Managing Remotely

Managing Remotely

This blog is taken from a passage in my first book (The Psychological Manager; improve your performance conversations) as I came across it recently. I have made a few amendments, but to be honest, it’s all still valid. This was written when it was optional though. We just need to turn it up to 11. . .

In many respects, managing a virtual/remote team is similar to managing one that is all in the same place. All the theories, principles and practices still apply. It’s just harder to spot them and potentially harder to deal with them.

Firstly, it is worth pointing out that there are many advantages to organisations in allowing flexibility of working practices, or indeed in having members of your team located elsewhere. Flexible working promotes goodwill with staff, and may be more productive for some people who don’t need the structure of a nine to five office location[1]. This blended working style, or “Martini working[2]”, doesn’t suit everyone, but for many it can lead to higher output and greater job satisfaction. In fact, increasing pressures on organisational space and environmental sustainability concerns are already leading to increased hot-desking and flexible working as the norm, built into the strategic plans of Estates Departments countrywide. Add to this the advantages of having members of your team located near, say, a particular client base or embedded in various parts of the organisation, and the idea of having your team cosily located in one room sounds quite dated[3]. This is only going one way, too, if current circumstances are anything to go by!

This has very real implications for the way in which you manage. The jobs where we can assume someone isn’t at work if they are not at their desk are getting fewer and fewer; they may turn up at 10am but have been working on their [insert mobile device of choice] in a coffee shop (remember the days when you could do that?) for the last two hours. Command and control “presenteeism” surely now cannot be the best way to manage in this permanently connected world – if, indeed, it ever was. Our mobile device is now our office, and they are about to become the primary way we access the internet. As such, for many jobs, where someone works is fast becoming irrelevant – all that matters is the output.

This raises important questions. What is now expected of the manager of a virtual or flexible team? How does this fit culturally with the rest of the organisation? What performance management methods make the most sense in this more fragmented workplace? And, of course, how do we maintain the sense of team when our co-workers work mainly from home or are located in Brazil[4]?

Firstly, whilst there should always be a clear theme and authenticity to your management style, it is no longer possible to treat all the members of your team the same in terms of working styles and practices. To some extent, this has been one of the themes of this book; increasing the size of your managerial toolkit to be able to deal flexibly with varying degrees of skill and will in your teams, so maybe it is not such a huge leap. With mobile connections the norm, we now also have to consider the where and the when of working, not just the what and the how, and this may need to be tailored to each individual in your team. Many organisations have introduced guidelines that place the onus on the manager to demonstrate why a member of their team cannot work flexibly or remotely, as opposed to the team member having to make the business case for it. Indeed, at the time of writing it is a legal obligation to consider flexible working requests if it is at all possible. This calls for flexibility on the behalf of the manager and acknowledgement of resulting protocol from the individual concerned to ensure the arrangement is satisfactory to both parties and the wider team. Work-life flexibility is the new work-life balance!

Secondly, managing performance effectively becomes even more important. And not just performance – having clear rules of engagement and ground-rules for behaviour are vital. Discussions and agreement should take place to clarify how the team will operate – both those who are mainly office based and those who work more remotely or virtually. Parameters may include communication methods and frequency, “checking-in” expectations, how to share progress and more personal updates, how decisions are made and any differences resolved. Review them regularly – what have you and the team learned about how to work in this way?

We have argued throughout this book that managing performance is primarily concerned with conversations. Work happens through relationships and the technology can help with that but it is all too easy to focus on the gadget and not the message. It is the conversation that is important, and with virtual teams a bigger effort has to be made to have those conversations to ensure shared clarity of purpose (individual and team) and targets/goals/objectives. This may include tangible deliverables and intangible outcomes or behaviours. It is also important to remember that we miss out on many of the subtleties and nuances of language and non-verbal communication when we are using e-mail, tele-conferencing and, nowadays, Teams, Zoom, Webex and the like. As a result, misunderstandings are more likely to happen, and interpersonal differences and conflicts become harder to resolve and may drag on longer than is necessary or healthy[5].

Apart from these particular issues, managing the performance and development of an individual who works flexibly, or remotely, are the same as normal; building skill, dealing with will (motivation), goal-setting, giving feedback, coaching and addressing an individual’s motivational drivers are the key skills required; you just have to be more rigorous and structured in your approach as you don’t always have the luxury of the spontaneous conversation. And remember that to some people, public recognition from their team members is an important motivator, so make the effort to celebrate individual success with the whole team.

Thirdly, and perhaps the biggest challenge, is to build and maintain the sense of team. It was mentioned earlier that a large part of our learning comes from social interaction and that such interaction fulfils a deep-rooted need in us. One of the dangers of flexible or remote working is that it can lead to team members feeling isolated and disconnected from the rest of the team and from its core purpose[6]. And this can be real, not merely imagined or perceived. One study found that distributed work groups led to fragmented communication, failure to return telephone calls or respond to enquiries from other team members, individuals being left off e-mail distribution lists and, at  worst, remote workers being viewed as part of the out-group[7]  (see Tajfel’s Social Identity theory). As mentioned before, the actual distance didn’t seem to make any difference; it was the lack of the “water-cooler” type conversations and other spontaneous social exchanges that seemed to make people feel out of the loop.

