What makes an effective remote manager?

Blog posts

14 May 2020

Dan LucyDan Lucy, Principal Research Fellow

As many of us start to acclimatise to a possibly prolonged period of remote working, grapple with a variety of potentially new technologies and go about creating a new way of working and living, it is worth asking what it means to be an effective manager in such circumstances. This is perhaps given extra emphasis given recent suggestions from leading companies in the technology and banking industry that widescale homeworking could become the ‘new norm’. There is, of course, research on how to do virtual management well and there is much that can be learned from it. That said, I doubt these particular circumstances were ever quite envisaged.

There are risks to the individual in all of this, feelings of isolation, mental health and wellbeing feature high on that list of course. But there are also both short-term and medium-term risks for organisations. In such a prolonged period of remote working, individuals may well start to feel psychologically distanced from their organisation, less connected to it, as well as beginning to re-evaluate their lives, including where and how they work. In the short-term, there is the essentially managerial challenge of keeping people busy and effective whilst everything else seems highly uncertain.

So, if a manager’s lot wasn’t challenging enough, the current circumstances are likely to make it more so. In a recent webinar for the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) as part of its Covid-19 series, I suggested that managers face many of the same dilemmas and tensions but that these are heightened as a consequence of Covid-19. Three tensions struck me as most relevant right now. These are:

  • Managing by outputs rather than inputs.
  • Balancing keeping things moving whilst managing staff needs flexibly.
  • Striking the balance between doing the right things, doing things right, and doing new things.

For some time now, we have been saying that managers need to manage according to performance and not simply by the hours someone spends at their desk. They need to be better skilled at communicating objectives and enabling those they manage to deliver on those objectives. For those managers used to micro-managing or needing to see people at their desks, transitioning to a more trusting, outputs mode of management, could be a significant challenge and one which will have ramifications for their own and others wellbeing.

The fact that the current circumstances have been rather thrust on individuals with very little, or any, time for proper preparation does place an emphasis on the role of HR in helping managers adjust quickly. And, in particular, to find ways of both providing managers with enough guidance to help them in managing remotely with some degree of competence, but also crucially in helping managers to learn by doing. Previous research does suggest that to effectively manage in these circumstances, increased frequency of contact is needed to check-in and understand how someone is doing. That’s borne out by the results from IES’ Working at Home Wellbeing Survey which clearly show higher levels of job satisfaction and organisational commitment amongst employees’ receiving higher levels of contact from their manager. Higher levels of contact doesn’t mean ‘micro-manage’, more a case of checking in frequently, making sure individuals are ok and facilitating a bond of trust and support.

Striking the balance between keeping things moving and managing staff needs flexibly will be a significant challenge on multiple fronts. There is both the harder end of things, with the practicalities and logistics of managing workloads whilst people deal with the complexities of their current upended lives, but also the softer, communication and interpersonal challenges. Managers face the potential challenge of reconciling the desire of senior leaders to continue business as normal and the ability of staff to actually work in that way. Influencing upwards and ensuring that communications around productivity expectations are realistic, workable and do not disengage will be a key challenge for managers at this time. HR has a crucial role to play here in seeking and listening to feedback from their managers, and helping shape supportive and effective communication.

Covid-19 is requiring us all to do things differently, to work in different ways, to find solutions to new and difficult problems, as well as possibly support the development of new products and services. So, managers and their staff need to innovate at a time when they perhaps feel least able to do so, caught as we are in a period of significant uncertainty and anxiety. The likely critical variable here is to what extent managers are able to create a climate of psychological safety and are able to facilitate meaningful and productive discussion with the teams they lead.

Alongside these three tensions, it is worth saying also that managing remotely is different to management where staff are co-located. It demands a greater skill in listening and asking questions, and in the absence of face-to-face contact, listening out for those signals that support may be needed. It also places extra emphasis on managers being clear in their communication with those they manage and in their ability to build trust and social cohesion, something highlighted by recent work by the CIPD.

Managers right now face a tremendous challenge but if well supported by HR, they also have a tremendous opportunity to develop more effective ways of managing their teams. The first step is perhaps to recognise and acknowledge some of the key challenges and tensions, and then to provide the space, time, and support to reflect on current ways of managing and how they need to be adapted to better meet the current context. There is a real possibility that, whilst the sudden change in ways of working has been thrust upon us, it could well provide the opportunity for HR and the managers they support to be better able to manage more effectively and flexibly in the future.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.