The “remote manager”, weak link in remote work

When talking about remote work, the focus is always on the employee. Will he be able to do it? Can he be trusted? But what about the manager? There is often a presumption of capacity for remote work based on status instead of actual capacity, which means that the question is almost never asked. But we can bet that the end of the current period of confinement that has forced remote work will lift the veil on some inconvenient truths.

Working is one thing, managing is another.

We have already reviewed the main uses of remote work, and to say the least, it is anything but simple. A simplistic view would be to say that it is like working and collaborating at the office, with the added dimension of distance.

Firstly, because it is based on the principle that one works and collaborates well at the office and that one just has to learn to manage distance. This is generally not true and the experience of remote work proves it almost systematically: distance highlights all the dysfunctions of a system that works well locally but only apparently. We know how to act alone, we know how to act vaguely together, we coordinate with difficulty, we decide badly with several people and we are incapable of being collectively creative.

One of the reasons for this is that from a distance the employee quickly loses many of his senses and information channels. He has only the necessary information, not the useful information that circulates offline, which is non-verbal (55% of communication is non-verbal) and thus loses many contextual elements about his work, his projects but also his colleagues, his team, his company. Loss of useful context at work from a purely operational point of view, but also loss of context in relation to others, which causes the collective to disintegrate, people to isolate themselves even unconsciously, people to dress up less and exchanges to become of poorer quality, links to become distorted….

In such a context, if working is difficult, imagine the challenge faced by managers. Because they need the context for two reasons: both for the operational dimension but to take care of both the individual and the group, and this is even more so when one is in a logic of remote work that is not chosen and is forced.

And managerial practice is like all business practices: distance exposes all its shortcomings.

Command & control does not work remotely

This has already been mentioned a little while ago, but management in “command & control” mode does not survive the test of distance. Remote work calls for an in-depth re-examination of the issue of performance management in the light of the adoption of a results-based culture. But there’s even more.

How can we remotely retrieve all the weak signals that make us understand how each individual and the group is doing? What he needs? What he is facing?

How to make the managerial relationship between him and each one live? Between him and the group?

How to make the group live together?

Once you’ve lost all the “off” signals that circulate in the corridors, in the open space, at the coffee machine, once you’ve lost the non-verbal, once all the useful but unnecessary moments have disappeared, how do you play your role as a manager?

The manager : a disabled person in distant relationships

Because all these things existed when we were in the office. All the manager had to do was pick them up, use them and not have to organize anything. If he added his touch, created other channels, other times it was even better. But more often than not, what was there was more than enough for him, he took it for granted and used only half of it. But as this little world lived together all the time, the gaps were less visible and less critical. There was always a way to make up for it at the last minute and, above all, to make sure that the alerts were not seen and did not go any higher.

From a distance everything is exponential. The speed at which one isolates oneself, disengages, the speed at which the collective disintegrates. Feeling down becomes lasting blues, lasting blues become breakdowns, the need to talk to someone turns into psychological distress.

Moreover, the manager who only practises management by presence “exists” for his teams if he is not useful to them. They see him even if he is only content to control the finished work and are obsessed with reporting. At worst, they can exchange two words at the coffee machine. From a distance they no longer see him. If he can’t put quality into the operational exchanges or worse if he reduces these exchanges to the strict minimum and doesn’t create any other moments he will simply be considered absent. A non-existent manager. I’ll let you guess what happens next in terms of hiring, departures, etc.

And to deal with that, the manager is a disabled person. It’s not a criticism, it’s just the most appropriate qualifier for a person who has lost the use of 3 of his 5 senses, or even all 5. It’s the qualifier for a person whose mental software (command & control) is no longer adapted to the situation (lead and help).

The current period will be reviewed in due course, but it will be instructive for companies that did not have a sufficient culture and practice of remote work before the containment period. And it is safe to say that if there have been operational malfunctions, most of the damage will have been caused by managerial shortcomings. And I don’t think that at such a critical period companies are winning out by recovering demotivated, disengaged employees, people who have felt abandoned, forgotten, excluded and who have only had reportings and whiplashes with their managers…if they had any.

But we will have the opportunity to go into the “human” lessons to be learned from this episode later because it deserves a long analysis and I am not sure that companies are really aware of the extent of what is happening, of what will happen, or even that they will not see it when they have it in front of them.

The irresponsible manager in a remote work situation

So once again it’s all the manager’s fault, as is often the case in business. Well, it’s not. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and declare him irresponsible, as he cannot be held responsible for a situation he did not create.

As I often say, remote work is more than an HR gadget but a production system that is an integral part of a survival plan in case of crisis. As such, it is a bit like fire drills: if you don’t practice regularly, you won’t know what to do when you need it.

Today the practice of remote work in France (but not only) is not regular and significant enough for employees to take their bearings. And it’s worse for managers.

The question of “remote leadership” or digital “leadership” has never been explored by businesses. Which postures? How to give them substance through the communication channels available to us?

When a minimum of reflection took place on the subject it never went very far because one could cope with the flaws of the current model…as long as distance was the exception.

I am not aware of any recruitment or promotion process that evaluates a manager’s ability to play their role in a widespread remote work context…in fact little attention is even paid to whether or not they are able to play this role in the office or not. There is too much of a tendency to believe that business expertise + a job title magically make a manager just by magic, that these “soft skills” are natural and happen as soon as you give someone a job title.

So knowing that shouldn’t complain about the result or blame the manager when it comes to the drama experienced by some remote teams.

However, the question that now arises is whether the ability to manage remotely will now be formalized and integrated into the recruitment and training of managers. Indeed, the extreme cases in terms of their intensity and extent that will be observed when leaving confinement will only help to realize a problem that exists in daily life at a distance as in the office but whose critical nature has never been measured or accepted.

Once again, employee or manager, the ability to remote work should never be presumed. It must be measured and, if necessary, assisted. However, it must be borne in mind that the company’s weak point in remote work, its main risk, lies less in the employee than in the manager.

Photo : remote manager par alphaspirit via Shutterstock

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
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