The communication technology we use to enable this new way of working has its own limitations. Some researchers suggest that the lack of social and non-verbal cues in text-based communication methods increases the sense of anonymity and result in a state of “deindividuation”. When this state happens, our characters and the characters of others are essentially depersonalised, and generally accepted norms of politeness and social etiquette fly out of the window[8]. Of course, as such technology becomes the norm, we may well learn to adapt accordingly, but it is fair to say that such electronic relationships are more tenuous and fragile without our mirror neurons reinforcing the empathic understanding and flow of emotions of our team-mates. There may also be an additional effect; Walther (1996) in his “hyperpersonal perspective” theory suggested that the limited cues that we do get when using new media are exaggerated as they are all we have to go on. Our impressions of others therefore become biased as we focus on the only things that are available to us. We are all getting better at this in the current circumstances, but we need to be flexible – and kinder!

So, it is all too easy for remote workers to feel (and in many cases, be) misconstrued or even forgotten as part of the team. Of course, this effect is amplified if there are time, language and cultural differences between the team members. For more senior managers who may be trying to integrate several distributed teams into one coherent, strategic whole, the challenge can also be to mitigate the effects of each team having its own culture and norms, definitions of quality and acceptable behaviour and the like.

All is not lost, however. Whilst it is undoubtedly harder, there are many things that you as manager can do to promote the sense of team identity when you have flexible or remote team members within it. Remember that, in an organisation with a high degree of technical orientation (often the type of organisation that embraces distance working) people skills may be overlooked just when they are most needed[9]. Firstly, make everything explicit. Do not assume that everyone knows what is going on or is aware of how projects fit in with core purpose or the direction of travel. Spell it out and ensure that all your team members are aware of what each other is working on. As far as possible, create projects or working groups that mean individuals have to work together and find ways around the distance or different hours. Anything you can do to increase such connectivity will increase cohesion, team identity and increase the trust levels. It may help to explicitly reward collaborative efforts.

Remember – it takes longer for remote teams to make decisions and to create a sense of team spirit. We cannot assume everyone has the same grasp of technology or even a safe space t work or a good internet connection, so be patient and forgiving. Talk about things that are not just about work as this can help build trust.

And talking of trust levels, this of course includes you. In the section on motivation (in the book, I’m afraid – it’s very good!), we explored Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y. I will assume by now that it will be pretty much understood that a manager who subscribes to Theory X is going to have a hard time building trust in a multi-located team or one where individuals work at least partly remotely. Managing by trust, not control brings the commitment of employees into sharp focus and allows them autonomy – often a key motivational driver. Your role becomes one of helping to set goals and related deliverables – their role is to deliver to those goals in their way rather than by a set process[10].  Other researchers suggest that creating team interdependence on projects is especially vital in the first year of a team’s existence; after that point, enough of a team identity has been created through the sharing of ideas, communication and subsequent improvement in relationships (and therefore trust) for it to become a group norm[11].

Secondly, engineer regular formal and informal events. Schedule regular meetings, in person if possible, but via Zoom, Teams etc if not. Do it more often. Make it normal. Create social events to reinforce interpersonal relations and team bonding and specifically help new team members become part of the in-group. Use social media where appropriate. And if you can, spend some of your budget on regular team-building sessions where everyone does eventually meet up face to face and spend quality time together, working on problem solving techniques, communication exercises or individual/team insight activities such as sessions built around team dynamics. Now would be a really good time to invest in a remote team-build session; don’t leave it until “things are back to normal.”

Whatever that is.

[1] Or spending two hours every day with their nose stuffed into another commuter’s armpit.

[2] Working “any place, anytime, anywhere,” not with a stiff drink.

[3] There is a further pressure here in the rise of Generation C, the cohort now leaving school and University (also called Millennials). “C” stands for connected, content-driven, communicating, computerised, and other words beginning with C. This way of flexible, permanently connected working is all they know and what they will expect when they come and work for you.

[4] Or even Basildon, or a few streets away. The actual distance seems to matter less than the fact that there is a distance.

[5] Especially important when you are the boss. As we have said before, emotions are contagious and the strongest emotion is the one that gets noticed in a group. When it is the boss that is having the emotion, people pay extra attention to see what sort of a day they are going to have because the ripple effect is heightened. We all prefer it when the boss is smiling, unless the boss is Jack Nicholson. When using technology to communicate, managers have to be even more careful to get the tone just right.

[6] We do not get the “hit” of the “you are my friend” chemical oxytocin (Rock, 2009).

[7] Armstrong & Cole, (2002).

[8] Sproull & Kiesler, (1986). Also, compare this concept with Zimbardo’s definition of deindividuation.

[9] Kirkman et al, (2002)

[10] (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002)

[11] Hertel et al (2004).