The boss sits in a big, comfortable executive chair – authoritarian, unpopular and looks down at the employees. This image of leadership has burned itself into our minds. But it has had its day: digitalisation, project-based work and cooperation characterise working life today. That's why I don't have an executive chair at all – and no office of my own. As a digital nomad and agency head, the world is my office and my laptop is my closest travel companion. In this personal experience report you will learn how I lead my business from a distance and take responsibility for more than 25 employees in a remote team.
I've always been a fan of technology. At the age of 14 I already built my first websites for customers. The web was still small, 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 & travel. 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 marginal phenomenon and wifi was often in short supply. Nevertheless, this insight has prevailed: I can work from anywhere and it's great fun.
After my studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and UC Berkeley in California and some loyal clients, I decided to found the digital agency Friendventure . This is the first time I have taken on employee responsibility. It was clear to me that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but at the same time remain flexible. Even during my studies I travelled a lot and got inspired again and again in different places. I wanted to maintain this flexibility at all costs. Digital Nomad and agency head, travel and employee responsibility, does that go together?
Remote Leadership means equal rights for all
It is said that the 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 would like to work as an employee myself.
The most important decision for me was to treat everyone equally. All the freedoms that I take should also apply to my employees. Why should I staple my employees to their desks when I have experienced the benefits of self-determination first-hand? In terms of productivity but also in terms of general well-being.
The independence of location has thus grown out of my personal preference. I'm practically a part-time digital nomad now. I travel about 4 months a year and also commute a lot between our offices in Cologne and Berlin and various other appointments. That's why I spend several hundred hours a year on the train, where I naturally also work.
I firmly believe that the system only works because everyone has the same rights. Otherwise it'd be like, "Look at Julian, he's out again and we have to sit in the office from 9 to 5." With such conditions, colleagues are right to go on the barricades. This is simply not the way companies work these days. Thank God!
The advantages of remote work
We are not an intercultural remote team that is spread across the globe. We have an employee base around our locations in Cologne and Berlin. But here too, many employees work from their home office 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 holidays in other countries.
Despite the possibilities of working from any location, most employees come to the office regularly, but flexibly change location as required. 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 an Stanford Study staff turnover in remote teams is 50 percent lower. We have had similar experiences: a closely-knit team and the possibility to work remotely prevent good employees from leaving the company. Precisely because moving to other cities (e.g. as a result of partnership-based life planning) does not necessarily lead to job changes.
According to an Study from TINYpulse remote workers are more satisfied and motivated in their jobs. Without anonymous employee surveys, an accurate evaluation is difficult, but the evaluations based on theemployer review platform Kununu give a good clue. For a remote boss, it is a challenge to closely follow the mood in the team. An "open door" at all times helps here. In the digital age, this means that my employees can Slack reach me at any time and talk about all kinds of problems. For me as a boss, it is also important to actively participate in team Slack discussions. Of course, there are also regular face-to-face discussions.
Healthier colleagues and fewer sick days
The number of psychologically induced days of absence from work has been rising for years: 18 percent of sick days are – according to the TK Health Report (German health insurance provider) – of a psychological nature. Especially young people are at risk. Even though it is sometimes said that the load in a home office environment can be even higher, we see a high degree of self-determination (time and place of work) as the ideal way.
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 turn around in the morning if I have a headache and possibly start work later instead of writing myself off sick at 9 a.m. sharp.
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 foggy forecast for the future, but already a reality in almost all sectors.
By working independently of location, we have a much larger talent pool from which we can draw. Attractive working conditions also strengthen our own employer brand. And by that I don't just mean a hip kicker and free drinks – without the culture behind it, it's all nothing but smoke and mirrors.
Remote has the advantage that I can actively seek my breaks for concentrated work. Personally, I am always in the middle of the action in an open-plan office and quickly get distracted by things. That's all right now and again.
However, in our smaller Berlin office I can work in a much more concentrated way than at our main location in Cologne, where I rotate from meeting to meeting, am taken aside or even get involved in some processes myself. In the evening I realise how exhausted I am after such a working day.
Besides the advantages, there are of course also a lot of challenges for us as a remote team. Especially when remote teams are growing rapidly, as we did last year. Within 12 months we have doubled our staff to over 25 employees. This has just caused a major upheaval in our internal processes. On the other site hand, due construction sites were relentlessly exposed.
Let's get back to the main topic: leadership. Of course, leadership is a real challenge in remote teams as it is often done remotely. Now to the crucial question: How do I lead my employees if we are not in the same office, in the same city or not even in the same time zone?
Remote Leadership in the 21st century
Top-down was yesterday! More precisely, the principle of rigid hierarchies dates back to the age of industrialization. Probably no one would think that 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 organised in a strictly hierarchical fashion.
A strict catalogue of specifications, meticulously specified work instructions and close controls - these are all instruments of the old working world. With them, it is simply no longer possible to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Because the reality is this: We work in agile project groups, answer messages digitally, jump from one task to the next, skype with customers and train ourselves on the side. The major tasks that digitisation presents us with can only be accomplished through cooperation and creativity.
I consider 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 traditional corporate structures and developing new working models – e.g. Holacracy,Sociocracy, or remote work.
I don't want to separate digital leadership and remote leadership from each other, because they necessarily 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
So what distinguishes Remote Leadership? In my opinion, the following 8 things are important:
- Less control
- More confidence
- Handing over responsibility instead of delegating
- Intrinsic motivation
- Preventing silo thinking
- Team events
- The right tools
1. Less control
Command and control is obsolete. Bosses have to say goodbye to being able to control all activities of their employees at every turn. Studies, such as the Institute of the German Economy (IW) show that productivity drops significantly under constant control.
