If the delay of return-to-the-office decisions by corporate giants like Google, Duke Energy, Apple, Microsoft, Ford and others are harbingers of what’s to come, remote work isn’t going away anytime soon.
Businesses worldwide are putting off bringing staff back into offices amid a resurgence of coronavirus cases linked to the more highly transmissible Delta variant.
While many employees are content to continue telecommuting, not everyone is happy about the extension of remote work.
Studies, like this one by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), continue to show that more than a year and a half of managing staff remotely is weighing on supervisors. About 72 percent of bosses said they would prefer to have all of their subordinates working in the office.
“Right now there’s a sense of disappointment that ‘it’s not over yet,’” noted Toolie Garner, CEO of Remote Leadership Success, based in Bellevue, Wash. “Corporate leadership was hoping that things could go back to the way they were.”
Leaders who had hoped that remote work would be short-lived need to understand they must be able to effectively lead from a distance and adapt to what may be a longer-term situation, she adds.
“Most managers I’ve encountered are still resisting the change,” Garner said. “They have relied on being able to manage on the fly — walk up to the desk, issue a command, walk away— rather than planning in advance, so they have to rethink how they manage.”
While taking a longer strategic view on remote work is critical, what can companies do now to make managers more comfortable with remote work and keep the corporate culture thriving in continuing uncertain times?
Harry Potter’s sorting hat
Melissa Swift, the U.S. transformation leader for HR consulting firm Mercer, says remote work created a unique focus on what makes a good manager.
“What we’ve seen across organizations is that this [period] has been kind of like the sorting hat from Harry Potter,” she said. “It has [sorted] the wheat from the chaff. Good managers have excelled. Bad managers [are those] who have a tendency toward micromanagement or need to be [looking] over people’s shoulders or being emotionally distant and disconnected. What we thought of as this great undifferentiated mass of middling performing managers has separated out, and we’re really seeing the clear distinctions.”
This means organizations will need to perform analytical work to see if manager behavior is a significant driver of attrition, Swift notes.
Managers who aren’t respected by staff also risk harming corporate culture, which in turn send employees looking for jobs elsewhere.
“Respect is a crucial driver of engagement and retention, and this is true in a remote environment as well as an in-person one,” said Charles Sull, co-author of The MIT Sloan Management Review article “Ten Things Your Corporate Culture Needs to Get Right.”
The research conducted by CultureX, which was co-founded by Sull, used artificial intelligence to analyze five years of culture ratings posted on the job and employer ranking website Glassdoor. Respect was the top predictor of a favorable culture.
Sull says that since about 5 to 7 percent of managers cause the most problems, companies can use attrition data and consistently poor ratings for particular managers to identify those who are problematic and address their behavior.
This will have the biggest impact on rapidly improving culture, he adds.
“Once they have identified those managers, HR leaders have to ask themselves two questions,” Sull said. “Can this behavior be addressed by coaching, or is this manager beyond that? If it’s the latter, do the good qualities of this manager justify the toxicity, attrition and reputational fallout he or she is generating?”
Mercer’s Swift agrees.
“People are rewarded for doing the wrong things, [such as] ‘they’re so good at driving their team forward’ when actually they are stressing their team out and driving burnout,” she said. “Anytime you can pull the lens back and be more data driven, that’s really critical.”
New management skills required
Garner of Remote Leadership Success says it’s important for managers to reevaluate how remote workers get work done and adjust as needed.
“It needs to be quantified, measured and predictable, such that employees can demonstrate that work is getting done,” she said. “That also reduces the stress on the managers, because they can in turn demonstrate to their higher-ups that remote work is effective and successful.”
Also, when managers allow scheduling flexibility, it “encourages employees to live up to the trust that’s been granted to them, and more often than not they work harder, not less,” she noted.
About 84 percent of managers would find it helpful to receive training in managing remote workers, according to MindEdge’s “State of Remote Work 2021: The Age of the Hybrid Workforce” survey.
“Dynamic work environments, whereby teams are distributed and work locations are hybrid in nature, will require new management techniques and skills that align neither to a fully in-person model nor a fully remote one,” said Sandra Slager, chief operating officer of the education-technology firm MindEdge based in Waltham, Mass. “It’s this hybrid environment that could unlock the best of both worlds, assuming managers have the skills, technology infrastructure and corporate support to succeed.”
What skills do managers need to navigate the coming months?
Jeff Chow, senior vice president of product for InVision, a digital product design platform company based in New York City, says working remotely has held managers more accountable on basic skills like communication, while also requiring them to hold teams responsible for meeting goals and expectations, create more equitable opportunities and build deeper relationships with teams.
“Managers, shockingly, still equate time observed in the office with amount of work and contribution done by the employee, when it’s truly the manager’s job to communicate clear goals and hold teams accountable for those results,” he said.
Still, he’s seen many managers embrace remote work and incorporate it into their management style over the past year and a half.
“It comes down to being intentional as a boss,” he said. “Everything about remote or hybrid work needs to be intentional. Building relationships and trust over Zoom does not just happen. It needs to be done consciously.”