The boss sits enthroned in the upholstered executive chair above his employees - authoritarian, not very popular and from above. This image of leadership has burned itself into our heads. But it has had its day: digitalisation, project-based work and cooperation characterise working life today. That's why I don't have a boss's chair in the first place - or an office of my own. As a digital nomad and agency head, the world is my office and my laptop is my closest travel companion. Find out how I manage remotely and take responsibility for over 25 employees in a remote team in this personal experience report.
I've always been a fan of technology. I built my first websites for customers at 14. The web was still small back then but I quickly realized the huge potential that lay dormant here. After graduating from high school, I packed my bags and went to Australia for a 9-month work and travel trip. I financed the whole trip through web design contracts.
In 2008 I was one of the very early 'Digital Nomads' – even before this term existed. From today's point of view, this was an unbelievably big effort. I had a huge, heavy laptop in my luggage, the smartphone was a peripheral phenomenon, and Wi-Fi was often in short supply. Nevertheless, one insight has stayed with me since then: I can work from anywhere and it's great fun.
After studying at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and UC Berkeley in California, and with a few loyal clients under my belt, I founded the digital agency Friendventure in 2012. It was here that I took on employee responsibility for the first time. It was clear to me that I wanted to be an entrepreneur on the one hand, but remain flexible at the same time. Even during my studies, I traveled a lot and was always inspired by different places. I definitely wanted to maintain this flexibility. Digital nomad and agency boss, travel and employee responsibility, does that go together?
Remote Leadership means equal rights for all
It is said that a company is a reflection of the entrepreneurial personality. As a globetrotter, my agency is also characterized by great freedom and personal responsibility. When I founded the agency, my credo was: I want to run an agency where I'd like to work as an employee myself.
The most important decision for me was to treat everyone equally. All the freedoms I have should also apply to my employees. Why should I nail my employees to their desks when I've experienced the benefits of self-determination first-hand? In terms of productivity but also in terms of general well-being.
Working independent of location has thus grown out of my personal preference. I'm practically a part-time digital nomad now. I travel for about four months a year and also commute a lot between our offices in Cologne and Berlin and to various other appointments. Moreover, I'm a train enthusiast who clocks up hundreds of hours a year working on trains.
I firmly believe the system only works because everyone has the same rights. Otherwise it'd be like, "Look at Julian, he's off again and we have to sit in the office from 9 to 5." Under such conditions, colleagues are right to revolt. It's simply not the way companies work these days. Thank goodness!
The advantages of remote work
We're not a remote team that's spread across the globe. Our employee base around our locations in Cologne and Berlin. But here too, many employees work from home or use the opportunity to choose their workplace freely – e.g. in cafés, co-working spaces, on the train when travelling, in other cities or as a combination of work and foreign holidays.
Despite being able to work from any location, most employees come to the office regularly and then change location as they prefer. This combination of flexibility at the place of work and a permanent team and office is very well received by my colleagues and applicants. It also offers the following advantages for me as agency head:
Reduced staff turnover
According to a Stanford study, employee turnover is 50 percent lower in remote teams. We have also made similar experiences: a welded-in team and the possibility to work remotely prevent the migration of good employees. Precisely because migrations to other cities (e.g. as a result of life planning in partnership) does not necessarily lead to job changes.
According to a study by TINYpulse, remote workers are more satisfied and motivated on the job. Without anonymous employee surveys, an accurate evaluation is difficult, but the ratings on Kununugive a good indication. For a remote boss, it's a challenge to keep a close eye on the mood of the team. This is where having an "open door" at all times helps. In the digital age, this means that my employees can reach me at any time via Slack and talk about problems of all kinds. As the boss, it's also important for me to actively participate in Slack discussions within the team. Of course, there are also regular face-to-face discussions.
Healthier colleagues and fewer days of absence due to illness
The figures for psychologically-related days of absence from work have been rising for years: according to the TK Health Report, 18 percent of sick days are now of a psychological nature, and young people in particular are at risk. Even though there are always reports about higher stress levels in the home office, we see a high degree of self-determination (time and place of work) as the ideal solution.
In our experience, this self-determination leads to more well-being and accordingly to fewer days of illness. With flexible working hours, I can simply stay in bed in the morning if I have a headache and possibly start work later instead of getting written off sick by a doctor straight away.
Attract sought-after specialists
An organization is only ever as good as its employees. In the service sector, my employees are my capital and key factor in competition. The shortage of skilled workers is not a vague forecast for the future, it's already a reality in nearly all branches.
By working independently of location, we have a much larger talent pool we can draw from. Attractive working conditions also strengthen our own employer brand. And by that I don't just mean a trendy table football game and free drinks. Without the culture behind it, it's all nothing but smoke and mirrors.
Remote working has the advantage that I can actively carve out periods for concentrated work. Personally, I'm always in the middle of the action in an open-plan office and quickly get distracted by things. And that's fine now and again.
