Our senior leaders are the focal point during crisis or change, and a central influence on our company culture. However, they’re often invisible to those who need that direction most. How do we connect our leaders to remote staff?

Those charged with steering the organizational ship have a huge impact on its success.

From holding responsibility for its financial health to representing the brand and public image of the company, allocating resources, or setting out the organizational direction: the responsibilities are extensive.

They’re also a defining factor when it comes to company culture, and it’s our leaders that we immediately look to during times of crisis, change, or uncertainty.

It’s no wonder, then, that their presence and management during these times is directly related to how employees engage and respond: and how businesses fare long-term as a result. But with so many demands on their time and with staff operating at a distance, building that bridge between employees and their leaders has never been more challenging.

At the time when it matters most, how can internal communicators, managers, and leaders themselves, break down the proverbial glass ceiling? How do we change our leaders from allusive figureheads to human beings our staff can connect with?

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Visibility of senior leaders isn’t optional

The days when a CEO was the revered and feared persona enclosed in a glass-walled office or boardroom are (or, at least, should be) well behind us.

Our leaders shouldn’t be unapproachable figureheads in glass offices

Today’s leaders help give an organization direction and purpose by creating a vision. They keep staff in the loop about where the business is headed long-term and how all employees contribute to that vision. They’re also a driver in recognizing success and motivating effort, and aligning efforts to the strategic direction of the organization. They are the guardian and reinforcer of the ‘big picture’.

Leaders also serve a symbolic and reassuring role, particularly in times of change or uncertainty.

Hearing from the captain steering the ship reduces feelings of anxiety or discontent, protecting the business from associated implications such as low morale, staff turnover, or reduced productivity during difficult times. This is particularly vital for remote or dispersed workers, who face a higher risk of isolation, loneliness, and disconnect from their organization.

Each and every one of these responsibilities call for our leaders to engage directly with their employees. However, it’s also vital to get communication between leaders and staff right. Deploying corporate-speak or hiding behind jargon is worse than no communication at all. The best leaders are:

  • Authentic and personable
  • Visible and approachable
  • Open, transparent, and honest

Without that much-needed face-to-face engagement that comes from operating in an office environment, many opportunities for organic, informal interactions with staff are missed.

If your remote workers only know your leaders as a flat employee directory photo or avatar associated with the odd company-wide corporate email, it will never instill that sense of trust, connection, or loyalty needed when leaders must call upon their staff in tough times.

So, how do you make leaders visible and build an authentic connection between those at the top, and those on the ground?

#1 Make them the centerpoint of crisis and change communication

When an organization undergoes any significant event, change, or is responding to a crisis situation, this is the point at which a figurehead at the front becomes essential.

Your remote workers need the reassurance, authority, and accountability offered by an individual – or individuals – in the driving seat of managing your crisis response. Issuing blanket updates from ‘[insert-business-name-here]’ is perceived as distant, cold, and can further perpetuate feelings of fear and uncertainty.

In many instances, it will also cause anger at leadership for ‘hiding’ behind corporate statements – particularly if a remote worker’s previous connection to an organization or its leaders is weak or lacking.

While you may have a team of individuals contributing to response efforts, limiting official updates to come from just one – or a couple – of individuals provides continuity and stability. There’s a reason we look to our presidents, prime ministers, or first ministers when crisis situations arise. Too many cooks can dilute the messaging, reduce authority, and confuse staff.

Your remote workers need the reassurance, authority, and accountability offered by an individual – or individuals – in the driving seat of managing your crisis response.

Accountability doesn’t mean leaders must be equipped with all the answers: it’s more than reasonable to admit, “at this point, I’m afraid I don’t know – but I’ll let you know as soon as I have an answer.” It’s about giving a focal point and ownership.

When staff don’t have the added physical security of being in an office environment where they can freely chat with their peers or observe actions being taken by leadership, this gives them a trusted source of truth – which can have a huge impact on how they respond.

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#2 Give regular updates

If leaders are only communicating with their employees on an adhoc or sporadic basis, they naturally disappear into the background of the employee experience.

For remote-based workers – and particularly during periods of crisis or change, such as the current coronavirus pandemic – overall visibility will be synonymous with regularity. Simply put, your staff need to hear from the C-suite on a continual basis if they’re to build a connection or sense of loyalty towards them.

