Remote working: spare a thought for the managers…

With the current COVID-19/CoronaVirus health crisis, there’s a huge focus on working from home – for those who are able to.

I’ve been contractually based from home since 2005 and remote working has been the norm for a good chunk of my career. That means I kind of take it for granted and didn’t really appreciate some of the things that others struggle with – like how to focus, finding space to work, and social isolation. (I’m also an introvert, so social isolation is probably not a huge concern to me!)

Somewhat disappointingly, there also seems to be a surge of articles on “how to work from home” – mostly written by people who seem to have very little real-world experience of it. But there are some notable exceptions:

  • Last year, Matt Haughey (@mathowie) published his tips from 16 years of working from home. Whilst some of the advice about his chosen tech (wide angle lens, special lighting, Apple AirPods and Slack) might not be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s a lot of good advice in Matt’s post.
  • And, earlier this week, my colleague Thom McKiernan (@ThomMcK) wrote an excellent blog post on what he calls the six rituals of working from home. I hadn’t really twigged that working from home is a fairly new experience for Thom (since he came to work at risual) and Thom’s post also flagged some of the bad habits I’ve slipped into over the years: the 08:55 starts; the procrastination; not taking regular breaks; and going back to work in the evening). It’s definitely worth a read.

But equipping people with the tools and mindset to work remotely is only part of the problem. Whilst I believe (hope) that the current crisis will help organisations to discover the benefits of remote and flexible working, some of the major challenges are cultural – things like:

  • Trust: comments like “Oh, ‘working from home’ are you?” don’t help anyone. Sure, some people will slack off (it’s human nature) but they will soon be found out.
  • Presenteeism: linked to trust, this often comes down to a management style that is reliant on seeing people at a desk, between certain hours. It’s nothing to do with how productive they are – just that they are there!
  • Output: so many people are hung up on hours worked. Whilst we owe it to ourselves not to over-do things, or for employers to take advantage of employees, much of today’s work should be output-driven. How effective were you? Did you manage to achieve x and y, that contribute towards your personal goals (which ideally contribute towards the company’s goals)? It’s not about the 9-5 (8-6, or 6-8), it’s about delivery!

For managers, it can be difficult when you have a remote team. I struggle sometimes but in some ways, I’m fortunate that I have a relatively senior group of Architects working with me, who are (or at least should be) self-starters. If they don’t deliver, I will hear soon enough, but then I’ll have another problem in that I’ll have a dissatisfied client. So, ideally, I need to make sure that the team understands what’s expected of them.

My approach is this:

  • Trust: everyone I work with is trusted to “get on with it”. That’s not to say I don’t check in on them but there is a huge reliance on people doing what they have been asked to.
  • Empowerment: I don’t micro-manage. I’ll make sure that we have regular 1:1s, and cross-team communications (see below) but everyone in the team is empowered to make decisions. I’ll be there to support them if they want guidance but I need people to make their own choices too… which means I need to be ready to support them if those choices don’t work out the way they, or I, might have liked.
  • Clear guidance: of course, I have a manager too. And he reports to our Directors. Things get passed down. I may not like everything that “passes my desk” but sometimes you just need to get on with it. Communication to my team about what’s required/expected, why it’s needed and when it needs to be done by is vitally important.
  • Communication: related to the above but making sure there are regular team calls. Even once a fortnight for 45 minutes (because we always over-ran 30 minute meetings and an hour is too long) is an opportunity to disseminate key messages and for everyone to share recent experiences. Every few months we’ll meet face to face for a day and work on something that gets added value from being together – but that’s not really remote working (or advisable in the current climate).
  • Understanding my limits: I’m a practicing Consultant as well as a people manager, so I’m not always there (I also work part-time). This goes hand in hand with the empowerment I mentioned above.
  • Tools: everything I’ve written in this post up to now has been about the people but technology can play its part too. I use Microsoft Teams extensively (you may have another choice – email, Slack, SharePoint, Yammer, or something else):
    • I work in the open – on Teams. Email in an Inbox is hidden whereas a post on Teams is visible to all who may have an interest.
    • When I’m not at work, my out of office reply directs people to post on Teams, where another member of the team might be able to help them.
    • Voice and video calls – Teams. Even my mobile phone is directed to a phone number that ends up in Teams.
    • When I set up a project, I use a Wiki in Teams to set out what is required of people – useful information about the client; what they expect from us; what the project is delivering (and how).
    • When I want to get a message out to a team (either hierarchical or virtual/project), I use Teams to communicate (hopefully clearly).

I’m not sure how successful I am – maybe my team can tell me – but it’s an approach that seems to work reasonably well so far. Hopefully it’s of some use to other people.

If you’re a manager, struggling with managing a remote team – or if you have some advice/guidance to share – please leave a comment below.

Further reading

(The up-to-date version of the Remote Work Survival Kit can always be found in Google Docs, with most of the content on the website). A PDF extract is created periodically.