How managing teams is different in the remote era

Over two years since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the workplace, it has become clear that remote work is here to stay. However, managers have suddenly been burdened with maintaining the performance of team members in this new model, made more complex by the various combinations of working at home, at the office, or hybrid, usually across different time zones.  

Evidence suggests that many organisations and managers were unprepared for such a rapid and pervasive transition. A survey conducted by Harvard University during the pandemic found that 40% of respondent managers were not completely prepared to manage remote employees. In particular, the survey found that 41% of leaders struggled to keep their remote team members sufficiently engaged. 

As business leaders the world over experiment and adjust to a new kind of workplace, it is important to first understand how the imperatives of team management in a remote setting differ from that of the traditional office-based one. With these differences understood and appreciated, emerging good practices for managing remote teams can be adopted with more confidence.


Remote vs in-office: what’s the difference?

The distinction is important because post-pandemic, there will continue to be both types of companies: those that employ only in-office workers and those who have remote as well as hybrid workers. When setting their expectations from each type of team, managers must be aware of the context within each one operates.   



Perhaps the most obvious difference between remote and office workers is the frequency, relative ease, and modes of communication between colleagues as well as with managers. Communication in the office, done face-to-face, is more natural in the sense that non-verbal cues can aid the process, and team members can ‘connect’ with each other right away. However, the downside is the potential for frequent interruptions and distractions. By comparison, remote work depends entirely on communication technology, which in additions to technical issues, can sometimes lead to ambiguity and conflicting expectations. For instance, the lack of an immediate reply in a chat may not be willful, but due to the recipient being preoccupied with another task. 


Supervision and monitoring

Regardless of the working mode, managers need to ensure that their team members are working reasonably productively for the approximate length of time expected of them each day. In the office-based environment, monitoring is a combination of things. Managers can see team members and meet with them as needed to keep the work going, although this does not guarantee high productivity as well. With remote work, managers have a more difficult task in overseeing day-to-day operations, as employees could be “logged on” but not necessarily working as productively as expected. 


Workflow management 

A key difference between remote and office-based team members is how they are able to organise their routines and tasks. In remote settings, workers generally have a fair amount of flexibility. For instance, they can start working soon after waking up and get a chunk of work out of the way, the take a break for a few hours, and finish up later in the day or even evening. Office-based employees, by comparison, typically have to complete their work in one go (with shorter breaks) during set office hours. From a manager’s perspective, this means having to be more flexible and creative in delegating tasks, setting meetings, and following up in the former case.


Culture and bonding 

In terms of strategic impact on a company’s operations, even after the pandemic-induced remote transition, one of the biggest advantages of office-based working probably still is that employees get to be immersed in the organisation’s culture directly and continuously. This does make it a little easier for  employees to develop a sense of belonging to their team and the wider group of colleagues. This task is more complex and involved for remote team managers, where interaction is comparatively less organic, requiring them to be more thoughtful and active in generating camaraderie.


How remote managers should adapt  

With these distinctions clearly made, what approaches should remote managers employ to deliver better performance? While a lot of information and tools are available at the tactical level, such as remote workflow management and communications applications, it is more important to be clear on what strategies are more likely to be effective. 


Guide, don’t enforce

Many managers remain concerned about how to manage their team members when they are unable to see them. Perhaps for this reason, the so-called phenomenon of presenteeism, or the need to show facetime at work, is often incorrectly assumed to be necessary for productivity. However, research during the pandemic showed that workers could be just as productive without being monitored for time spent, or being physically present. On the other hand, what managers should realise is that employees respond better when their leaders shifted from managing time or activities, to overseeing results and outcomes. Good remote managers need to focus more on removing interpersonal and work barriers, coordinating amongst team members, and providing frequent coaching.  


Find the right balance

Managing remotely is a fine balance, and since the pandemic, leaders are more and more being accused of micromanagement and excessive oversight. On the other hand, insufficient monitoring may lead to a free-for-all team culture, which can lead to mission drift.  Managers in remote settings need to be more ‘present’, without being overbearing. This is more likely to  generate better business outcomes and increased employee engagement. More specifically, being present means being approachable, visible, and mindful while having frequent individual and team check-ins. Overall, it means being a trusted resource and mentor to employees who is available when needed. 


Ruthlessly prioritise 

In a remote work environment, managers need to place a strong emphasis on setting very clear priorities for their team members, along with an unambiguous assigning of responsibilities. With monitoring and supervision not as easily done as in the office, this becomes critical for successful remote management. Everyone in the team must understand what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and by whom. And of course, the required level of efficiency and expected quality of work outputs should be made as tangible as possible. Having regular progress review meetings at pre-determined times is a good way to keep things on track. 


Be flexible and responsive 

While an overall game plan for the entire team is essential, remote managers need to be agile problem solvers. This means setting up alert mechanisms in the team’s workflow for any potential problems as they crop up, and and protocols for timely fixes. In the remote or hybrid work environment, managers have to develop an ability to scan their team’s work constantly, quickly identifying vulnerabilities and obstacles. In doing so, the role of the manager is to provide support and help resolve the issue, but the employees still need to take ownership by escalating issues in a timely fashion. 


Be more human 

Finally, remote management hinges on making a bigger effort to provide regular emotion support to team members, and foster interpersonal trust. Because remote work lacks opportunities for spontaneous connection and interaction, they need to be created by managers. In this context, checking in with employees is critical, and not just for work purposes. Most employees view immediate supervisors as their only link with the company, and a sustained absence of the latter or infrequent interactions can generate anxiety. Therefore, informal catch-up meetings or events, both online and offline, can go a long way in creating a more comfortable and engaging team culture.

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