Mix company-wide and in-depth town halls with smaller, frequent updates to ensure visibility of your senior leaders

It’s important to recognize this doesn’t call for a company-wide virtual town hall every week. Smaller-scale interactions that are visible to all remote workers are just as – if not more – meaningful in these circumstances. Ensure your C-suite are giving full updates when the occasion calls for it, but intersect these with micro-updates and insights.

Even a daily status update of a few sentences to the business on your intranet or central comms channel will keep leaders front-of-mind and increase their internal brand among all staff during these challenging times.

#3 Get them on camera – the right way

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, video conferencing and communication has experienced a surge in use and popularity; by adding visual cues into communication, we get a more rounded, connected experience.

For remote-based employees working at home, it puts a much-needed face to the name and enables them to engage with those subtle, non-verbal additions such as tone, body language, and expression that help make leaders more relatable and authentic.

Delivering company updates, town halls, or announcements via video is not new. However, when considering how to leverage the medium effectively to engage staff, we need to consider how they’re presented, recorded, and delivered.

Consider the tone set by how you conduct video updates

There is a big difference, for example, between a CEO in formal work attire sat at a desk reading from a pre-prepared statement, and one doing an informal ‘selfie’ vlog update ad-libbed from their home workspace. The later is far more likely, in today’s climate, to build that much-needed sense of empathy and connection with home workers – if done authentically.

Likewise, we need to ensure all staff can engage with leadership comms and avoid creating silos: ensuring live video sessions are recorded and uploaded somewhere for later access, for example, and considering subtitles for staff who have accessibility needs.

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#4. Bring them down from the company-wide comms

By nature, those at senior leadership level will tend to deliver company-wide updates: whether that’s town halls, mass emails, or perhaps an intranet blog or news update.

This is one of the advantages of an intranet; everyone gets the same message at the same time, it’s the most efficient way to deliver updates or information and instills a sense of wider community.

However, it also means there’s often very little way to tailor the message to distinct employee communities or demographics, and the scale of the communication may make it more daunting for individuals to engage or speak out. An all-encompassing communication also tends to be more on the formal, corporate side.

Meanwhile, it can enforce a sense of hierarchy: with leaders positioned at an untouchable distance at the top.

smaller-scale meetings make for a more relaxed, approached, and personalized way of communicating with remote workers.

Consider bringing the boss into smaller or team-based communication on a periodic basis: your weekly team meeting, your daily project stand-up. Even if logistics mean this is in a virtual capacity via a video conference or call, these smaller-scale and more personable check-ins with remote-based workers can prove a huge boost for morale. They also provide a less overwhelming setting for individual staff to put forward questions.

#5. Encourage leadership engagement with employee comms

Humanizing our leaders calls for first-hand engagement with staff. If your employees are working remotely and don’t have the much-needed facetime to create opportunities for everyday engagement, that interaction will inevitably need to be in a digital format.

Logistically, it’s not going to be feasible in many organizations for senior leaders to engage with every staff update, communication, or intranet blog, especially in these times where we’re seeing a surge in communication. We have to remain realistic.

Sometimes the smallest gestures are the most powerful.

However, where smaller, adhoc and more personable efforts are made in a ‘public’ digital space, seen by others, it can be a powerful force.

A simple like, comment, or participation in an employee-driven communication (for example, a quiz, competition, a home working update) on your intranet or company-wide comms channel goes a long way. It will encourage others to contribute content, while those who can see the conversation gain visibility of their leader.

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#6. Help make conversations two-way

While hearing from those at the top is an essential element for effective leadership, it should never be a one-way mandate: it needs to be a conversation.

While the majority of leaders state they’re open to hearing from their employees, encouraging those who don’t have a professional relationship with their senior leaders to come forward can be a challenge. Whether this is a sense of not having the necessary authority, permission, or perhaps even knowledge to speak out, many employees report feeling nervous or uneasy about talking to the boss.

44% of employees report they do not feel free to speak their minds to their bosses.

It’s so important now, when we’re experiencing a huge upheaval in our normal lives and uncertainty is running rife, that staff have the opportunity and space to speak. Facilitate alternative ways for staff to come forward where possible. For example, following town hall updates with a Q&A forum on your intranet for all staff to put forward questions; or having a panel open during a live delivery where staff can write questions, rather than interrupting or speaking out.

Creating a metaphorical open door for staff to approach their leaders requires some additional effort in a dispersed, remote, digital workplace.

Employee surveys, pulse surveys, or even anonymous questionnaires can all give staff the confidence to raise issues they may fear to voice in person. Manager cascades can also operate bottom-up, by inviting staff to ‘dilute’ their feedback via those in higher authority.

