What remote work taught managers about their teams...and themselves

Feb 24, 2021

5 mins

What remote work taught managers about their teams...and themselves
Rose Costello

Editor and writer

Hands up who knew this time last year what an antigen test was? Or a PCR test? Okay, to be fair, you may still not be sure exactly what they are, but you probably have a fair idea of what they can do for you and your dreams of traveling and meeting up with friends. We’ve learned a lot in the past year about virulent viruses, but much more about ourselves and how we cope in such turbulent times. For many of us, our new-found knowledge came from the experience of working from home.

In April 2020, remote working figures rose sharply: nearly half of the UK workforce did some of their work from home, with the vast majority (86%) saying that this was because of the pandemic. With work-from-home guidelines still in place, many of us are still at it nearly a year later—and there’s no sign of this changing anytime soon. A survey of almost 1,000 company directors conducted for the Institute of Directors shows that 74% plan to maintain the increase in home working after the pandemic has passed. More than half of those polled said their organization intended to reduce their long-term use of workplaces.

Teleworking is here to stay. With that in mind, we approached five managers of remote teams to find out what they have learned over the past year about their staff and themselves as managers. Here are the top lessons they have garnered:

1. Staff need to talk to each other too

How we communicate has changed, but all of our experts agree that getting it right is more important than ever. Myles Robinson, co-founder of Boiler Central in Wakefield, which employs 20 formerly office-based staff plus five apprentices, said conversation is key. “Make sure you have regular check-ins with your remote employees and ensure that they feel supported. I encourage my team to make sure that they are chatting to each other to discuss any work-related issues, and even if they just need a distraction for five minutes,” he said.

Mo Naser, the chief executive of SmartSurvey, agrees that contact between colleagues can make all the difference. “I have learned that a lot of my staff really value their co-workers and the office environment. That has probably been the most difficult part of remote working, missing out on the everyday ‘water cooler’ chats. As well as moving online with the more formal team and company meetings, we have encouraged regular video calls, just to chat and catch up on things. These have helped keep morale and communication up.”

2. Schedule time for chats or they might not happen

Naser advises drawing up a clear communication plan and sticking to it. Just be aware that this can slow down decision-making, said Sandy Wilkie of Greenhill HR in Manchester. “What would have been a quick conversation in the office or on the edge of a colleague’s desk, needs to be planned on Zoom or MS Teams so that it’s more effective than trying to convey meaning in emails,” said Wilkie. “Without the regular opportunity to check in and judge their general demeanor, it can be harder to pick up on any underlying worries.”

This is even more important if you are something of an introvert, according to Dianne Sharp, the chief executive of the Leadership Academy in Sunderland. “When we’re around colleagues all the time we’re having conversations regularly and we don’t need to add ‘communicate with others’ on a to-do list,” she said. “I’m a natural introvert and both the lockdown and working remotely have heightened that… I’ve had to diarise and almost force myself to ensure I’m communicating with people.”

3. Don’t make any assumptions

Until you see your staff in their home environment, you don’t know them as well as you think you do, said Sharp. “It’s very easy to make assumptions when we can’t see what’s happening, but remote working has brought a whole new level of personal experience that we didn’t have with colleagues before. Because of this, I’ve learned to not make assumptions about people and what they could be going through and this can ultimately open up more honest conversations, which is important as a leader,” she said.

It may seem that some have it easier, but that’s not necessarily the case. “It’s not for you to say that a mother of three who’s homeschooling is finding it harder than a 21-year-old who may be living with parents and stuck in their bedroom all day,” she said.

4. Let your staff know you trust them

For remote working to work well, there has to be ample trust. Naser learned to be at ease with trusting the team at SmartSurvey. “I’ve learned that there is a huge amount of trust within the team,” said Naser. “Remote working relies on trust from all team members to communicate properly and get the job done, even when everyone’s working on team projects at different times and in different locations.”

Robinson realized how important it is to let staff know that you have faith in them. “Empowering and trusting my employees has been really important while working
from home,”
he said. “I want them to know that I have their backs if any issues come up and that I trust them to do the work and won’t be checking in on them every minute of the day.”

5. Everyone has their own communication style

Sharp discovered that she is an introvert, whereas Wilkie felt the opposite. “[I learnt] that my preferred style is very much face-to-face. I am a social leader and, in the past, I would choose to visit the more remote members of my team, check in with them and listen over coffee and a sandwich,” said Wilkie. “Remote management… requires you to turn your empathy antennae up to maximum; to pick up on cues that your staff may be emitting about home-working, childcare and other forms of potential lockdown ‘guilt’. I’ve made more of an effort to reach out, check-in and get to know the staff as people with a home and family contexts, which will at times either appear in their Zoom window—dogs, children—or have some form of background impact on their working-at-home persona.”

6. It’s never been more important to prioritize

Just because you can hold meetings early in the morning, at lunchtime, or back to back-does not mean you should. That’s a recipe for burnout. Wilkie advises not scheduling meetings before 9 am or at lunchtime and to ensure everyone has some downtime between calls. It’s also good to be “flexible enough to allow staff to leave early on occasion if they are fatigued by remote video calls,” said Wilkie, who is thinking of introducing meeting-free afternoons. “In the headlong rush to transact stuff, it’s important to carve out thinking time and dedicated time to work on projects or write strategic papers.”

Peter Ellington, the director of Triple Bottom Line Accounting in Norfolk, said he and his team have learned to prioritize better. The result is that they are not overpromising to clients, but are delivering. “[We’re] putting the team and ourselves before the client [when it comes to scheduling],” he said. “Previously, we weren’t as good at managing expectations. I think it’s like the airplane oxygen mask example: you have to look after yourself first, then you can help others.”

7. You don’t have to work all hours just because you can

Working from home has made it easier than ever to start early and finish late, but everyone highlighted the need to switch off, get outside and breathe. “The opportunity not to stop working has resulted in my nearly completing a doctorate and also getting on top of work,” said Ellington, who also lectures at the University of East Anglia. “But, I think it would probably kill me if it continued for a number of years. If I don’t force myself to stop working I don’t. I’m looking forward to when the sun shines and I can relax again.” And so say all of us.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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