Out of sight: how to manage remote teams

Managing remote teams demands new skills
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Managing people remotely for any length of time takes leaders out of their comfort zones and puts the onus on them to learn a new set of tools, argues Esther Langdon.

Never has effective leadership and people management been more integral to a business’s success than in the challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Almost overnight, working from home has become normal for many. Against the backdrop of the global health crisis, managers have had to adjust quickly to new ways of managing their teams.

Several months from the start of the pandemic, the change in dynamic between managers and teams brought out by Covid-19 seems clear. Good managers are on top of the need to foster relationships and trust with their teams in new ways, with the emphasis on staying in touch, effective communication and working positively with the changes to the work/life dividing line brought about by these unusual times. Risks to employee wellbeing, and to employee engagement levels, are generally on managers’ radars, and it feels as though we have all adapted pretty quickly to the new world of virtual meetings, coffees and drinks.

As the country feels its way, cautiously, out of the restrictions, we see businesses moving from the firefighting stage towards new ways of working that are more sustainable in the mid to long term. This shines the spotlight on the whole range of skills and knowledge that managers need in order to manage a disparate and remote workforce effectively and to make sure the business is protected. Making sure their employees are supported and engaged is critical, but so too is dealing with the difficult HR issues as and when they arise. Now is a good time for HR to consider if managers are supported both to spot and handle some of the more thorny issues which will inevitably arise in the new normal.

Managers, especially those new to the role or whose role has suddenly expanded to include a more pastoral element or who feel they are operating more solo in these times, may need reminding that just because many of us are working more remotely does not mean that the usual principles of management do not apply. Any employment claims arising out of the current circumstances will not find their way to employment tribunal for some time, until after the rawness of lockdown has begun to fade from the collective memory and employers can expect to be held to the same standards as before.

Managers need to ensure they have access to the right information about their team members. This is the first step to handling many employment issues, for example stalling employee grievances before they escalate, spotting a disgruntled or disruptive employee or supporting with mental health issues and burnout at an early stage. Pulse surveys, regular check-ins, remote mentoring and buddying systems all play a part in this. More fundamentally, managers need to be armed with a working knowledge of the employment law and HR issues involved, and the options open to them. They need to know what kind of information should set their alarm bells ringing and why, when to get HR support, what polices and processes might be triggered and how things could play out if concerns are left unaddressed.

Performance and capability management issues are a good example of employees being out of sight must not be out of mind when it comes to remote management. It is easy to sympathise with the manager who is juggling myriad demands and who does not feel that performance management is at the top of their agenda, or who feels that it will be more trouble than it is worth to raise any issues with employees already at the end of their tether.

However, some time now thinking through what performance management should look like in the world of remote working, and making sure that managers have the tools to deal with any concerns promptly, could be well spent and help both manage expectations and nip issues in the bud. For example:

  • Getting back to basics, what does good performance look like in the new way we are working? What parameters have been set around homeworking? What are the objectives/metrics to assess performance and do they make sense in the new reality, especially with people working from home and facing disruption on many levels? Do employees understand what is expected of them? Are changes to formal policies or performance improvement plans needed?
  • Do employees know how to raise concerns or suggest improvements? Can they talk to someone other than their manager if this would help?
  • Do managers know how to spot and handle any performance or conduct issues even while employees are working remotely? In particular, how will managers replace the informal coffee which can often pre-empt work issues escalating?
  • Are managers equipped with the knowledge and the tools to deal with tricky issues without letting them slide and do they know how to have difficult conversations?
  • Have managers had the right training – for example, conducting disciplinary proceedings, equal opportunities, anti-harassment and bullying, unconscious bias, speak up/whistleblowing, managing sickness and so on.
  • Personal information – do managers understand their obligations when processing personal data, and do they understand the business’ obligations in response to subject access requests and litigation disclosure?
  • How does HR support and partner managers, both regularly and in sensitive issues?
  • Making sure managers have the knowledge to spot potential HR issues and the confidence to address them proactively should pay dividends in increasing employee engagement and retention and also reducing the risk of disputes and litigation.
Esther Langdon

About Esther Langdon

Esther Langdon is an employment lawyer at international law firm Vedder Price
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