But in our smaller Berlin office, I can work in a much more concentrated way than at our main location in Cologne. In Cologne, I rotate from meeting to meeting, I'm taken aside, or even get involved in some processes myself. In the evening, I realize just how exhausted I after working days like this.
Along with the benefits, there are of course a lot of challenges for us as a remote team. Especially when remote teams grow quickly, as we did last year. Within 12 months, we doubled our staff to over 25 employees. This has been a huge disruption to our internal processes in particular. On the other hand, site due construction sites were ruthlessly exposed.
Let's get back to the main topic: leadership. Of course, leadership is a real challenge in remote teams as it's often done remotely. So now comes the big question. How do I lead my employees when we're not in the same office, city or even time zone?
Remote leadership in the 21st century
Top-down was yesterday! The principle of rigid hierarchies dates back to the age of industrialization. It's unlikely anyone would assume the challenges of an iron foundry in the 18th century are comparable to those of a medium-sized company at the beginning of the 21st century. Nevertheless, the majority of companies today are still organized in a strictly hierarchical fashion.
A strict catalog of specifications, meticulously specified work instructions and close controls - these are all instruments of the old working world. But it's simply no longer possible to meet the challenges of the 21st century with these instruments. The reality is that we work in agile project groups, answer messages digitally, jump from one task to the next, skype with customers, and continue our education on the side. We can only accomplish the major tasks that digitalization presents us with through cooperation and creativity.
I understand the optimal preparation of my employees for these modern working methods as Digital Leadership or Remote Leadership. I am not alone in this: young companies in particular are increasingly questioning classic corporate structures and developing new working models - e.g. holacracy, sociocracy or even remote.
I don't want to separate digital leadership and remote leadership from one another because they belong together. Remote has long since become reality in the digital world. Every time I send a digital message, make a phone call or use other communication tools, I work remotely. Even the most stubborn advocates of presence work cannot deny that a company with multiple locations must work remotely to remain agile.
The 8 pillars of digital leadership
What distinguishes remote leadership? In my opinion, the following eight things are important:
- Less control
- More trust
- Handing over responsibility instead of delegating
- Intrinsic motivation
- Preventing silo mentality
- Team events
- The right tools
1. Less control
Command-and-control has had its day. Bosses have to say goodbye to being able to control all of their employees' activities at every turn. Studies such as that of the Institute of the German Economy (IW) show that productivity drops significantly under constant control.
To be honest, I too had to adjust as I do, by nature, like to hold all the reins. Here, the spatial distance of remote work helps me to stay out of the operative business. I had to replace the feeling of "I think everything is slipping out of my hands" with "they'll manage this fine without me".
Less control also has means I can concentrate on the essential tasks of a boss and entrepreneur. For me, digital leadership also includes making forward-looking business decisions. I have to keep an eye on the market, keep an eye on new technologies and, if necessary, adapt our service portfolio. In other words: working more on the company than in the company.
During the growth phase in particular, I had to consciously withdraw from operations in order to build up new structures instead. I was able to completely relinquish some areas of responsibility and only be involved in critical situations.
2. More confidence
Less control automatically means more trust. And without trust, nothing works. No society, no family and no company. Trust is one of the most important factors for performance and successful teamwork. This is shown by studies such as the one conducted by the University of Münster on trust in virtual teams.
"The face-to-face contact that virtual teams lack can be compensated for by increased trust" Guido Hertel, Professor of Organizational and Business Psychology at the University of Muenster
I trust that my employees will handle a task appropriately. In the end, I don't care if that colleague takes a walk or feeds his goldfish on the way to their destination. What counts is the end result. Experience shows that the best ideas don't come to you at your desk anyway, or while you're under high pressure, or in stressful situations. The great ideas come when we have our minds clear for creative thinking. These spaces can only be created in a relationship of trust.
We shouldn't forget that, just like in football, a team loses and wins together. If the goalkeeper has a bad day and an easy ball hits the net in the last second, the team still stands united. This doesn't mean you can do without error analysis. That's how I see it in a corporate context. It needs to be clear that we're working together on something and that each individual is making his or her contribution and may also make mistakes.
3. Hand over responsibility instead of delegating
You often hear how bosses should delegate tasks to their employees. But that alone isn't enough. Delegating usually leads to employees working on a task and then returning it to the boss. This is followed by feedback, reworking, and then you're already in a seemingly endless feedback loop that devours large amounts of resources and emotional energy unnecessarily.
The best solution is therefore to transfer responsibility to the employee entirely. This leads to more agile decisions without the results having to suffer. Moreover, employees can often give each other much better feedback than if the boss is constantly involved. Their skillset may well be much more precisely suited to the task.
Empowerment means providing the optimal framework conditions to enable your own employees to reach their full potential. A high performer in the wrong position, a trainee overburdened with tasks, or simply a lack of technical infrastructure can put a real brake on the development of potential.
