The pandemic has created a huge shift towards remote working across the globe. Siemens and Twittter will be letting their staff work from home, or anywhere they are productive, in the long term. RBS, Google and many others are suggesting a return to the office will not come before 2021. While those of us who have worked remotely through lockdown have now established new routines and habits, with a full return to the workplace looking unlikely in months to come, it is prudent to consider whether our current management strategies are serving us well in our new remote world.
Evidence gathered from before the pandemic found that remote working can be beneficial for individuals offering greater autonomy, job satisfaction and wellbeing; for organisations through enhanced productivity; and society through increased inclusion and reduced energy consumption. However, it is not all positive and we must take care that we do not overlook the potential costs. Working remotely has been linked to increased musculoskeletal complaints, increased isolation and a reduction in health promoting behaviours such as breaks, healthy eating and exercise.
With this in mind, managers may need to manage differently in this new remote world of work. To date, managers have navigated this transition to managing remotely with no or limited prior experience. It is vital that we equip mangers with the right knowledge, skills, resources and time to manage effectively.
How can managers manage effectively when working remotely?
Leadership research highlights the need for four management competencies to make remote working work well:
- Clarity, specificity and consistency: Without frequent contact points and non-verbal cues, information and direction can be miscommunicated via email and zoom. Providing consistent and regular feedback is important, as is demonstrating transactional leadership behaviours of goal setting and clear prioritisation.
- Empowerment and trust: Bringing the team together and creating a system of social support through informal and formal communication is key to building trust. Providing employees with greater decision-making authority can help them to feel empowered and prevents unnecessary delays when working remotely.
- Individualised approach is important whether managing face to face or remotely, however strong relationships and an understanding of the unique pressures each of your team members are facing, has been found to prevent and reduce work stress and is a key predictor of successful return to work following absence – and likely to be a predictor in smoothing the transition back to the workplace when the time comes.
- Due regard for physical and psychological safety: Health and safety is just as important, even when the risks are not ‘seen’ – Encouraging managers to manage the physical risks such as DSE set up) and psychological risks such as working long hours – out of sight should not mean out of mind.
What can we do to help our managers manage effectively when working remotely?
We are strong advocates of the IGLOo approach – this helps us think about the different responsibilities and resources needed at each the Individual, Group, Line Manager and Organisational level.
- Individual resources: Do your line managers have the skills and confidence to manage remotely? What training and development might they need?
- Group resources: Do your teams/ employees work together remotely? Facilitated discussions around working differently can helpful – This way, the line manager is not charged with doing it all on their.
- Line manager resources: How are your managers supported senior leaders? Are the same expectations in place? Are senior leaders role modelling good management practices and healthy behaviours? Do your line managers have someone to turn to for advice?
- Organisational resources: Do you have the necessary technology to support effective remote working? Do you provide additional time and workload allocation for managers to adopt an individualised approach? As organisations move to blended working – working from home and the workplace – are managers provided with the systems and time to manage the different needs and work patterns within the team?
Tips for managers managing employees remotely
1. Look after yourself first – and then be a role model – The last few months have been hard on all of us. Look after yourself, identify what you need to restore and take action. Your team will follow your lead.
2. Focus on the individual, then the team – No one approach works for everyone. Focusing on the individual will give an understanding of the unique situation they are in, and better understand how workload and decisions will be received.
3. Acknowledge the difficulties and the challenges – Things don’t always go to plan and it can be difficult to address mistakes and conflicts but in a virtual environment an open, learning culture is important or miscommunications and mistakes can spiral into deeper concerns.
4. Shift your focus to outputs – People may need to work different patterns, they may be juggling different home demands. Focusing on the output and trusting employees to complete their work in their own way and their own time will help them to feel empowered and manage their time in a way that best suits them.
5. Agree a communication strategy – Some communicate too much, others too little. Discuss with your team how you will communicate, what medium you will use for what messages. This way everyone has clear expectations and can prioritise and protect team time.
6. Set clear priorities and goals – To prevent miscommunication it is important that managers set clear and specific goals, and discuss this priorities.
7. Give regular feedback – Regular feedback can not only help ensure that the task stays on track but can increase motivation towards the goal. Many people report that staying motivated is difficult when working at home so this becomes even more important when managing remotely.
8. Prioritise social connection – the informal chat about the weekend and other non-work things – are so important but they are often the first things to go when we are busy. Research shows that informal communication can protect mental health and increase trust and engagement. Keep chatting over coffee breaks and lunches even if you are in separate spaces.
9. Prioritise the health and safety in the same way you would in the workplace – Consider whether your employees need equipment or software to do their role effectively and safely, and advocate for support on their behalf. Look to the HSE management standards for work stress to ensure that their work is designed and managed safely to prevent work stress.
About the author
Dr Jo Yarker and Dr Rachel Lewis are both passionate about understanding what we can do to foster fulfilling, healthy and productive work, particularly under times of challenge. They work in a job-share arrangement across dual roles as Directors of Affinity Health at Work, and academics at Birkbeck, University of London. Working with a network of leading academics, their research has been sponsored by the HSE, DWP, CIPD and the Mental Health Foundation. Together they have written more than 400 articles, book chapters, research reports, guides and toolkits and present frequently at professional and industry conferences.