will create harmful cognitive dissonance.
  • Purposeful – If organizational values are truly important, then the culture of the organization can be purposefully shaped through policies and procedures that are clearly built on the stated values.

To illustrate this point, at Graphable, every policy and procedure must begin with the context of Graphable’s core values. As an example, one of Graphable’s core values is being “Focused”, and is described as “Everything we do connects to and supports our goals”. While this is clearly aspirational, it is purposefully connected to our daily practices as described in our policy and procedure documentation. An example of this is in Graphable’s Time Entry Policy:

  • {Core Value: Focus} Accurate time entries promote alignment of individual team member goals to overall team goals

As I’ve mentioned previously, leaders of a remote workforce should not miss any possible opportunity to purposefully build the organizational culture because the opportunities to overtly shape organizational culture are less available in the fully remote and hybrid work environment.

Hiring People who Lead Themselves Well

There are a couple of fundamental assertions to start with here: (1) Not all people are right for your team, regardless of where the team is located, and (2) Not all people are the right people to work remotely on your team. Patrick Lencioni, in The Ideal Team Player, states that the ideal team member is “humble, hungry, and smart”. In a remote work environment, it’s critical that employees exhibit these attributes, but that they can also:

  • Lead themselves well,
  • Follow others well (since almost everyone follows at least as much as they lead)

While our Western culture at large tends to overvalue leadership and undervalue following, the best team members are those who are good at following because they have developed the skills of leading by example, understanding and participating in making their own leader successful, seeking and thriving on feedback, and pursuing professional success in the context of organizational success.

Team members with these attributes also can make excellent leaders because at the core of every excellent leader is an excellent follower. It takes humility to follow well, and humility is not simply an attribute of a servant leader, it is a prerequisite.

At Graphable, during the interview and hiring process, we look for team players who have shown independence in the past (the ability to lead themselves well), and who also understand that their success fits into a larger picture which involves following well. If they also show themselves to be humble, hungry, and smart and evidence a spirit of commitment to team success, then they could be an ideal team member or at least a very strong candidate.

Trusting your Remote Workers to Perform

The remote work environment is best-suited for leaders who can set clear and realistic expectations and is also best-suited for people who can lead themselves well. These team members must be capable, ethical people who perform to the expected level without having every aspect of their work-life dictated to them.

At Graphable we are purposefully building a culture where team members can thrive in an environment where yes they are accountable, but most importantly they are trusted, by structuring our policies and procedures to enable our team to accomplish their goals while also expecting that they will operate in everyone’s best interest. This supports the Graphable core value of “Team-focused”, described within our team as:

  • Considerate, ethical, hard-working,
  • Striving to act for the greater good of the team

The leader of the remote workforce must set clear expectations and regularly review the employee’s success compared to the expectations. The leader should not miss any opportunity to extend and creatively promulgate their stated cultural values throughout their organization by trying to utilize every process, procedure, 1:1 meeting, team meeting, and communication, etc to reiterate those as much as possible.

Effective leaders must hire team members who lead themselves well and who operate unselfishly within the team environment. And then, they must empower them by releasing them to be successful without micromanagement.

Conclusion: Succeeding with People Leadership in a Remote Work Environment

Many of the items discussed in this blog article are not new. The most critical element in leading a fully remote or hybrid workforce is setting explicit and clear expectations and then tracking performance against those expectations in ways that can be reviewed at any time by your remote team member. But it is also crucially important to use every opportunity to clearly communicate organizational values to your team by all means available.

Leadership has always been something done best when it is done intentionally. People leadership in a virtual work environment takes the importance of leading intentionally to a new level, but it can be done and is being done well by many. Leaders in this changing environment who can adapt their leadership styles and incorporate practices that enable remote team members while holding them accountable will have a significant edge in the new normal, both in attracting and maintaining high-performing team players and also in accomplishing organizational goals.


Graphable delivers insightful graph database (e.g. Neo4j consulting) / machine learning (ml) / natural language processing (nlp) projects as well as graph and Domo consulting for BI/analytics, with measurable impact. We are known for operating ethically, communicating well, and delivering on-time. With hundreds of successful projects across most industries, we thrive in the most challenging data integration and data science contexts, driving analytics success.

Want to find out more about our Hume consulting on the Hume knowledge graph / insights platform? As the Americas principal reseller, we are happy to connect and tell you more. Book a demo by contacting us here.

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We are known for operating ethically, communicating well, and delivering on-time. With hundreds of successful projects across most industries, we thrive in the most challenging data integration and data science contexts, driving analytics success.
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