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Here Is How You Can Lead From Afar

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1. Add office hours to your calendar.

Unless you’re taking an off-the-grid vacation, carve out time on your calendar when workers can contact you with non-urgent questions. Before you leave, share your schedule. Together with your team, decide on a one- to two-hour block when you’ll be available each day to take calls and answer emails.

Make sure your office hours fall during your team’s core hours. Because most of the conferences I attend fall in different time zones than where I live, I insisted that Calendar automatically account for time differences. Once you’re out, take those office hours seriously. Imagine how your team would feel if you blew them off during the sole hour you said you’d be available. If you’re worried you’ll forget, set a reminder on your phone.

2. Have an emergency plan.

No matter how laidback the trip, there will be hours when you do not want to be disturbed. Your team should respect that, but they need to know how to get in touch with you if a true emergency arises. Even if there’s no chance of someone literally dying on the operating table in your line of work, things happen. Pipes burst. Employees quit. If you have an iPhone, don’t be afraid to toggle the “Do Not Disturb” setting. Then, keep scrolling to the “Repeated Calls” option. Tell your team not to call you more than once in three minutes, which will send second and subsequent calls through, unless it’s truly an it-can’t-wait situation. Android phones have a similar feature.

3. Give workers wait lists. 

Say everything goes well while you’re out — so well, in fact, that team members find themselves in need of more work. What do you do when you can’t be there doling it out? Plan ahead with wait lists. One editor on my team would often Slack the account managers about open capacity while I was away. When they were out of content to create for clients, he’d do low-value work like brainstorming topics and searching for new writers. Now that he has a content wait list to work from, he can keep the keys clacking regardless of whether I’m at the office or not. Don’t just develop wait lists for the producers on your team. Set salespeople up with a plan for generating new leads or contacting old ones. Ask marketers to create nice-to-have assets like infographics. Account managers can build rapport with clients when their inboxes are quiet.

4. Send tokens of affection.

Leadership isn’t just a matter of putting out fires and delegating work. Leaders nurture relationships, especially when they’ve done something that could be interpreted as a snub, such as spending a week away from their team. Wherever you are and however long you’ll be gone, you’ll have at least some downtime. Take advantage of those moments: Send a GIF via Slack that says “I miss you” in a creative way. Snap a photo with people your workers would recognize, whether they be celebrities or clients. Send a handwritten postcard. 

5. Bring something back.

Your team might be delighted to see you walk through the office door with an armload of gifts, but there are more important things to bring back from your trip. Workers want to know: How did your absence actually benefit the company? Did you generate new leads? Did you bring back ideas for building company culture? 

Don’t just tell your team; show them. If you have a profit-sharing plan, can you tie a spike in profits — which, for workers, means a bigger bonus — to those trips? Say you learned some new productivity techniques: Be the first to implement them, wowing your team with how much more you’re able to get done. 

Face time matters to me, and I spend as many hours at the office as I can. What matters even more to me, though, is that my team knows I’m there for them, even and especially when I can’t physically be. 


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