Why management styles have to adapt for remote working

Video meetings to “touch base” can be distractions. Photo: Shutterstock

Widespread working from home is creating an imperative for teams to review and adopt different management styles. Paida Dube examines how not adapting might risk legal complaints.

Effective remote working requires employers to adjust more than just working processes. How teams are led and managed when staff are working from home is highly influential in nurturing workforce performance and positive morale. Getting this wrong risks employee discord and workplace disputes.

Most organisations will have in place a general flexible working policy, developed largely for piecemeal adoption. However, as the pandemic persists, and as many workers become increasingly expectant of such flexibility, working from home, especially in relation to office jobs, now demands longer term consideration from employers.

This includes not only practical concerns such as working hours and remuneration, it also extends to how people are managed.

For some managers, particularly those only experienced in leading teams from close proximity, remote management can be unchartered territory. Consequently, more traditional management styles, when used with a remote workforce, are becoming a growing source of employee complaints for bullying and harassment.

In addition to a lack of experience in remote management, given current economic challenges, some managers may also be concerned about the future viability of their own jobs. These anxieties can filter through into toxic management behaviours when dealing with employees working from home.

Examples of potentially problematic remote management styles include:

Excessive monitoring

There is a fine line between keeping in touch with employees and ensuring they are supported and working efficiently, and micro-managing them through multiple check-in daily calls or excessive remote monitoring. An overly-attentive management style can have a negative impact on those being managed, leaving employees feeling stifled, to the detriment of performance and morale.

Unrealistic expectations

Any assumption that an employee’s output should be higher since they are working from home and do not have to commute, is likely in many cases to be unrealistic.

Under normal circumstances, employees often take the option to work from home due to other commitments, such as childcare or caring for elderly parents. The impact of Covid-19 has meant that employees have in most cases been juggling working from home with childcare or other carer responsibilities. So while such workers may not have the time drain of a commute, other demands placed on them while working from home have, in all likelihood, increased.

This can result in an employee feeling relentlessly pressured, and that there aren’t enough hours in the day. In some cases, employees may log on outside normal working hours, for example while their children are in bed, to keep up with their workload – leading to longer working hours. This, if left unchecked or reviewed, can have a negative impact on the employee’s health, morale and work-life balance. There needs to be a line of communication that is always open between the employer and the employee.

Trust

Reluctance on the part of employers to adopt home working can often stem from mistrust of certain workers to perform their role as required when working remotely. This then results in employees feeling that the constant emails for updates and scheduling of video meetings to “touch base” are distractions and take time away from doing their actual work. Adopting a management style that is based on mistrust is likely to build employee anxiety and disgruntlement.

Health and safety

Some managers fail to grasp fully their obligations under health and safety laws and regulations. An employer’s health and safety duties do not only apply to ensuring that the employee is working in a safe environment, they also extend to consideration of their mental health and wellbeing.

Management teams are under a legal duty to be aware of employee health and safety concerns, and to be observant to certain cues an individual may display to demonstrate they are struggling with the new arrangements. For some employees, for example, adjusting to remote working can be challenging if they live alone and their former working environment provided a level of social interaction.

Active listening should be adopted by line managers where the employee appears to be struggling with pressures within the home setting.

Reasonable adjustments

In addition to general health and safety obligations, employers are under specific duties in respect of employees who are classed as disabled and those who the employer suspects could fall into that category.

It is important for managers to be aware that reasonable adjustments will be extended to periods of working from home. This may require further assessments and the provision of specialist equipment such as a bespoke chair or a standing desk.

The key aspect is that employers should take additional care and precautions to ensure that reasonable adjustments are made to protect the employee, and also to mitigate any potential claims that may arise as a result of an employee arguing they have failed to comply with their duty of care.

Outputs vs outcomes

Traditionally employers have focused on working hours as a demonstration of the employee performing ‘work’. This longstanding commercial mentality may become problematic where remote working pervades and managers struggle to maintain supervision and oversight through existing management methods. It is for employers to reimagine their approach to measuring work while fostering positive employee relations and optimising performance.

Where issues are raised in relation to management behaviours, such as bullying or harassment complaints, the employer is obliged to investigate and in doing so follow the Acas Code of Practice. Grievances will normally be the first step in trying to mitigate the risk of any potential claims and should allow the employer to rectify issues before they escalate.

Where such a complaint is not dealt with adequately, it can potentially result in the employee seeking constructive dismissal. If an automatically unfair reason applies, the employee will not be required to meet the qualifying period of two years to bring a constructive dismissal claim.

Given the potential for complaints, employers should, as a minimum, consider training and support for managers on adapting to the new, remote normal.

While the pandemic has instigated transformation in traditional business operations at scale and pace, this can only be sustained through new and more flexible approaches to working dynamics and people management styles. As remote working looks to become a long-term feature of work, it’s an area of legal risk employers cannot afford to overlook.

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Paida Dube

About Paida Dube

Paida Dube is an employment law solicitor at DavidsonMorris, with specialist experience in workforce management issues, redundancies, settlement agreements and defending unfair dismissal tribunal claims.
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