The Remote Leader’s Rules for Living

The concept of leading remote employees is as old as the graveyard shift. Leaders have been for many years guiding associates who work in different locations, time zones, and work shifts. But this month we added a new wrinkle to the practice—leading remote employees who are anxious, alone and cut off from the solace of the break room banter to process their fears. What's a leader to do?

I found a unique source of advice in a June 1979 "Peanuts" comic strip I saved! Peppermint Patty asks Charlie Brown: "Do you know any good rules for living, Chuck?" And, as if he had been for days waiting for that very question, Charlie quips: "Keep the ball low. Don't leave your crayons in the sun. Use dental floss every day. Give four weeks notice when ordering a change of address. Don't spill the shoe polish. Always knock before entering. Don't let the ants get in the sugar. Never volunteer to be program chair. Always get your first serve in." At this point in the strip, Snoopy appears, lunch pail in his mouth. As Charlie leaves the strip, he gives his final rule: "And, feed your dog when he's hungry."

I selected five of Charlie's rules as metaphors for exploring the practices of remote leaders.

"Feed Your Dog When He's Hungry"

Associates are obviously not dogs. The concept is providing emotional nourishment. The late Max DePree, CEO of Herman Miller, wrote in his book Leadership is an Art, "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say 'thank you.'" Defining reality is all about communicating a compelling vision that fosters the commitment, akin to a calling. It includes leaders modeling that vision to underscore its priority; it involves paying attention to leader symbols and stories that elevate its relevance. "Hunger" is also fed by sincere gratitude. "Thank you" is not a phrase you can overuse.

"Always Knock Before Entering"

The practice of knocking before entering implies respect. Scared cocooners, many unaccustomed to being isolated from their social group and workplace rhythm, often flounder a while until they can get their solo legs. It suggests leader tolerance and patience. And it means recognizing that an important Skype or Zoom call might be interrupted with a screaming child or an overly friendly dog. Cocooning is especially challenging for extraverts who "talk to think." Absent their "sounding board," they may lose productivity before they adjust and reclaim it.

"Don't Let Your Crayons Melt in The Sun"

Cabin fever can drive associates stir crazy as they learn to cope with the anxiety of being cooped up. This is the perfect time to implement flexible work hours that allow time for employees to take a walk or sit in the sun or just play. Burnout can happen faster when associates are robbed of the escape valves of having associates present for venting or empathetic colleagues nearby with a kind ear and thoughtful understanding. Encourage associates to break up their day, alter their work hours. Remember, when you cut out time for banter and meetings and breaks, employees might get more work done in five hours than they were completing in eight.

"Don't Let the Ants Get in the Sugar"

Learning is a perpetual practice. Absent continual growth, employees are vulnerable to obsolescence—that is, ants getting in the sugar. "We can't become what we need to be by remaining what we are," wrote Oprah Winfrey. The role of the leader is to provide the resources and capacity for learning, even in remote circumstances. Encourage online learning, circulate articles and blogs designed to educate and inspire. Include a learning section to Skype meetings and let rotating associates be in charge of leading the "lesson."

"Always Give Four Weeks Notice When Ordering A Change of Address"

This is a plea for planning. But more than that, it is a petition for discipline. Most people are learning with their "homebound" children, the antidote to stir crazy is routine. Adults also need a sense of structure. Set up conference calls and check-in emails at the same time. Make deadlines clear and specific. Provide feedback quickly with coaching for performance improvement. Create the experience that work-life continues as usual, only with a new remote venue. Predictability and consistency are keys to trust and calm.

Charlie Brown's "Rules for Living" can be valuable tools for dealing with "leading in the dark." But the "Peanuts" comic strip had one final frame. "Will these rules give me a better life, Chuck?" Peppermint Patty asks as Brown exits the strip to feed Snoopy. Charlie's closing line gives hope to us all: "A better life . . . and a fat dog!"


Peanuts quotes written by the late Charles Schultz.

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