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Four Styles of Remote Management: Which Fits You Best?

Tamara Sanderson, the co-founder of Remote Works, says "How you manage your people matters," and shares four distinct styles of remote leadership.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying,” People don’t quit companies; they quit bosses.” While its accuracy is contested, there’s a reason why this sentiment spreads. There’s some truth packed in those seven words.

Photo: Tamara Sanderson, co-founder of Remote Works | Courtesy Photo
Photo: Tamara Sanderson, co-founder of Remote Works | Courtesy Photo

According to a recent Gallup study on U.S. employee engagement, only 36% of employees are engaged at work, which is up slightly from pre-pandemic measures. On the bright side, far fewer are actively disengaged (15%), and most employees are somewhere in between.

When digging deeper into employee engagement, Gallup unearthed a key finding: “Managers affect 70% of the variance in team engagement. They are responsible for keeping employees informed on what is going on in the organization, setting priorities, and providing ongoing feedback and accountability.”

The takeaway? How you manage your people matters. In remote work environments, this is especially true.

Remote work puts a microscope on your management abilities. You can’t expect your team to be waiting on standby for eight hours a day to accommodate your last-minute requests. You can’t rely on quick check-ins by the coffee machine to confirm deliverables and timelines. Your words and actions have consequences. Within distributed teams, you must manage with intention.


Your Role vs. Your Management Style

Generally, management consists of two components.

First, there is your role, such as people manager or project manager. Roles are relatively finite and define what you’re managing. For example, you may be responsible for a project or a team for a predetermined period with fixed deliverables and responsibilities.

Styles, however, are flexible. Two people with the same role, like a people manager, may have utterly different approaches to managing their teams. But ultimately, they’re still responsible for supporting employees to accomplish organizational goals.

In remote work, it’s how you manage, not what you manage.

Let me use my current obsession with the hit television series Only Murders in the Building as a point of reference. All three main characters play the same role; they’re amateur detectives who live stream a true crime podcast. But if you’ve watched the show, you know that Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin have extremely different styles when it comes to performing this role.


The 4 Styles of Remote Management

Your own management style is determined by two factors: orientation and involvement.

  • Orientation refers to whether you’re more focused on your team’s development and needs, or if you tend to focus on representing your team to the broader organization. Think “managing up” or “managing out.”
  • Involvement, on the other hand, indicates how involved you like to be in your team’s day-to-day activities. Do you think of yourself as a “hands-on” or “hands-off” manager?

When these factors combine, they yield four distinct styles of remote leadership.


The Bandleader

Anne McCarthy of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, describes her management style as a “walk alongside you” leader, aka The Bandleader. She’s heavily involved in her team’s day-to-day work and often does the same things she’s asking her team to do. Her presence enables her to adapt to the team’s changing needs; her deep expertise gives her a lens for coaching and skill development.

Key indicators of this style:

  • You act as a role model for your team and lead by example.
  • You actively participate in the group while offering support and guidance.
  • You provide support for individuals when they ask, yet your focus is on creating a positive group vibe.
  • You’re respected because of your vision, expertise, and leadership qualities.


The Promoter

Steph Yiu, the chief customer officer of WordPress VIP, sees her role as helping her employees “do the best work they’ve done in their careers.” She knows how to pull specific levers to get employees the opportunities and resources they need using The Promoter leadership style.

Key indicators of this style:

  • You’re an internal champion for your team, ensuring they have the right tools and resources to do their jobs.
  • You expect your team to achieve results based on their abilities and direction.
  • Your team respects you because of your ability to influence the rest of the company.


The Agent

The Agent describes a manager who is tactically involved in the team’s day-to-day activities. The flow of information tends to be top-down: you have expectations, roles, and methods of approaching work for your team.

There’s a time and a place for this management style but use it carefully! As Siobhan McKeown, the COO of enterprise WordPress agency Human Made, cautions:

[M]icromanagement does not work in remote work. You cannot micromanage unless someone is really struggling. If someone is burned out, I’ll go through their to-do list with them and help them prioritize. I’ll help them look at their work in different ways.

Key indicators of this style:

  • You generally take a more autocratic approach when delegating work to your team.
  • You provide individual support for team members through highly directive processes, instructions, and expectation setting.
  • You’re respected because of your formal role.


The Composer

My business partner Ali Greene, co-author of our book, Remote Works, identifies as having this style. In her career, she’s spent most of her time developing new processes from the ground up rather than directing her team on what to do and when to do it. When her teammates were tasked with leading projects, they could follow the processes and iterate on them.

Key indicators of this style:

  • You create and provide specific processes, instructions, and expectations for your team and expect them to execute independently.
  • You delegate work based on your team members’ unique skill sets and interests.
  • You’re respected because of how you take individual work preferences into account.


Finding Your Natural Style

Based on the descriptions and indicators above, you probably have a hunch where your natural style falls. Still unsure? Ask your team how they view your natural management style.

Remember: Certain styles may be more fitting for specific situations. There will be events where your team needs you to march to the beat of a different drum.


Tamara (Tam) Sanderson is the co-founder of Remote Works, an organizational design and consulting firm with a mission to liberate teams from the nine-to-five and teach them how to do their best work anytime, anywhere. Her new book with co-author Ali Greene, Remote Works: Managing for Freedom, Flexibility, and Focus, is the ultimate playbook for managing remote teams. Learn more at remoteworksbook.com.


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