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News & opinion

6 APR 2020

How to manage a team working remotely

Even before the current social distancing restrictions forced teams to start operating remotely –  when “work” was a place to which staff went rather than an activity they actually did from their home – the trend for home working was increasing.

Indeed, the number of people working from home had risen by 10% in the decade before the current restrictions, thanks in part to the fact that since June 2014, all staff in the UK have the right to request flexible working, whereas previously it applied only to parents or carers.

It may well prove that the emergence of COVID-19 is a catalyst for a marked shift in employment culture. Workers who have made working from home possible simply because they had to may choose to work at least part of their time at home in future. The days of employees sitting in an office all week may be a thing of the past. And if that proves to be the case, people-management skills will have to adapt accordingly.

“[Employing] dispersed workers definitely makes management harder,” observes Erin Meyer, professor of organisational behaviour at business school Insead. “These people don’t bump into other members of staff, or create informal conversations, so they don’t develop a sense of what is happening around them, so managers have to agree times to talk, catch-up, and report in.” This is not easy, she says, because it can often appear to signal a return to old-fashioned command-and-control management.

“The thing managers need to remember,”says Alex Swarbrick, senior work consultant at Roffey Park Institute, “is not to think about geography, but relationships. Too many managers think of the miles between them and their staff, rather than the quality of the relationships.” He adds: “Both manager and employee need to be able to reassure each other that they have the same goals, and that the same things matter.”

Too many managers think of the miles between them and their staff, rather than the quality of the relationship. Both must reassure each other that they have the same goals.

Alex Swarbrick
Roffey Park Institute

To do this requires taking traditional management techniques and, says Swarbrick, “turning them up a notch”.

Communication must be crystal clear, staff shown that they are a valued part of a team and, importantly, any actions not left assumed.

These steps, argues Meyer, develop “effective trust” – which is characterised more by friendliness between manager and employee, rather than reliability. “Only once this level is reached,”she says, “is proper trust established, and distance between people becomes irrelevant.”

At Alan Dick Communications, which supplies structural engineering design and site services to a variety of industries, having dispersed teams is almost the norm. For co-owner Mark Weller, maintaining face-to-face communication matters most, and best influences levels of engagement and performance: “We give staff iPads so they can connect to our intranet, but it’s the face time that shows we care. It’s a chance for us to pass on company news, but as managers, we also learn what matters to them, and what makes them tick.”

He adds: “You can study all the management books you like, but my simple rule is that you have to treat people as you’d expect to be treated.”

Alison Maitland: How to manage dispersed workers

  • Have clear objectives so staff feel part of the process.
  • Create “virtual coffee meetings” by scheduling calls – but take care to not launch into work straight away.
  • Talk about them and what is happening in their lives.
  • Do not let dispersed staff feel abandoned. The worst thing managers can do is book calls and constantly cancel them. Nothing should be more important than talking to dispersed staff.
  • Everyone works differently, so even though you have to set regular touch-points, it is vital managers treat people as individuals.
  • Social media can give the illusion of connectivity, but seeing people is better. Use video-conferencing rather than instant messaging, texts or emails.

Powered Now, a mobile admin app for building tradesmen, has been developed largely by dispersed workers. This would not have been possible without having “an auditable system of communication”, says its CEO, Benjamin Dyer. “People work best when lines of communication are short, when staff know who is accountable and who they can turn to for help.”

What Dyer is adamant about, though, is not crossing a line that ends in micromanagement. “Managers still look at inputs (hours) rather than outputs,” he says.” But over-management causes real disruption. “In cases where staff do require more supervision, Dyer suggests this may be because some take a while to get used to being at arm’s length. “Some need to acclimatise more than others. Hold regular team meetings and keep them consistent. We have a Monday planning call and a Friday progress call. That way, everyone knows what’s expected, and it creates focus without being too controlling.”

“Managers can get away with being average when everyone’s in one place, but they can’t when people are dispersed. So, everything has to be done with more thought,” says Alison Maitland, visiting fellow at Cass Business School’s Faculty of Management, and co-author of The Future of Work. “Being clear about what you want from staff shouldn’t derail the autonomy that working remotely offers them. Managers should ‘support’, rather than ‘police’, their dispersed staff.”

Swarbrick adds: “If you normally email staff, phone dispersed ones instead. If you normally phone them, make a video call. Managing dispersed people is really just about doing all the things you normally do, but to the next level up.”

  • Alex Swarbrick, Roffey Park Institute

  • This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Modus