Leading while remote. 3 insights for HR leaders

Yulia Rak
6 min readNov 16, 2020

Imagine a situation. You work from home. This one is easy to imagine since Feb’20 :). You are in the middle of a crucial report to the Board. The kind of report that sells your achievements for the past few months of the bumpy, uncertain and ever changing work period. Suddenly your 6-year-old runs into the scene, in hysterics. You have forgotten to transfer some homework to her. So your 6-year-old has not fulfilled the task. And she’s been called out for this. She is devastated. And she runs in from another room to inform you that it’s your fault, actually. But currently you are in the call, delivering THE REPORT. On the other hand, you have a broken heart situation happening with the 6-year-old, which is being observed by your boss’s boss. What do you do?

Well, I assume this kind of situations more or less happened to anyone working from home with kids. Or I may rather call it living at work, as this is exactly how I feel sometimes. My work colleagues have virtually been to my house, to the house of my parents, to my mother-in law’s. My colleagues know my family, as my family pops up in my conference calls regularly. My colleagues (sometimes unwillingly, I guess) are the witnesses of my daily personal joys and disasters.

So what did I do in situation with THE REPORT? Well, I tried to out-shout my kid, and said to the board that they need to hold on for 2 min. As I need to switch off and settle the homework disaster. Which I did. I left the board presentation, calmed down my kid, and in 2 minutes was back to presenting.

But frankly, I felt so embarrassed…

And then I was thinking. Why do I feel that? It is not my fault that I work from home. Not my fault that things got messed up into this life at work situation, when my personal life is exposed to the entire world in a way it has never been. It is not my fault that priorities change all the time, that I have to over-work and spend less time with family. It is not my fault that keeping focus and delivering on promises has never been harder. Upfff… so much self-talk happened that night, and it helped me a lot in working into the Remote Leadership role later on.

3 months ago I assumed the new role of the Lead for Anywhere Business of my company — Symphony Solutions. We are an IT company, headquartered in Netherlands, with major development centers in Ukraine, Macedonia and Poland. And since summer 2020, we have Anywhere Business Unit.

Below are the 3 major insights that I would like to share from my ex-HR, current Business Operations perspective — on working remotely.

Insight #1. Problems are vast in work-from-home, they are annoying and… amazing source of “what if” opportunities.

Your employees cannot enter offices due to quarantine restrictions? What if we could work from anywhere? This perspective brought Symphony Solutions to the idea of Anywhere Business Unit, opening the door to much broader talent pool. And from employee perspective, we have become freer to define our geography based on life preferences, not job restrictions. We are proud (sometimes annoyed, frankly) to have our first colleague move to Canary Islands while continuing to work with us.

You lose the productivity of in-person collaborative synergy due to remote-work mode? What if we could replicate the office teamwork-fostering environment virtually? This perspective brings Symphony Solutions to experimenting with virtual noise management systems, virtual reality platforms for cooperation, and creation of co-location office spaces that may be used by our remote teams for specific purposes that require deep level of cooperation and in-person gatherings.

Your teams report great level of ZOOM fatigue? What if we empower our remote teams to switch off, both by resources that enable employees do so; and by supportive environment, powered by awareness sessions, training and self-help materials? This perspective helped Symphony Solutions to envision and design the self-care marathon with remote employees.

Whatever the issue, practicing what-if approach helps us stay constructive in times of multiple disappointments and new problems occurring. Being an HR that practices what-if approach, makes you the change agent so needed in this VUCA time.

Insight #2. The need to be human is greater than ever before. HR can role model the humane approach in virtual environment

If there is one most frequently needed practice that I encounter every day in my cooperation with remote teams — it is in being human. Human is when you have understanding. Human is when you forgive. Human is when you put empathy above results. Because we are in the middle of crisis, anxiety and health threats on every step of our daily routines. It is not fair to expect people continue contributing as if nothing happened, and ignore that their entire lives have turned upside down.

I have experienced that on myself, with my huge waves of self-blame and shame for not being able to cope ‘properly’ or ‘professionally’ with crisis cases at work that influenced personal life and vice versa, with personal situations breaking up my work agenda.

The fact that my colleagues are virtually present at my home, the extent to which they are integrated in my daily routines — makes me so much more fragile. They know me so much better now. And so do I. I know their kids, their cats and the films they were last watching, because oops… it happens that during screen sharing these things get visible.

This penetration of personal to work environment, this vulnerability inevitably creates a new level of personal connection. Our understanding of each other is deeper. Our connection is more human. We get the tolerance for the immediate results. Because we know, everyone is in struggle. We build deeper connections, to get the ground for doing results from now into the long-term.

I believe this being human practice is something that HR is usually strong at, while the rest of organization has to learn. One huge way in which HR can be immensely adding value, is in doing regular catch-ups with its people, and role modeling human-centric behavior for other leaders within organization.

Insight #3. We are all new to this operating model. Learning to do it right means making mistakes and becoming better as we go.

I myself love learning. Because learning to me, is doing what you have not done before. There is a certain charm in the trembling feeling of dozed uncertainty, of not knowing the right way, and in doing things for the first time in my life…

This love to learning has actually helped me a lot during shift to remote working. Combined with the proper culture, which Symphony Solutions certainly is — tolerance to mistakes, forgiveness and playfulness — learning spirit should be boosted for the remote teams. HR is the organization to streamline and facilitate learning, both formal: through webinars, training; and on-the-job: through experimenting, making mistakes and learning from experience.

In conclusion, whatever the role you are in, it is time to be the change agent. When you are in HR, the change agent role is the essence of your tasks. In my personal experience, the most business value adding activities that helped my broader team to cope and stay productive, were in shifting the mindset from problem to solution — which we called ‘what if’ approach; in practicing humanity in virtual work, as we all struggle in this new work environment; and in learning on the go. Definitely, there are tons of new insights ahead of us. Let’s see what these new dynamics of working bring us.