During the pandemic we discovered that the office is very forgiving of mediocre management. This will come as no surprise to legions of office workers who found much about their managers to grumble about when working in the office. Remote work is far less forgiving – everything is harder when you manage a remote team.
But that’s actually very good news: it means that the best managers will thrive and the rest will have to raise their game even further.
What makes managing remotely harder?
These seven things are what managers most frequently say they struggle with remotely:
1. Communicating: In the office you can walk across the room to talk to whomever you need to. Communicating remotely is harder. Although technology lets us communicate more than ever, we understand each other as little as ever. In the office, you know immediately if you have miscommunicated. Managing remotely you may not discover you have miscommunicated for another 24 hours, by which time a small problem can erupt into a major crisis.
2. Workload management: In the office, you can see who is striving and who is slacking. You know who needs help, because they are likely to ask you. This matters in the world of ambiguous professional work where a report is as long as you want it to be. You can manage expectations, outcomes and workloads in real time. Working remotely, the problem is less likely to be slacking and more likely to be team members seeking to over deliver against goals which are ambiguous to them. You can’t see if they’re working all through the night or if they’re practicing the banjo during working hours.
3. Motivating: Motivation is hard in the office and harder remotely. The first person to work out how to motivate by email will make a fortune. It’s a fortune which is unlikely to be made.
4. Goal setting: In the office, goal setting happens through a series of conversations in which you convey not just the ‘what’ of the goal but also the ‘why’ and the vital context. This creates both clarity and ownership of the goal. This is much harder remotely, where you still need to answer all the predictable and unpredictable questions: “Who is this for? What do they really want? How will they use it? What are the alternatives? How does this sit with my other priorities? What does ‘good’ look like? How shall we do this?”
5. Mentoring: Mentoring of new staff is not just about skills: it is about culture, values and how things get done. It is also about understanding the politics and knowing who the death star projects and bosses are. This requires many high trust conversations which happen more naturally in the office than on Zoom.
6. Difficult conversations: Tough conversations are even more difficult remotely. Communicating remotely is easy for transactions, not for building trust. High stakes conversations need high trust, which builds (or occasionally collapses) face to face where you can read body language and respond appropriately. The exception to this rule may be firing people, which does not require high trust. One CEO said he found it easier to fire people remotely because there was no emotional engagement. Another said she found firing harder remotely: seeing the person in their home raised the emotional stakes.
7. Team building and trust building: Trust is the glue which holds teams together. No trust means no team. All the evidence shows that trust is best built face to face through shared experiences, shared understanding, common values and common purpose. Nurturing trust online is far harder. Building the credibility which underpins trust requires precise communication so that you are always seen to do as you say.
You can add many other skills to this list: it’s hard to schedule creativity and idea generation into a Zoom call; influencing people and decisions often depends on being able to ‘accidentally’ bump into a decision-maker in the corridor.
A new era
In nearly every case, remote working forces managers to be far more purposeful and deliberate in everything they do. In the office, ad hoc management works well. You can adjust to people and situations in real time. In contrast, when working remotely you can’t have ad hoc management because you can’t manage in real time: you can’t see or hear the people you are managing.
The challenge is that many managers are accidental managers who have been put in place without formal training or support. They have to learn by doing. That can just about work in the office where it is obvious what is and is not working. Remote working removes that feedback loop.
If managers are to raise their game for the new world of hybrid working, they need proper support and training to help them get there. The era of the accidental manager making it up as they go along is over.
Jo’s book Smart Work: The Ultimate Handbook for Remote and Hybrid Teams (Bloomsbury, 2021) is out now.
Image: Shutterstock/Kate Kultsevych
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