One of the many changes wrought by COVID-19 was not the move to working from home and the use of virtual meetings, but the discovery of the shortcomings of these modes of work and the “zoom burnout” which a significant majority of white-collar workers experienced.

Mr. Citrin and Ms. Derosa’s book, Leading at a Distance: Practical Lessons for Virtual Success, is written with these realizations in mind. Written from the perspective of mid-pandemic, the writing was finished in the fall of 2020, it was not aware, however, of how quickly people embraced returning to normal wherever possible. Remote work may be here to stay, as the book suggests, however, the tolerance for it both from employers and employees, is less than may have been expected at the time of the book’s writing.

What is interesting from the research that the authors have conducted is that there have been positive benefits to using virtual tools – particularly when it comes to expensive and complicated travel for meetings which are about getting to know people. What Leading at a Distance stresses is that it is easy to become too focused on the job of work, without allowing time, energy, and opportunity for the personal connections that make work fun and help to build trust. Checking in with teams can create an atmosphere of micromanaging, while managers who worry about micromanaging, can be seen as too distant because it is hard to causally “check-in” over Zoom. Building trust is often about personal relationships and so the authors stress the need to make time for these connections with remote teams and in particular with new remote employees.  

A problem with Leading at a Distance is that it is written with large corporate organizations in mind. This includes its research and its general outlook on company structure. While large corporate organizations are more likely to rely on virtual communication tools as a way for managers to communicate, smaller businesses have had to also embrace these tools and their challenges are often different from that of larger organizations.

What really works in Leading at a Distance, is it focus on results and culture with remote teams rather than whether they are busy at any particular moment. The book suggests that managers need to set goals and be happy that they are being met rather than on the how those goals are being met. What is surprising is the effectiveness of location when meeting with remote employees. There is always the temptation to multitask, or try to, when coaching, or being coached, over zoom while sitting at one’s desk. The authors suggest that having coaching conversations, particularly when it comes to difficult conversations, while on a walk or a calm setting such as a park or beach. This makes sense for anyone who appreciates the benefits of meeting out of the office, but it is rarely adopted virtually.

Having a hybrid team has its own challenges, say the authors. In particular, it is important to ensure that remote workers do not feel isolated or experience unconscious bias due to their remote role. This may require special attention from HR to ensure that there is a level playing field if we are to ensure that remote workers are a success.

Remote working is here to stay in some form. While the pandemic has shown what is possible, it has also shown how the tools are lacking for remote workers and that management will also need additional tools and training to allow remote teams to succeed. Leading at a distance is a good first step in a field that will continue to evolve and grow but is lacking in literature to help it do so.