The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shifted the nature of daily work for millions of Americans. While working remotely was a privilege enjoyed by relatively few pre-pandemic, Gallup has reported that just over half of Americans were “always” working remotely in April 2020 during the height of COVID workplace restrictions. That proportion has fallen to about one-third, but that’s still significantly higher than the roughly 7% who had that option pre-COVID.
The shift to widespread remote work has certainly been a big change for employees, but what’s often overlooked is the major change this shift also represents for managers. Many managers are now not only working remotely themselves but also managing teams who are remote.
Managing from afar is different and requires different skills, strategies, and techniques. What skills do managers need more than ever in an era of remote work and why? How can they build or enhance these skills? In this feature, we provide some insight from industry experts.
Effective Virtual Communication
Effective management mainly stems from effective communication. One of the biggest challenges of remote offices is replicating the kind of communication that takes place in a physical office setting, and many of the issues with remote management and the strategies to address those issues discussed throughout this feature ultimately boil down to communication.
Matt Satell, CEO of Prime Mailboxes, says he’s worked hard to get his team to shift from passive listening to active listening. Key active listening tips he’s advocated for his team include:
- Paying close attention to the speaker
- Maintaining eye contact
- Acknowledging what is being said by providing feedback
- Being conscious of their own body language and facial expressions
- Asking questions that are relevant
“It helped and we’ve since then made a conscious effort at sustaining active listening in project discussions,” Satell says.
Avoiding Virtual Micromanagement
While many employees enjoy the greater independence and flexibility that come with remote work, some managers have a tendency to micromanage, even when not physically in the same office as their staff.
“Virtual micromanagement happens when managers monitor the productivity of their distributed teams more closely than in-office reports,” says Cecile Alper-Leroux, VP of Human Capital Innovation at UKG.
“In our 2019 remote work survey, UKG (formerly known as Ultimate Software) found that remote workers are nearly twice as likely as in-office employees to feel ‘frequently misunderstood or misinterpreted’ in the workplace,” Alper-Leroux says. “Meanwhile, a top concern among managers is monitoring the productivity of remote workers, even though remote employees report high levels of productivity.”
As is the case with in-office micromanagement, virtual micromanagement is fundamentally a trust issue. Managers are much less likely to micromanage teams when they trust those teams are focused and on track, even if they can’t see them.
“It is essential to develop a team communication and operation agreement to ensure everyone—both remote and otherwise—is on the same page,” says Alper-Leroux. “This plan guides managers and employees on things like how often to provide status reports, preferred communication channels, and what information needs to be communicated to whom.”
“Training managers to establish clear guidelines will help ease the anxieties that lead to micromanaging, while instilling a greater sense of accountability and maintaining positive company culture while everyone adjusts to working remotely,” she adds.
Providing Effective Feedback
Many managers struggle to provide effective feedback to their employees, even in the office. With the shift to remote work, that challenge has only grown. In addition to the struggles with delivering feedback, managers also need to understand the potential impact the drastic workplace changes have had on workers and their productivity and effectiveness.
“We need to make huge adjustments in terms of performance reviews,” says Michael Hammelburger, CEO of The Bottom Line Group. “For instance, remote workers in our organization have had to undergo huge adjustments in their new setup.”
“Our performance reviews needed to be more effective and consistent. Thus, we’ve implemented real-time feedback and coaching keeps the employee on track of her goals even on a work-from-home arrangement. This has also improved the employee’s engagement during the review,” Hammelburger adds.
Establishing Effective Processes
As entire teams shift to working separately in remote locations and their personal work processes change, the processes that once guided their work as a cohesive unit are also impacted, which can be a challenge for managers.
“In an in-house environment if something’s not super clear everybody’s in the same office it’s really easy to walk down the hall to clarify something,” says Ryan Malone, founder and CEO of SmartBug Media. “In a remote environment where people are not always on the same time zone, or they’re working different hours, the process piece must be crystal clear. The ability to define standard operating procedures with enough detail to help people, but not so much detail that it’s constricting, is really important,” he says.
Fundamentally, adds Malone, employees need insight into a process, and they need to make sure they have everything they need to follow that process, especially when they’re remote from those they might otherwise seek assistance from. “Establishing solid processes ahead of time, and sticking to them, is essential for smooth operations,” he says.
Being Purpose-Driven and Outcomes-Oriented
Establishing effective processes should focus on results and purpose, and it’s the managers’ responsibility to maintain that focus.
“Remote working can cause team members to disassociate themselves from the value they are creating and how they are performing,” says David Rizzo, Chief Talent and Responsibility Officer at Deloitte Consulting LLP.
“To address that, managers should have frequent, informal check-ins with team members to understand what strengthens them—making a positive societal impact, furthering the organization’s mission, deepening their own knowledge, teaching others—discuss how they performed recently and what is expected of them next,” he says.
Managers should be focused on outcomes, not activities, as activities just aren’t as observable in a remote environment. “Simple, informal and frequent check-ins can go a long way to sustaining team member engagement and performance,” Rizzo adds.
Empathy and a Focus on Employee Well-Being
Finally, it’s worth highlighting the tremendous amount of stress many employees have been under during the pandemic.
In addition to concerns over the pandemic itself and potential personal impacts to employees and loved ones, many are coping with the disruption to their work lives; impacts to their home lives, which may include two adults working from home and one or more children learning from home; and uncertainty about what the future holds for their health, job security, and the economy as a whole.
Managers need to be cognizant of the stresses their teams may be under and approach their management with an extra dose of empathy.
When the pandemic began, most people assumed life would get back to “normal” within a few weeks and certainly within a couple of months. But today, many question whether life will ever get back to a pre-pandemic normal. Many companies have announced plans for long-term shifts to remote work or at least long-term employee flexibility.
This means managers should expect to manage remotely for the foreseeable future. Having the right skills to manage in this new environment is critical now and is likely to remain so into the future.