Managing remotely

Even before the impact of COVID-19, 92 percent of companies surveyed by McKinsey thought their business models would change because of digitization. In other studies, on flexible working, 67 percent of business leaders associated an increase of at least 20 percent in productivity to flexible working practices. CFO’s were also getting excited, with 74 percent planning to shift some employees (up to one-fifth) to permanent home working, so they could reduce costs.

With digital transformation and cost reduction due to remote working, taking up boardroom conversations, the thorny problem remains – how do leaders manage a dispersed workforce?

There are after all considerable trials when managing remotely. One rubric relates to the person themselves. In recent times these have been well-documented, but to recap some of these are: Anxiety caused by isolation from the team and the potential impact on motivation. Domestic distractions due to lockdown, school closures, and in some severe cases increased domestic violence against employees, particularly women, who might be spending more time at home. Hyper connectivity, an always-on culture, video meeting fatigue and the knock-on effect of digital burnout, and bad health outcomes, leading to poor eating and sleeping habits.
As a leader there are a couple of levers you can pull to make an impact and gears you can set in motion to help employees with these personal challenges.

First and foremost, model the right kind of behavior you want to see in your employees. This means providing a sense of purpose, whether that’s related to their work, or even I would argue to their domestic and family situation. In troubled times, people need to feel anchored, as this offers a sense of stability and safety. For the majority, this is when they can do their best work.

Admitting you don’t have all the answers is one way to be transparent and build trust amongst your employees. Macho management styles tend to backfire at the best of times, let alone now when care and consideration is needed. Perhaps establish certain personal standards for yourself, talk about these with your team and stick to them. For example: avoid multi-tasking; bring full attention to meetings; focus on the necessary; don’t overuse digital tools like Reply All on email; leave time for reflection in the diary.

Wherever possible, enable employees to fit their tasks and deliverables around their lifestyle. If needed give them the flexibility to do the school drop off and collection or let them destress with a lunchtime run or cycle ride.

Equally you may want to condition yourself to managing remotely. Before checking your emails, write down the three most important things you need to do today - throughout the day orient yourself back to these. Time zones permitting, make an informal connection with team members, before you get down to the business of the day – this will really help with culture. Structure your diary for periods of deep work - where you can focus on a difficult task in an uninterrupted manner. Depth will create value.

Also set realistic expectations as to how long a task will take and ensure the team operate in a focused way to achieve this. Make the connection between what they do and the wider corporate goals. Coach and mentor - coaching is about improving performance and personal development. Don’t dilute these conversations with a focus on tasks.

If your company has set itself on an inexorable path of digitalization and remote working, and it looks like there’s no turning back, then your people management skills are going to be severely tested and stretched. Hope you are ready.
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