Leading from afar: how managers can navigate the world of remote work

With chit-chat by the coffee machine a distant memory, managers are finding new ways to guide and motivate their teams.

Remember when informal chats, after-work drinks, and team huddles were nothing special? Increasingly, these everyday elements of office life have been replaced with video calls, collaboration tools, and more reliance on email and messaging.

It’s not all bad; many employees are keen to continue working from home once the pandemic ends.

But the baseline shift to remote working also means managers need to rethink how they interact with and support their teams.

 

Adapting to the remote workplace

With remote working reducing the everyday chit-chat that goes hand-in-hand with office life, “you miss out on getting to know things that can help you manage that person effectively by knowing their personality”, says Max Freeman, commercial manager at Cartridge People, an online retailer of printer ink and toner.

Introducing a “virtual brew time” helped Freeman’s team to experience the kind of interactions they might have in the office.

When speaking to staff over video, he makes a point of asking how things are going outside work, as well as making a note of any events they’ve got coming up and asking how their family members are getting on.

“It’s a crucial part of getting the best out of a team,” he says. “You can still find ways to get it right even when working remotely.”

Anthony Chadwick, founder of The Webinar Vet, which provides online education for veterinary professionals, says that having regular senior management meetings, weekly town hall gatherings and one-on-one meetings before the pandemic helped them to adapt to remote working.

“A regular rhythm means people know when they’ll get updates or be able to ask questions,” he says, adding that while in-person communication can often be informal, when interacting virtually “your communication with your team has to increase and be more systematic”.

The work-life balance

At the tech PR agency Ballou, managers have regular sessions in their diary for team catchups.

“When you are working in isolation at home, small challenges can rapidly feel unsurmountable if you’re having a bad day,” says CEO Cordy Griffiths.

While it’s important to remember that bosses aren’t therapists, Griffiths says the opportunity to talk things through with a manager can give a sense of perspective and genuine support.

“We are careful about oversharing potentially worrying information,” she adds. “There is enough unsubstantiated rumour flying around at the moment, so we try to be reassuring and realistic.”

To help teams keep their home and work lives separate while working from home, the company has banned WhatsApp for work.

“It’s too easy to involve someone in a work issue after hours when you’re using an app,” says Griffiths. “Save it until the morning.”

Emails being sent outside work hours could also indicate that someone is at risk of burnout.

“Home working gives people flexibility, but if someone is sending emails over the course of a 16-hour day, that needs to be tackled,” says Susy Roberts, executive coach and founder of Hunter Roberts.

“You can’t force people to get up and go out for a walk, but some gentle encouragement and a supportive environment will make people feel seen and valued.”

Roberts recommends that companies put in place a written remote working framework so that everyone knows what’s expected of them, and which takes into account their personal circumstances.

At a practical level, managers should ensure that team members have access to a suitable working environment and provide them with whatever tools and equipment they need, Roberts says.

Roberts emphasises the importance of ongoing feedback. “Sitting at home in the corner of the spare room consistently meeting targets and deadlines but getting no feedback whatsoever will result in resentment and hostility,” she says.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of acknowledging what people are doing, telling them when they get it right and helping to work through any issues when things don’t go well.”

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This article was originally published on theguardian.com as part of the British Business Bank and Guardian Labs 'Getting back on track' campaign. Written by Duncan Jefferies.