Agnes Uhereczky is a consultant, podcaster and workplace transformer. She is the co-founder of the WorkLife HUB.
Managing a team, being responsible for their effectiveness, the wellbeing of the members, setting clear expectations, and communicating with ease, all the while having to report to senior leadership is not easy under the best of circumstances. The past decade has brought particularly new challenges to the art of management, with an increasingly diversified workforce, new technologies, and the digitalization of work, as well as the introduction of flexible working arrangements.
Even the most skilled and experienced, or the most popular team-leaders were put strongly to the test in the past few months, having to ensure business continuity and team performance, as well as a heightened focus on employee wellbeing, while navigating their team through a global pandemic - one with no end in sight.
The decisions to ask (or perhaps require) employees to stay home and start working from home had to be taken overnight, and millions of workers worldwide were plunged into the largest teleworking experience the world has ever seen. So as employees were setting up their home-offices, or at least trying to carve out some space for their work in the family living room or the kitchen table, the pressures on management increased tenfold. Some were coping brilliantly, showing true leadership and reassuring employees, however many were struggling themselves to find the right amount of communication (with the spectrum ranging from ghosting to hourly phone-calls) and providing the right kind of support to employees, who themselves were coping with heightened stress, childcare and home-schooling at the same time as work was expected from them.
So what have we learned about the kind of skills and competencies that managers have or don’t have, which are absolutely essential in situations like these? And what can we take away going forward, as at least part-time remote working will be the norm for the next few years?
One of the issues employees were really struggling with was fitting everything into the day, while also not being able to go anywhere. With schools closed, employees, particularly mothers and single mothers had to manage their paid work, caring for their children, cooking meals, and also either entertain smaller children or manage the school tasks for bigger children. Competent and talented engineers, programmers, researchers, marketing experts, bankers now found themselves floundering through the days, with their work pressure remaining the same.
For 7 out of 10 employees their tasks have not been reduced as a temporary measure, and for 18% of employees, the tasks have actually been increased.
"There are too many expectations: that work will continue without delays even in the absence of tools, information and interactions, that parents will be able to take on home schooling children at the same time, that people will assume full caregiving of their family members who need it without ongoing supports, all at the same time with substantially reduced resources and supports."
Management by Result is key to a successful remote working arrangement. In order to do this, employers and team-leaders have to know what tasks their employees are working on, and how long these tasks will take to complete. Having an understanding of the fact that completing the tasks employees are expected to do while working from home with children around, and this during a pandemic, is unrealistic is the foundation of managing performance under such conditions. Agreeing with employees on the tasks they need to complete by a specific deadline, and then leaving them the autonomy to do the task when, where and how they best see fit is the fundamental commandment of teleworking. Unfortunately, for many managers, who run teams based on presence and working time, rather than outcomes, this is a challenge.
"I'm afraid I'll get fired because my employer doesn't see me working and doesn't understand how important my job is."
Working hours and flexibility
When asked, respondents to the survey unanimously agreed that the biggest support they did receive or could have received from their direct supervisor was more flexibility in terms of working hours. Employees working from home were especially struggling with availability. Even if their managers would expect them to be available uninterrupted during the official “office hours”, this is not feasible with other family members at home, particularly children, elderly or other people needing care.
In terms of the total number of hours worked, for almost half of the employees working hours stayed the same, with working hours having increased for a quarter of the respondents. The increase in working hours can be partially explained by employees having to work on and master new digital tools, and this may have been more time-consuming, particularly in the beginning.
"I am blessed to have such a flexible employer who really cares about my wellbeing and mental health and let me adjust my woking hours. In the end what matters is that the job is done."
The situation also required great flexibility from organizations to adapt to the changing reality and the changing needs of employees as the lockdowns and the pandemic persisted. As the days and weeks went on, it became clear that the inadequate ergonomics of the work set-up at home started to impact employees, with an increase in neck and shoulder pains and other musculoskeletal symptoms. Some organizations, therefore, started to either allow employees to borrow chairs and other equipment from the office, which was delivered to them, or gave an allowance for employees to purchase adequate office chairs and other tools.
“I would say that each week of confinement has been very different - and my needs vis-a-vis the employer have changed correspondingly. Flexibility and a certain level of ´accommodation´ were my needs at the start. Now that we know its for the long-haul, I would rather have a straightforward acknowledgment that I cannot and am not expected to do my job like before. I will burn out otherwise. My partner feels the same vis-a-vis his employer. And, I rather feel like I should be grateful for this additional time with my son, and not stressing about how to do my job imperfectly.”
Managers and employers were offering a range of support to employees having to work from home. These included the following, in the order of their frequency:
- Autonomy as to when and how they were getting their job done from home (56%)
- Being available to be contacted any time by staff members (55%)
- Mental health and wellbeing support (27%)
- Training on the technology and digital tools that employees were using (25%)
- Clear guidance to employees on how to do their jobs from home (23%)
- A fair distribution of tasks among team members (12%)
- Coaching (11%)
Unfortunately, even under these circumstances, 20% of employees working from home haven’t received any kind of support from their employer or manager. Either because the organization hasn’t had teleworking before the COVID-19 pandemic, or because managers didn’t have the necessary skills and confidence to engage with remote workers effectively.
"This experience of working from home has been more negative as in the past because my current company is not used to working from home and didn't have any processes in place so it took a fair bit of time for them to adjust."
When you are at home, the last thing you want is for someone to barge in on you, while you are comfortable on your couch in your sweatpants and unkempt hair. Home is where we relax, where we let down our guard, where we are embracing our non-professional selves.
Work has however done exactly that during the pandemic, it has invaded this space and the two worlds of work and private have collided as never before. We have all been on zoom video calls with children in the background (or front and center even), dogs barking, someone cooking a meal.. and through these moments we have revealed a lot of our personal lives to our colleagues. The antidote to these awkward situations is planning and predictability. There needs to be an open and constructive dialogue between employees and their direct supervisors about the times and methods they can be reached during the workday, and these requests have to be honoured. These may be either during the nap-time of babies or during the iPad/screen-time of older children, early in the morning or in the evening if that’s what works. Everyone is different and in different situations.
Lessons learned for managers
When asked, what employees would have liked to receive from their direct supervisors, one of the most frequently given answer was: understanding. And this is where the challenge of equipping managers with the skills and the confidence to manage remote teams comes into play: how do you empower or teach them to show vulnerability and venture into an emotional realm they have perhaps steered clear of until now. When employees are anxious, surrounded by uncertainty, and having to cope with the monumental task of childcare and homeschooling, the most effective leadership tool is empathy.
“I really hope that companies will see that working at home can work and that, when we are back in the office, that there would be more flexibility and choice about working at home and in the office. We need to learn from this and not return to how it was.”
The pandemic is unfortunately not going away any time soon. Organizations will have to settle into a routine of switching between confinement and de-confinement and allow or even mandate their employees to work from home at least part-time. The skill of managing a remote workforce is going to be essential for team-leaders, managers and supervisors. We have developed a "7 Key Ingredients Framework for managing remote teams effectively", which we use to train managers. Have a look here how we supported UN Women during the pandemic and delivered the training to 80 managers across their global offices. If you are interested in learning more about how we can help you develop your managers and turn them into remote work champions, we would love to hear from you.