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In my last corporate role, I had teams in 4 locations across the UK– Bournemouth (where I was based), Bristol, Croydon and Huddersfield – so managing people remotely was part of my role and something both I and my teams became used to. I was never with them all of the time and for the majority, I was only physically present once or twice a month, if that.

This was 10 years ago when there was no Zoom, no MS Teams, no Facetime – I was either physically present or on the end of the phone. Technology was not our friend. However, I’m pretty sure that, if you were to ask whether they felt they had the support they needed from me, they would say they did. We found ways around the distance and it became our ‘normal’.

Faced with the challenges that Covid continues to present, this would not have phased either me or them but, for many people managers, managing remotely is something they have never done before and the challenges are significant. Even the most natural and intuitive people managers who enjoy this part of their roles and have always made time for their people are finding they are really struggling the longer they work from home. Undoubtedly, many of the people in their teams will be really struggling as well.

I have a feeling this global crisis will change the way we work forever and working from home will become the new ‘normal’, so we need to try and do things differently.

What are the typical challenges?

  • Lack of face-to-face supervision: Managers worry that employees will not work as hard or as efficiently when they are separated – although research would indicate otherwise and many employees struggle with reduced access to managerial support and lack of regular communication.
  • Lack of access to information:When they aren’t all sitting together in the office, remote workers can become frustrated by the added time and effort needed to locate information from their colleagues. Even getting answers to what seem like simple questions can feel like a large obstacle when you’re working from home.

This can also translate into a lower willingness to giving others the benefit of the doubt in difficult situations – e.g. if you know your colleague is having a rough day, you will view a brusque email from them as a natural product of their stress but, if you receive this email from someone who’s working from home with no understanding of their current circumstances, you’re more likely to take offence……..

  • Social isolation:Loneliness is one of the most common complaints about remote work, with employees missing the informal social interaction of an office setting. Extraverts probably struggle with isolation more in the short term, particularly if they don’t have opportunities to connect with others in their remote work environment. However, over a longer period of time, isolation can cause any employee to feel less connected with their organization and can even result in feeling they want to work elsewhere.
  • Distractions at home:How many photos have we seen recently of a parent holding a child and typing on a laptop, often sitting on a sofa or living-room floor. Typically, we encourage employers to ensure that their remote workers have both dedicated workspace and adequate childcare before allowing them to work remotely. Yet, in our current circumstances where many employees have had to transition to remote working without warning, there is a much greater chance that they will also be juggling childcare/home schooling and other parenting responsibilities alongside their work.

What can managers do differently?

Establish structured check-ins:  A daily call with each member of your team can work wonders or perhaps a daily team call, if they work collaboratively. The important thing is that the calls are regular and that they provide a forum in which employees know they can consult with you and that their concerns and questions will be heard. Your regular (monthly) 121’s are still as important as ever – in fact, probably even more important now ……

Provide several different communication options: Technology is now our friend and there are so many options – Zoom, MS Teams, Google Meet, Facetime – so there are no excuses!! Email alone is woefully inadequate and fraught with potential misinterpretations and misunderstandings. Telephone is better but you still can’t see who you’re talking to. Video calling has so many advantages, especially for smaller groups and can also help reduce the sense of isolation and it’s much more personal.

Provide opportunities for remote social interaction: One of the most significant changes a manager can make is to build in ways for employees to interact socially while working remotely.

The easiest way to establish some basic social interaction is to leave some time at the beginning of team calls just for non-work items – even if it’s only “How was your weekend?” or “Did anyone watch XX programme last night?”. You could also have a virtual pizza party or afternoon tea or wine tasting, where the pizza/afternoon tea/wine is delivered to all team members at the time of the video call or some other form of ‘care packages’ can be sent in advance to be opened and enjoyed simultaneously. Of course, there’s always a quiz!!! While these types of events may sound artificial or forced, those who have tried this report that virtual events help reduce feelings of isolation and help to promote a sense of team belonging.

Talk to your people! Offer encouragement and emotional support: Especially in the context of an abrupt shift to remote working, it is so important for managers to acknowledge stress, listen to employees’ anxieties and concerns and empathize with their struggles. Ask how they’re doing – not just once, but regularly – and then listen carefully to the answer. Let their concerns (rather than your own) be the focus of this conversation.

Research tells us that employees look to their managers to show them how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations and, if a manager communicates stress and helplessness, this will trickle down to their teams. Great people managers acknowledge the stress and anxiety their employees may be feeling in difficult circumstances, but also provide affirmation of their confidence and their ability to get through the challenges. Of course, managers may also be struggling and also need this same support from their managers – all the way up the line…….


Author: Rosemary Darby-Jenkins, Director, Signpost HR Solutions | [email protected]

Rosemary has over 30 years’ experience in HR for the private and public sectors and has run her own Dorset-based consultancy for the last 10 years. She and her team specialise in providing personalised, pragmatic advice on the full spectrum of HR issues as well as management skills training for people managers.

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