When we think of remote workers, most of us imagine people toiling away at their kitchen tables and logging on to Zoom meetings. But as companies move more towards remote cultures, it’s conceivable that both employees and leaders — and even CEOs — may end up working in different locations too.
Mike Tuchen, CEO of the fintech firm Onfido, has been working as a "remote CEO" for the past six months. Since November, he has met just one employee in person. But what exactly does it take to become a fully remote leader — and what are the pros and cons?
When Tuchen took the job at the end of 2020, there was no discussion over whether he would work remotely or not. “Onfido is based in London, and I live in California. The travel restrictions and quarantine requirements meant I couldn’t get into the office and meet colleagues, partners or customers face-to-face,” he says.
As is the case for remote employees, being a "video CEO" comes with many benefits. There is no daily commute and it can be easier to create a good work-life balance when you’re not spending hours a day travelling to and from an office. However, taking charge of a company while working from home presented challenges for Tuchen.
“For any new joiner, let alone the CEO, it’s hard to build deep relationships with the team when working remotely,” he says. “In our case it’s compounded because it’s not just me joining an intact, existing team that has worked together for years. Instead, we’ve brought in several other new executive team members in the last nine months who have also never had a chance to meet the rest of the team in person.”
And, with team members in different time-zones separated by nine hours, it has been challenging to find time for conversations with people during their different working hours. Although it’s possible to connect with employees via Zoom, Teams and other platforms, it’s difficult to replace in-person interactions.
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“As a new CEO, it’s critical to build connections with a broad cross-section of the team so that you help them see you as an inspirational colleague who’s helping strengthen and grow the company rather than a scary alien who will make a bunch of disruptive changes,” Tuchen says.
“In the past, I’ve done this by flying around and spending a tonne of time in the different offices,” he adds. “My last company was based in France, so I spent one week per month for the first 18 months flying back and forth and building relationships. Given the 12-hour flights and 9-hour shifts involved, that was a huge commitment, but it paid off with a smooth onboarding experience.”
As restrictions ease, Tuchen hopes to become a "hybrid CEO" instead of a fully-remote CEO. Ultimately, he plans to mirror the rest of the company's workforce, who will split their time between their homes and the office.
“I can’t wait to get some of the in-person energy and camaraderie of the office,” he says. “However, I recognise and appreciate that spending some of my time working remotely allows me to work efficiently and reduces the enormous amount of travel that comes with leading a multinational business.”
With careful planning and organisation, though, it’s definitely possible to run a successful business when working remotely or in a hybrid setting. So what do you need to bear in mind?
“The most important thing any business leader can do is build a strong, happy, highly motivated and aligned team. That means when you’re working remotely you need to over-emphasise teamwork, culture, and communication since everyone is missing the kind of daily reinforcement they used to get in a vibrant office environment,” says Tuchen.
“When we’re away from our colleagues and are starved of in-person interaction, it’s easy to lose touch of this, and morale or motivation can slip as a result. It’s the job of the remote leader to ensure this doesn’t happen — and to encourage everyone to find time to disconnect and decompress so that they don’t get overwhelmed by a 24/7 barrage of electronic interaction.”
Unlike the office, people don’t drive away and create that natural mental separation between work and home. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of the leadership to ensure people have boundaries and space to recharge outside of work. And while it’s important to get to know your employees personally, organising too many online quizzes and Zoom events can be exhausting.
“Everyone is facing Zoom overload. I think the solution for all of us is to look for targeted in-person get-togethers where possible,” says Tuchen. “At Onfido, we’ve implemented weekly ‘OnFriday’ company huddle meetings, where we talk directly to our colleagues about business ambitions, developments and challenges. We encourage conversation and interaction.
“For other new business leaders that are working remotely, my advice would be to never lose sight of your colleagues and their wellbeing,” he adds. “It’s only with a happy and engaged workforce that you can drive a business forward.”
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