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8 qualities of effective remote managers

Written by Corinne Curtis on 16 November 2021

While the full effects of the pandemic are yet to play out, what is clear is that employers are expecting to have a more dispersed workforce in future. This will inevitably create new and diverse changes – and present new challenges – in how teams are managed.

Indeed, the role of people managers has evolved in the last two years. With less visibility over their teams, coupled with the fact that employees’ needs, desires and expectations of the workplace have changed, a new breed of managers will be required.

So what qualities must remote managers possess? And how can the organisation support managers to ensure their success in the new world of work?

Quality 1: Wellbeing-focused

Wellbeing is a top consideration in any conversation regarding dispersed teams. There are different schools of thought with regards to wellbeing, and some managers and senior leaders still have a “what’s that got to do with work?” mindset. However, there’s growing consensus that the more productive the workforce, the better the outcomes for the organisation, and those who prioritise wellbeing are likely to see cultural benefits as a result.

The impact of lockdown on people’s mental health is well documented, and while that may be changing for some as the world opens up, people are individuals, with different needs, preferences and styles of working. The majority of people may want flexibility, but there may be others who don’t. On both sides, the effect on mental health may be significant and it will be harder to spot when people are struggling; it’s therefore important that managers know and keep a close eye on their teams and keep the impact on employees in mind when making longer-term decisions.

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Quality 2: Trusting

Undoubtedly, managing dispersed teams requires an element of trust. With less visibility over what employees are spending their time on, managers need to trust that employees are working as they should – and individuals want to feel trusted and empowered.

This is an exciting – if slightly scary for some – opportunity to move away from micromanagement and develop a culture of autonomy, but managers must get comfortable with this. Reassuringly, research suggests that productivity increases with homeworking because people can work in a way that best suits them. As such, being less concerned with when and how people work and instead more output-focused is likely to set organisations apart in this new world of work; if managers have reservations about relinquishing control, use your policies to establish your expectations and set out how you will monitor and manage performance.

If it becomes evident that flexibility is having a negative impact – for example, people are not available, or productivity drops – then this would become a performance matter, the same as with ‘traditional’ working arrangements.

Quality 3: Models positive behaviours

Employees become disillusioned when managers’ words and actions don’t align, so it’s important that people leaders practise what they preach. Is there consistency between managers’ messages and what’s really happening? If not, this is a common catalyst for grievances.

Particularly relevant in the world of remote work, do managers talk about the importance of wellbeing and switching off but then send emails out of hours, leaving employees feeling pressured to respond? (Tip: there may be conversation to be had from a cultural point of view about how managers can best manage these situations and support employee wellbeing in a way that doesn’t send mixed messages and therefore damage trust and relationships. This could be as simple as adding a line to email signatures to say you don’t expect a response until the morning).

Similarly, if managers encourage people to get outside at lunchtime now it’s getting dark earlier, do they do this themselves, and do they talk about it so that it’s visible to others? (Tip: put it in your diary!)

Remember, it’s in a manager’s gift to model the behaviours and culture you want to set.

Quality 4: Open and available

Obviously, being physically present makes it easier to grab opportunities for a quick check-in or for employees to raise questions or concerns. In the world of remote work, employees now have to pre-plan time with managers, which can be a cause of frustration. It’s therefore important that employees can see managers’ availability and that managers keep on top of their diaries to ensure they still have time for their team between countless other Teams meetings, perhaps blocking out a portion of their day for drop-ins.

Additionally, to create a culture of openness, it can be helpful for managers to encourage open discussions and share their own experiences to develop trust.

Quality 5: A good communicator

The importance of regular and appropriate communication becomes more relevant in a more dispersed and diverse team. A manager may be great at corridor chats, but if people are not in the same room at the same time, body language clues are lost. Even on video calls, you may not see the full picture. 

Instead, managers must become skilled in written communication across channels like Teams, email and text. Messages can be misinterpreted or perceived in a tone that wasn’t intended. Likewise, depending on how the team work, it’s possible that messages will not be received by everyone at the same time. This may call for additional communications training in how to devise comms, plan who needs to be told what, and appropriate methods of communication.

As an organisation, you may want to set expectations that certain conversations can be had over Teams, but others must take place in person.

Quality 6: High emotional intelligence

Managers’ EQ skills may also need fine-tuning. With less visual cues, the ability to read between the lines and pick up on small parts of conversations becomes more important, particularly if you’re not big on video conferencing. 

In an office environment, not turning up to work on time, appearing unwell or changes in how someone interacts with colleagues are overt signs that something may be wrong. Now, managers must become more attuned to subtle changes to ensure their team are best managed and supported. Of course, managers need to know their team to spot when things change, which goes back to the importance of wellbeing, communication and openness.

In terms of your cultural direction of travel, this might prompt you to consider a number of questions: how often you expect people to attend the office or meet face to face with their manager? Do you implement a ‘cameras on’ policy for certain meetings? Do your policies and practices need updating?  All of these things will help ensure managers don’t lose sight of how their teams are operating.

Quality 7: Sets expectations

With dispersed teams, establishing clear expectations is key. Whether setting performance objectives or communicating policy changes and how they will be enforced, employees need to know where they stand. 

Some managers are skilled at this; others assume people just know. Particularly in times of change, managers (as well as organisational policies) must be clear and consistent, as working without defined goals or being kept in the dark about what’s going on can be anxiety-inducing, and make situations harder to manage fairly.

Quality 8: Skilled in performance management

This also leads on to managers’ role in performance management. With remote teams, managers can lose some visibility over performance. For some roles, there may be obvious management information: invoices are paid, key project milestones are met. For others, it’s only when things are missed that performance issues become apparent.

Managers should have the systems in place to evidence performance outcomes and the confidence and competence to address concerns if they arise.

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