How to manage in an increasingly diverse, remote and agile environment

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Written by Lyndon Wingrove on 12 August 2015

Although a lot of businesses have focused on creating an engaging, productive office culture to coax the best work out of employees, there are still a lot of people who would undoubtedly prefer to occasionally work from home. Avoiding the long commute is one of the reasons as well as the need to fit in the school run, while some just want to benefit from the quiet away from the office to be more focused.

Remote working is becoming much more prevalent in organisations throughout the UK, with greater demands for workplace flexibility made by employees across all industries. The working environment is becoming increasingly diverse and agile in terms of the way that we are starting to adapt our jobs to fit around our lives, rather than the other way around – for example, flexitime is a concept that has been widely accepted in the majority of industries.

Generational shift

It seems clear that remote working is the next step, and something that companies are going to have to increasingly offer in order to retain key employees and, crucially, attract new talent. The generational balance is now beginning to shift and millennials, who more than anyone else expect flexibility in their work practices, will start outnumbering the retiring Generation X and baby boomer workers.

According to a study by recruitment website Timewise Jobs, 46 per cent of UK workers would like the option of working flexibly, and this number will probably only rise as the years go by. However, according to the same study, only 6.2 per cent of job advertisements mention the possibility of flexible working.

Management challenges

Another study into remote working was commissioned by international workspace provider Regus, who canvassed 4,000 UK workers, revealed that one of the issues with workplaces accepting flexible working practices is the lack of effective productivity monitoring. There is that old school perception that if you are working at home you aren’t actually working.

Around half of senior managers believe that IT programmes should be used to monitor home workers in terms of work productivity and general activity. Close contact and regular communication is also considered extremely important. Of those surveyed, 84 per cent said that managers should hold face-to-face monthly meetings with remote workers to catch up, in addition to maintaining phone and email contact on a daily basis.

The same data also revealed that 68 per cent of managers would require training on successfully leading remote teams and employees. A common complaints of remote workers is that they don’t feel part of the company as much, and that they feel they are missing out on things by not being in the building.

To support this, training would be a sensible tack to take as there are key differences between managing a team where all the members work in the same office as opposed to potentially being scattered across the globe. For instance, this type of management requires more thought about the way you operate as a team and the way in which the individual members are motivated to foster a sense of engagement and team unity.

What needs to be developed?

How can managers develop the skills they need to successfully manage remote teams, though? Engagement and motivation, as we have already noted are key aspects of any remote manager’s job, and it’s difficult to achieve that sort of thing over Skype. The key responsibility should be to provide the team with the things they need in order to complete their tasks on time and to a high standard, so managers should concentrate on developing their ability to do so, even from miles away.

Ability to communicate clearly in non-face-to-face situations

Always be aware of the subtleties of conversation. There is no room for implication in remote working situations. It’s far easier to get meaning across in a face-to-face meeting rather than via email in order to ensure that everyone’s always clear about what they’re expected to do. At the very least, try to use communication programmes that employ webcams so you can read each other’s body language.

Ability to manage performance from a distance

The quality of a team’s performance hinges on a manager’s ability to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each of its members. You need to delegate to the right people in a way that encourages engagement and ownership of roles and tasks.

It will be tempting to micromanage, but try not to – team members need the freedom to choose their own path. Keep the focus on the outcomes, so they know what’s expected of them, and accept that your management role requires a slight step back out of necessity. Trust them to get the job done, and manage sensitively if they don’t – you’re there to enable, not intimidate.

Ability to foster team spirit and cohesion

It’s one thing creating team spirit and a smoothness of operation when everyone’s in the same room, but it’s quite another when they’re all working in separate locations. Make sure the wider organisation knows about their achievements and encourage them to talk to and support each other so they feel like a team and can trust each other, even if they’re on opposite sides of the world.

If anything, this is an area of business that will only evolve as new possibilities are uncovered. It’s entirely conceivable that we might one day deal with and work for companies, especially those of a smaller size, that don’t actually have “headquarters.” Instead they would just have employees working in disparate locations and connecting over the internet or in other ways.

For now, though, a strong focus on developing remote management skills in terms of communication, team spirit fostering and performance monitoring will see this form of working become more accepted within any organisation – the ever-growing influence of millennial employees will ensure there is always a demand for it, and senior figures will recognise just how effective it can be. 

About the author
Lyndon Wingrove is the Director of Capabilities and Consulting, Thales Learning & Development: