Proximity of a Leader in a Remote World

It’s been 11 months since our world was upended and the reality of COVID-19 hit bringing remote work situations, technological changes, and copious Zoom meetings.

Most practices didn’t change in theory, but new physical challenges were thrown into the mix.

Like supporting your team when you can’t stop by their desk and see their eyeballs every day.

By now, most leaders have figured out how to connect on a basic level (insert Zoom or other communication platform of choice here), yet we hear of loneliness and disengagement growing despite these tools.

I’m not suggesting that using technology to connect is a bad thing - for many it’s often the only option available. No, I’m suggesting intentionality in using technology.

Authentic leaders use technology to learn about and support the person on the other end - to be with them - especially when working remotely.

Technology isn’t just a necessary communication tool, it must also be an intentional conduit to learn about, support, and grow your remote team.

What does this mean? It means ensuring the first focus of every remote meeting is the person on the screen rather than immediately diving into the work topics at hand.




This action alone makes a world of difference. When people feel seen and heard and understand they aren’t perceived as a cog in the organizational wheel, they will be more engaged and productive.

They feel as though their leader is with them.

To be with requires proximity. Approximately close proximity.

So how do leaders accomplish being with members remotely?

The good news is that physical proximity, while helpful to professional relationships, isn’t as much a requirement as emotional proximity.

In other words, get to know how each person on your team thinks, what they enjoy, what frustrates them, and how they tick, especially in this newer environment.

This can be done remotely - and it must be intentional.

Here are some ways you can be with your team and gain emotional proximity even when you haven’t physically been in their presence for months:

  • Schedule weekly one-on-one video meetings with direct reports. These shouldn’t be long and arduous but long enough to connect personally and, if time allows, maybe cover work topics. Thirty minutes is usually beneficial for this type of interaction, with at least half the time protected for social/personal topics. Always open with a question about the person - give them a chance to allow you into their world as they feel comfortable. Simple opening questions can look something like, “how is your week going?” or “did the weekend treat you well?” The video component is key - with the lack of physical proximity options visual interaction has become of supreme importance.

  • Plan remote social gatherings for the whole team. No work allowed during this time to give a social bolus. There are a plethora of suggestions online how to do this with little to no cost and minimal planning (think Bingo, treasure hunt, etc.). If you like, there are ways to spend the office personnel development budget by having a hosted virtual event, such as a tiny campfire (https://teambuilding.com/events/tiny-campfire). It is also possible to do an in-house variation on these type of events without the facilitator with a little more planning and minimal cost. An important note on this: if at all possible, hold social events during work hours so your team is able to fully attend and not worry about cutting into valuable family/personal time. The social component of the team is as important as productivity (because it sustains and frequently increases productivity) and must be treated as such.

  • Create a recurring schedule of who you will connect with each week. Yes, schedule it in your calendar so busy times of year don’t upend your good intentions. For example, let’s say you use Microsoft Teams, you could create an individual chat in Teams with each person on your team and once a week select a person to reach out to and ask how they are doing. Usually this lends to a few minute chat that lets them know you are thinking of them and at a minimum maintains your relationship, and at most provides growth and emotional proximity.

  • Hold quarterly one-on-one meetings with each person on your team. Make it a “different” meeting where the focus is on the person and their thoughts and goals. A way to make it different could be to make it a walking meeting where both take a jaunt around their respective neighborhoods and talk about desires for the future. This does not need to be scripted, and it is also important to be sensitive to those who like to be prepared by providing a general idea for the meeting and any questions you may want to ask ahead of time.

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