To be honest, I too had to change, as I like to keep all the strings in my hand by nature. Here, the spatial distance of remote work helps me to stay out of the operative business. I had to replace the feeling "I think everything is slipping out of my hands" with "They're already swinging the thing without me".
Less control also has the advantage for me of being able to deal with the essential tasks as 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.
Especially during the growth phase, 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, so that I am only involved in critical situations.
2. More confidence
Less control automatically means more trust. And nothing works without trust. Not a company, not a family and not a business. Trust is one of the most important factors for performance and successful teamwork. This is shown by studies such as those conducted by the University of Muenster 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 have to trust that my employees will handle a task appropriately. In the end, I don't care if the colleague takes a walk or feeds his goldfish on the way to his destination. The result counts. Experience shows that the best ideas don't come at the desk anyway, under high pressure or in stressful situations, but when we have our heads free for creative thinking. These spaces can only be created in a relationship of trust.
And as in football, the team loses and wins together. If the goalkeeper has a bad day and a catchable ball hits the net in the last second, then the team stands together. This does not mean that you do without an error analysis. That's how I see it in a corporate context. It must be clear that we are working together on something and that each individual is making his or her contribution, but may also make mistakes.
3. Hand over responsibility instead of delegating
Everywhere you hear that the boss has to delegate tasks to his employees. But that alone is not enough. Because delegating usually leads to employees working on a task and then returning it to the boss. This is followed by feedback, reworking and you are already in a seemingly endless feedback loop that unnecessarily consumes a lot of resources and nerves.
The best solution is therefore a complete transfer of responsibility to the employee. 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. If in doubt, your skillset is much more precisely tailored 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 be a real brake on the development of potential.
But technology is not the only thing that matters: employees need tools and above all freedom and a long-term perspective. In order to promote employees, one must increase their radius of action. Greater scope for decision-making can trigger real motivation. For example, a well-known hotel allowed its cleaning staff to handle complaints of up to 1000 euros themselves without consulting their superiors. The result is a significantly higher motivation to work and at the same time reduced bureaucracy.
The task of today's digital leader is to develop his or her own employees into a better version of themselves. There is no place here for vanity, elbow mentality and competitive thinking. It pays off twice and three times over when expertise grows out of 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, nor - Studies show that the positive effect of a salary increase lasts only a short time and is 60,000 Euro per year reaches its maximum.
Also my experience shows: Intrinsic motivation helps. Intrinsic means "out of personal incentive". The opposite is the extrinsic motivation, which includes the motivators mentioned above: Money, commission, company car.
Because extrinsic motivation effects fizzle out after a short time, only intrinsic motivation creates proactive value creation. Those who only do service according to the rules will not tear anything in the company and will remain far away from innovations.
What helps in concrete terms? Appreciation of work, freedom to make your own decisions, transparency, an open error culture and the celebration of success.
6. Preventing silos
In my opinion, a major danger for established companies is the 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". 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, I see in my 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 use remote instead, you have a clear advantage right from the start. In the beginning, building up the agile project teams certainly means additional work, so that the project does not end in chaos. In the long term, however, companies benefit from this agility.
7. Team events
For remote teams that are spread across the globe, it can be difficult to bring all your employees together in one place. How good it is that our employees all live in Germany and therefore nothing stands in the way of a joint Christmas party and other events.
In addition, for the past three years we have been packing our bags once a year and flying to sunnier climes (Mallorca, Lisbon, Crete) for a week to work together. This strengthens the cohesion immensely and creates trust in the team. In October 2019 our third Workation (composition from engl. work and vacation) took place on Crete. For many members of our rapidly growing team, it was the first physical meeting, as they previously only communicated on digital channels.
I see regular meetings and events as crucial for the success of a remote company. We are all social beings, want to get to know the people with whom we work every day. As "strangers" it is incredibly difficult to create a common team spirit. If you have ever cooked, eaten and laughed together, it is much easier.
8. The right tools
Many think tools are the most important thing in remote teams. Correct is: tools are definitely 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 the numerous functions are not needed anyway or it mercilessly overtaxes employees? In the worst case, individual employees use different solutions, which does not help anyone. And never forget:
A fool with a tool is still a fool.
Email hasn't outlived its usefulness yet, but in agile, project-based teams it is becoming increasingly unusable. An e-mail is not very suitable if five people communicate with each other and there are also twelve in the CC. Recently, managers have been spending hours every day processing e-mails that are of little relevance to them. Here, collaboration tools are a real blessing, as they can structure communication much better or comment directly on the user interface.
The advantage of such communication tools is the immediate use of the intelligence of the swarm. The hurdle of asking a question in the channel is much lower than walking into the neighbor's office of your superior and asking for advice. So even as a remote boss, I always have an eye on the needs of my colleagues and we remain 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 are constantly breathing down the neck of your employees due to over-presence.
Remote is a long-lived reality that we must acknowledge as part of the digital age. Therefore I would advise every company to prepare the structures for remote work already. And be it for employer branding reasons or to retain deserving employees.
Nevertheless, I see a regular presence as boss as a great advantage. Every now and then it is necessary to feel the vibrations in the team on your own body. As a full remote team, only the joint events and meetings remain.
But there is a catch to Remote Leadership that can only be eliminated through self-discipline. Due to my digital nomadism I am practically always reachable when I am not hanging around in a dead zone. The temptation is often great to check e-mails quickly before going to bed or to do this or that to-do for tomorrow.
Of course, I have to define clear boundaries for myself. This is not always easy, but with a few hacks it works: Notifications off, fixed times for emails, daily planning with sports, meditation, etc. I gladly accept the necessity of discipline when I am rewarded with great flexibility and freedom on the other side. My colleagues and I could not do without this freedom anymore!