Managing Without Presence: a vital skill for the post-pandemic world

Remote and flexible working are here to stay. As we approach a year of enforced home working, we can start learning the management skills that will allow us to maintain the best aspects of them in the future.

Remote working is here to stay — and the skill of managing remote workers is one we’re all going to need. Across Europe, many people are back in lockdown as I write this, in early 2021. Even in those countries where vaccination is well underway, we’re looking at late spring or early summer before restrictions start to ease, if we’re lucky. That means we’ll have had over a year of remote working — more than enough to prove that it works.

And it does. And that will have consequences for the future.

Some businesses will stay remote. Many more will adopt flexible working styles that they would never have countenanced two years ago. That presents a challenge for many people: learning to manage when physical presence isn’t a routine part of your working life. This is a skill most businesses haven’t needed to develop — but a few have. And we can learn from their experiences in managing staff who aren’t sat right in front of them.

And so, I decided to talk to people who lead two very different businesses that have always worked flexibly:

Remit has made use of flexible and remote working throughout its two-decade life, while also taking advantage of serviced office space when it needs it, while the Ghost Foundation is a completely remote operation, without offices. In the Before Times, Ghost staff met up as a company a couple of times a year, although that’s been on hold during the pandemic.

Team Trust

Neither of them is impressed with the idea of using technology to monitor people’s output.

“You have to trust people,” says O’Nolan. “No amount of apps, tools or processes can replace trust. If you’re worried about how you’ll know whether people are really working at home, you should ask yourself how you knew they were really working at the office. Great remote teams are predicated on trust.”

And you shouldn’t assume you can just recreate the office via video calls, either:

“Online meetings are often a burden that frustrates team members with their inefficiency of discussing things which would have been a better use of time as an email,” says O’Nolan.

However, switching to email has its issues as well. Negative patterns form when nuance, tone and body language are lost in written communication.

“People lose track of how to empathise and relate to each other,” says O’Nolan. “The thing we’ve found that works is to separate the two. We schedule meetings for the sake of getting people to talk to each other without an agenda. We use written communication to talk about the actual work. Both are equally important.”

The tech for virtual meetings has come on leaps and bounds this year, suggests Waller. “No, it’s not the same as meeting, but it’s at least 80% as good,” he says. “I’d still prefer to meet face to face for delicate negotiations but for the majority of work, it is fine. And, for those of us with an office at home, it’s much more productive than an open office.”

The office strikes back

And that raises the issue of return to the office when the pandemic is over. Waller has a pragmatic approach, as one might expect from a business that’s embraced flexible rather than remote working for years now. He suggests that the biggest impact has been on people’s mental health, for good or ill. Remote working doesn’t suit everyone:

“A third are happy staying at home and may not be keen to go back; a third are flexible and a third cannot work at home,” he says. “I think that is typical. Whilst Covid remains a risk, we have few options, but it will be interesting to see how people behave when they are allowed back in offices.”

In particular, he’s found the younger members of staff the keenest to get commuting again: “Whoever said that millennials won’t want to work in offices was wrong.”

They come to cities to network for business and for social reasons. “Without their mates close by in other offices, there is little point for them in coming to a big city,” says Waller.

And, of course, older members of staff are more likely to have homes that are conducive to home work, while younger members in shared accommodation can struggle.

Of course, a core part of managing your workforce is recruitment and training. Flexible working sceptics often cite this as a core reason to get people back into offices as soon as they can. Taking people on and training them remotely is also more difficult but not impossible, suggests Waller. “It all depends on the individual,” he says.

Managing the burn-out trap

While many managers worry about making sure that their staff are working enough, that might not be the real problem they should be worrying about:

“Something that nobody asks about is how to stop people from working too much,” says O’Nolan. After all, if your home has become your office, are you working from home — or living in the office? Without the mental detachment that comes with leaving the office and commuting home, switching off becomes harder and harder.

“Nobody asks about it, yet it’s the most common problem we see,” says O’Nolan. “When team members don’t establish healthy routines they end up over-working, and burning out.”

If remote working becomes a company differentiator in the post-pandemic world, managing that is going to be critical to stopping the churn of talented staff.

“Remote teams need much more structure than you might imagine, to encourage sticking to limited working hours, and taking holidays (when you work from home, you never feel like you need a holiday — but you do).”

Managing without presence isn’t about doing the same old management routines with new tools: it’s about understanding and reacting to the new challenges it throws up.

Photo by Matt Hoffman on Unsplash