If there is one thing that 2020 and 2021 have taught us, it’s that in order to survive, we need to be able to navigate change. In order to thrive, we need to be able to lead it. But how do you become a change agent in a remote work environment?
Well, first, you understand that now is not the time to slow down any efforts to lead change. “Change agents are more relevant today than ever following 18 months of intense change and companies need to adapt to the remote workplace,” says Kathy Bennett, Founder and CEO of Bennett Packaging, one of the largest independent corrugated manufacturers in North America.
“Covid-19 has provided the perfect opportunity to make changes to company culture and values, realigning businesses with reasonable goals and sincere values that protect staff mental and physical wellbeing.”
The challenges of leading change in a remote work environment
But leading change when you barely see your coworkers or boss in person comes with challenges. First, there are logistical considerations. “The biggest difference is in the setting — you have to take all of your remote workflows and systems into consideration,” says Aleksandr Maklakov, CIO at tech support company MacKeeper, which has over 800 team members in various worldwide locations working mostly remotely.
You also need to take into account the psychological state of people in a remote work environment and the context of the pandemic.
“The main difference is the form of communication between agents and other staff. When staff are more resistant to change than ever after 18 months of intense world change, they’re desperate for the familiarity of the office. Without face-to-face interaction, it’s harder than ever to gauge reactions, so taking risks is a little bit riskier,” says Bennett.
“Commitment issues were one of our major challenges because it’s harder to inspire remote teams to experiment and work with new ideas. It’s easy to come up with new ideas, but it’s hard to experiment and stick with them to get the full picture,” adds Maklakov.
How to lead change while working remotely
But don’t despair. Knowing these stakes can help you deal with the challenges of changing things remotely.
From using emotional intelligence to favoring certain communication methods and building relationships through transparency, here are some tips that will help you become a powerful change agent without setting foot into the office.
1. Use emotional intelligence
According to Bennett, leading change in 2021 is all about adaptability and emotional intelligence:
“2021 has been difficult for everybody, so it’s important to be mindful of employees’ mental wellbeing as change is hard to accept at best; even a change to the office pencils can cause friction. Therefore, it’s essential to be sensitive when making changes and consider employees’ emotions.”
So before speaking or acting, remember to empathize with the experience of anyone affected by potential change.
2. Take responsibility
Besides taking others’ emotions into consideration in your efforts to drive change, you also want to remember that in order to be a true change agent, you must take responsibility for the changes you are hoping to see.
“Leading change in remote environments is all about taking responsibility for innovation. You have to be the one who takes the first step when it comes to organizing new events and coming up with new ideas,” says Maklakov.
3. Stay flexible and keep moving
However, taking responsibility doesn’t mean being rigid about the way forward. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll have to adapt and change your course of action several times in order to implement change successfully.
“It’s also important to stay flexible so that you can adapt as you go and not get stuck in your ways. Some ideas seem great but just don’t work in practice, but you use that experience and turn into something else,” adds Maklakov.
4. Prioritize transparency and collaboration
You will need buy-in to make anything happen, so it’s important to focus on building relationships. And you do so by being transparent and collaborating with others, even — and especially — when the use of tools like Slack makes it so easy to stay in your own bubble.
“As a change agent, it’s vital to build relationships and be mindful of office hierarchy and politics. Successful and meaningful change ultimately relies on collaboration and resistance can hinder progress,” says Bennett.
“To create meaningful relationships and gain support, it’s important to be transparent with objectives, be open to flexibility and willing to compromise.”
5. Consider constructive feedback
You might get feedback. Some of it might be less relevant. But some of it will be key in implementing the change you want to see. Especially if it’s negative and you are tempted to brush it off.
“Learn to collect, listen, and adapt to feedback. Feedback is the building block of every successful hybrid/remote work environment, and you need to take it into consideration. Negative feedback is particularly important because it signals resistance to change, and it means your idea is not as perfect as you imagined it to be,” suggests Maklakov.
6. Avoid impersonal email threads
Bennett also says that “disengagement is a change agent’s worst enemy.” She recommends avoiding email threads where possible and including staff in decision-making processes through video conferences to secure a more significant consensus.
“Leading change in any environment requires trust. In 2021, trust is at an all-time low. If you want to lead change now, you’d better be investing doubly in the trust of your leadership and stakeholders,” says Ben Lichtenwalner, author of “Paradigm Flip: Leading People, Teams, and Organizations Beyond the Social Media Revolution” and leadership expert.
“Your team is inherently more trusting of you and your leadership when they see you. To be more effective at leading change, increase trust by leveraging video communications whenever possible.”
According to him, text-based communications should be your last resort for anything other than a reinforcement of key change messages. So get your camera ready and use it often.
7. Be consistent and over-communicate
Finally, in order to lead change, consistency is key. In order to lead change in a remote work environment, you have to be extra consistent. And the same goes with communication. You want to feel like you are over-communicating.
“In addition to building trust, consistency is key. In remote environments, we often lose track of the hallway gossip and pop-up questions. As a result, we tend to communicate too little. Remember this: if you’re not sick of repeating the change message, you’re not communicating it enough,” says Lichtenwalner.