Remote working for managers – what’s the secret?

Being a task-master won’t work anymore: managers must become facilitators of collaboration.
28 October 2020

Some love it, some hate it, some could take it or leave it. Remote work was thrust upon many of us without a choice this year. But half a year on, and many organizations won’t look back. Others will become ‘flexible’ workplaces. To expect everybody in the office 9-5 is becoming an unfashionable outlook. 

Going remote will have been a different experience for everyone, one affected by anything from childcare duties, crowded bandwidth, noisy roommates, limited workspace, and dodgy equipment. But broadly, while the novelty has worn off and niggles remain, the transition has been smooth – it seems to work.

A report by KPMG found that 94% of employees in the US have stated that they are more committed to their company now – in the midst of remote working – than they were before the coronavirus outbreak. More than half (54%) said productivity levels had increased and nearly two-thirds (64%) cited benefits to the quality of their work. Every stat like this, of course, paints a sweeping picture and can be countered by those in the negative identifying a rise in feelings of isolation and burnout. While cutting the commute might gain an hour back each day, for example, it snatches away the distinct transition between the workplace and personal life. Teams’ introduction of a virtual commute aims to tackle this void. 

And from videoconferencing and communication software to cloud computing and virtual call centers,  technology has been the abettor and solution to both the advantages and challenges of remote working. What’s apparent though, is that it’s much more difficult for technology to fill gaps in roles where people skills matter most. 

The strain on management

Multiple reports, including KPMG’s and that of 1,000 US workers by Globant, have found that managers — who would usually be physically present among their teams — are some of those struggling with the change the most. 

According to the latter, almost half of managers said meeting the expectations of their role was ‘extremely’ challenging even six months’ on from the start of lockdowns  — 87% said ‘somewhat’, citing the difficulties in gaining visibility into what their teams are doing without micromanaging, in particular. A further study by The Myers-Briggs Company found that middle and senior managers report the highest stress levels amid the crisis. 

“Middle managers find themself in an interesting place, where they are responsible for teams, in many cases for both their productivity and well-being, but may not have some of the exclusive resources that sometimes support top management, such as executive assistants to help manage schedules, or executive coaches to help them best navigate uncharted waters,” Dr. Sanja Licina, future of organizations lead, Globant, told TechHQ

Carrying the onus to get their teams through difficult circumstances productively, many of those in management have had to leave their relative comfort zones, adapting to communication via structured calls or messaging platforms, and assuming no little bit of trust in employees’ ability and commitment to carry out their tasks. 

The real difficulty comes in providing interpersonal support and motivation to employees without being there ‘in person’. According to Licina, the key to adapting to a remote working management style is setting clear goals and objectives, and ensuring that teams support one another — the burden of responsibility need not sit with one manager alone: “We are going to continue to face a lot of uncertainty as a society as we evolve the world of work. Anything that doesn’t need to be gray shouldn’t be, because that will help us navigate the things we can’t define well, better, it will allow us to place more energy in these areas,” Licina said. 

“Managers shouldn’t feel like they are responsible for everything, alone,” she continued, “they need to give themselves a bit of a break.” Indeed, Globant’s study found that 81% of employees were satisfied with how empathetic and understanding of their needs their managers had been during the pandemic — 77% said their managers had given them the autonomy to adjust their work style and schedule.

Given the uncertainty and the likelihood that a distributed workforce will increasingly become the new reality of business, business leaders and managers must develop new ways to motivate and empower employees to stay productive and make an impact.

Key to this new paradigm will be promoting collaboration virtually to accomplish key goals and to foster high levels of contribution and engagement. Managers will find their job as a leader becomes less about leading as an individual, but in building the environment of collaboration and ‘co-elevation’ of each other. 

# 1 | Be clear

Losing complete oversight doesn’t mean stepping back. Clear, detailed goals that remove uncertainty are imperative for setting milestones that teams can progress towards together, and provide meaning to their daily workflow. Monthly milestones can be broken down into further weekly sprints – these provide team-wide, short-term goals for productivity, but can remain flexible and agile to demands as they change. 

Clarity and detail is crucial where communication is limited to more structured meetings and catch-ups.  

# 2 | Be regular 

Meetings and calls are more valuable when people have time to prepare, and establishing routine has been proven to boost morale and productivity. Managers can book in key ‘core’ catch-ups with actionable objectives – these could take the form of a daily group ‘stand up’ at 9 am for 15 minutes, and weekly 30 mins one-to-one sessions, focused on problem-solving individual challenges, and planning weekly sprints. 

# 3 | Be there

While video conferencing isn’t always the most appropriate form of communication, when a Slack message or phone call will do, establishing a face to face connection reminds managers and their employees that each other are ‘real’, and creates better understanding through body language. 

Teams should be brought together this way regularly, either allocating time for casual, informal catch-ups at the start of a meeting or arranging ‘socials’ every other week, for example, to foster familiarity and camaraderie. 

# 4 | Be visible

Team progress should be tracked in a way that’s easily visible to everybody, where everyone can feedback and comment. This helps to avoid the temptation to micromanage employees and encourages friendly and collaborative work environments, where tasks and deadlines can be tracked and checked without ‘nagging’.