But technology isn't the only thing that matters for developing potential. Employees need tools and, most of all, freedom and a long-term perspective. To encourage employees, you need to increase their area of influence. Greater scope for decision making can generate real motivation. A well-known hotel, for example, allowed its cleaning staff to handle complaints of up to 1000 euros themselves without consulting their superiors. The result was significantly higher motivation at work and, at the same time, less bureaucracy.
The task of today's digital leader is to develop their own employees into a better version of themselves. There's no place here for vanity, individualistic mentality, and competitive thinking. It's pays off handsomely when expertise grows in the company and knowledge is actively shared.
5. Intrinsic motivation
What motivates an employee in the long term? A high salary, generous bonuses or a company car? Neither - studies show that the positive effect of a salary increase only lasts for a short time and reaches its maximum at 60,000 euros per year.
From my experience, intrinsic motivation helps. Intrinsic means "out of personal incentive". The opposite is extrinsic motivation, which includes the material motivators mentioned above, e.g. money, commission, or a company car.
Because the effects of extrinsic motivation fizzle out after a short time. Only intrinsic motivation creates added value. Those who only work to rule won't achieve anything in a company and certainly won't facilitate innovations.
What helps in concrete terms? Appreciation of work, freedom to make your own decisions, transparency, permission to make mistakes, and celebrating success together.
6. Preventing silos
In my opinion, one considerable danger for established companies is a lack of knowledge exchange due to departmental silos. These clearly separated and strictly hierarchically structured departments make cooperation more difficult and, in the worst case, lead to a "state-within-a-state" mentality. Departments become so large that they pursue their own interests alongside the interests of the company.
Effective measures to prevent silos are agile project work and remote teams. The advantage of agility and remote work, and I see in my own agency, is the constantly changing composition of interdisciplinary project teams. There are no departments with a sign on the door that says PR, Design, or IT. If you don't make this spatial separation at all and rely on remote work instead, you have a clear advantage right from the start. In the beginning, building up the agile project teams certainly means additional work so the project doesn't end up in a chaotic mess. In the long term, however, companies will benefit from this agility.
7. Team events
For remote teams spread across the globe, it can be difficult to bring all your employees together in one place. Fortunately for us, all our employees live in Germany and so nothing stands in the way of us enjoying a Christmas party and other events together.
In addition, for the past three years we have packed our bags once a year and flown to sunnier climes (Mallorca, Lisbon, Crete) for a week to work together. This strengthens the cohesion immensely and builds trust in the team. In October 2019, our third Workation (a combination of work and vacation) took place in Crete. For many members of our rapidly growing team, it was the first physical meeting, as they had previously only communicated via digital channels.
I see regular meetings and events as crucial for the success of a remote company. We're all social beings, we want to get to know the people we work with every day. It's incredibly difficult to create a common team spirit as "strangers". If you've cooked, eaten and laughed together, building this team spirit is much easier.
8. The right tools
Many think tools are the most important thing in remote teams. Tools are certainly indispensable in the digital working world. Nevertheless, tools must always be integrated into meaningful workflows. What use is the best project management tool on the market if you don't need the dozens or functions or if the tool overwhelms your workforce? In the worst case, individual employees use different solutions and that doesn't help anyone. And don't forget:
A fool with a tool is still a fool.
Email hasn't outlived its usefulness quite yet, but it's becoming increasingly unusable for agile, project-based teams. An email isn't helpful for when five people are trying to communicate with each other and there are also twelve on CC. Managers often have to spend hours every day processing emails that are of little relevance to them. Collaboration tools are a real blessing here. Users can structure communication much better or comment directly in the user interface.
The advantage of such communication tools is the immediate use of swarm intelligence. The hurdle of asking a question in the channel is much lower than walking into your superior's office and asking for advice. So even as a remote boss, I always have an eye on the needs of my colleagues and we can stay agile at the same time.
Remote control is possible!
It may sound absurd to the established bosses of the last century but leadership from a distance is possible. It works well and sometimes even better than when you're ever present and constantly breathing down the neck of your employees.
Remote is by now a reality that we must acknowledge as part of the digital age. That's why I recommend all companies preparing the structures for remote work already. Be it for employer branding reasons or to retain great employees.
Nevertheless, I do believe some regular attendance as a boss is important. Every now and then you need to get a sense of the team's mood in person. As a fully remote team, you only get to do this at events and meetings.
But there is a catch to remote leadership that can only be eliminated through self-discipline. Due to my digital nomadism, I'm practically always reachable unless I'm somewhere without a phone or internet connect. There's a constant temptation to quickly check my emails before going to bed or just start something from my to-do list for the next day already.
I need to set clear boundaries for myself here. It's not always easy but I've found a few hacks that work. I turn notifications off, designate fixed times for emails, schedule in daily exercise, meditation, etc. I gladly accept the necessity of discipline if I'm rewarded with greater flexibility and more freedom. My colleagues and I couldn't do without these benefits now!