Alternate channels may also reduce the sense of intimidation for employees working at home. For example, rather than having leader and employees on a mass video call, why not consider a ‘Q&A session with the Boss’ on your company Slack or Teams channel? While comments are often made about those who speak ‘from behind the security of a keyboard’, in this instance, it may be to mutual benefit.  

#7. Be human

It can help staff to understand their leaders are experiencing the same challenges as they are, particularly during times like these.

There’s a growing demand – and respect for – authenticity from our leaders. We build meaningful connections, trust, and respect for others when we feel we share common ground and they’re being authentic in how they deal with us. When employees are physically distanced from their leaders, this is even more crucial.

Rather than keeping your leaders at an emotional distance as mythological superhumans, get them to share aspects of themselves or their lives that will evoke empathy, engagement, or shared understanding from staff.

During our recent company-wide virtual chat, for example, our own CEO spoke of the challenge of moving to home working with his young children around as part of the coronavirus outbreak – and admitted the struggle it presented. With many members of staff in the same situation, they were able to identify with him as a person, rather than a position: and feel reassured that not only were they not alone, but experiencing difficulties wouldn’t present them in a negative light in the eyes of the business. It proved one of the most positive pieces of feedback from the session, with a resulting boost to morale.

Understandably, we all have boundaries and it’s important those are respected. If leaders prefer not to disclose aspects of their personal life, there are many other ways to show their ‘human side’: whether it’s through expressing genuine emotion or concern, admitting when there’s something they don’t know or perhaps got wrong, or using storytelling from their own experience when delivering communication.

#8. Cascade recognition up

When working remotely, there’s a higher risk that much of the work completed by individual employees will occur behind closed doors, unseen by peers and the business as a whole.

In the current circumstances, it’s more important than ever to show appreciation in the moment and show our home working staff they’re valued.

By nature, appreciation and recognition for remote workers tend to come from immediate teams in the first instance. This is valuable, but there’s a great deal to be said for hearing directly from the boss when you’ve done a good job. In the current circumstances, it’s more important than ever to show appreciation in the moment and show our home working staff they’re valued, when loneliness and isolation may be taking hold.

Line managers need to be championing individuals in their teams who have demonstrated outstanding commitment or achievement and cascading it up to senior leadership level. A simple shout-out or ‘thanks, great job’ from the boss is not only a boost in morale for the individual concerned; it shows others that their efforts will also be ‘seen’ when they go above and beyond also.

Increased visibility is then two-way: remote workers whose efforts may otherwise be unseen are giving the recognition they deserve, and those at the top will be seen to appreciate and nurture performance among their staff.

#9. Mind the tone

Communication is most effective when you’re on the same level as those you’re trying to engage.

With seniority and responsibility comes a shift in how we talk with our colleagues and those we manage. This is understandable and, for the most part, needed: having leaders speak to employees in the same way as they would their friends isn’t going to command respect or authority.

However, staff are far less likely to engage with formal and impersonal communication from those at the top: they want the real deal, and especially in times such as these.

The added barrier or challenge when working from home – despite the surge in video-based communication – is that much of the communication still tends to be in a written format: intranet news updates, blogs, emails. Without the accompanying body language to offset it, there’s a huge margin for misinterpretation. If they’re receiving flat, corporate updates that are difficult or dull to digest, or simply lack a basic level of empathy or sensitivity, those comms may as well be invisible.  

Cut the corporate jargon and sense-check that your leaders are speaking to staff in a language and tone they’ll understand. In difficult circumstances, they need to be offering reassurance, understanding, and sensitivity. It may help to pull in Internal Communications to support: ensuring leaders are being clear in what they’re trying to communicate, and their tone is fitting to the end goal.

Leaders are the key to maintaining remote working morale.

There is a huge amount of uncertainty and pressure on those holding the reins of an organization during these current times. There may be difficult business decisions to be made and communicated, circumstances changing on a near-daily basis, and pressure from all stakeholders.

However, it’s important leaders recognize that the key to long-term resilience and the ability to come out the other side of this pandemic lies with keeping those at the grass-roots level engaged. Simply put, we can’t afford to be neglecting our staff right now.

With the responsibility that comes from leading at the helm, also comes great power to motivate, inspire, and engage. Not every organizational leader is a ready-made TED speaker: but our staff don’t need rousing speeches to keep up morale. They need authentic and visible leaders, who understand their value – and take time to communicate with them.