Why remote management requires flexible, trusting leadership

Supporting team members through the challenges of the coronavirus outbreak demands an empathetic approach from the top. Andy Ricketts reports

Working life for millions of people changed when the coronavirus lockdown first hit, leading to a huge rise in the number of employees working from home. This has included thousands of charity workers, many of whom will be working remotely for extended periods for the first time.

For managers, the remote situation creates additional challenges in terms of supporting people who are no longer sitting at nearby desks or in the room next door. How can bosses make sure they are getting the best out of their staff when they are unable to see what they are up to? And, practically speaking, what sort of approaches are best to take?

Flexibility

Bronwen Edwards, executive office manager at the Directory of Social Change, manages the training and publishing charity’s human resources function. She says it is important for managers to recognise that the current working climate is not business as usual but “business in a crisis”, meaning that working patterns will change.

To maintain a sense of community, the DSC holds daily calls with staff through the online meeting application Zoom. “All calls and meetings are visual,” says Edwards, “which works really well because it helps people feel part of a team and means you actually have to get dressed in the morning.”

As well as group calls she recommends weekly one-to-one meetings with staff to talk about how their work is going in the new environment, and more holistic issues such as how they are balancing work with care commitments, feeling lonely and so on.

“We check in with the team rather than check up on them,” she says. “Be flexible about everything: give space for people to get overwhelmed or upset. And if they’re feeling down, be empathetic. Everyone deals with change differently.”

Managers should be particularly aware of staff with caring responsibilities or those with young children, she says. “We ask staff to take some time away from their screens and, for example, sit in their gardens for their
own sanity.”

Trust

It is important for managers to keep up with staff and volunteers, but they should not be watching them too closely, according to Saeed Atcha, chief executive and founder of Youth Leads UK, a charity that runs development programmes for young people.

“You’ve got to have those regular catch-ups with people to keep them on task,” he says. “But there is a danger as a manager that you will unwillingly fall into micro-managing, so be mindful of that.”

It is important to keep deadlines and instructions as clear as possible, obvious though that might sound, but Atcha adds that staff might not be able to fulfil some tasks as promptly as usual. “You’ve also got to be understanding that things might not get done as quickly as they would in an office environment because of various things at home, such as childcare and so on,” he says.

Kristiana Wrixon, head of policy at the charity leaders body Acevo, stresses that managers should be looking to take individual approaches to supporting their employees.

“It is important that we all have access to emotional support and flexibility alongside technical and practical support,” she says.

“Everyone will have different needs and will be processing the crisis differently, so there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution for the sector or for organisations.”

Routine

Sarah McIntosh, director of people at the social enterprise Mental Health First Aid England, says simple steps such as encouraging people to get ready for work at the same time every day, or set up workspaces that are separate from sleeping areas, where possible, can make a practical difference to people who are working from home for extended periods.

Managers should also keep an eye out for staff who might overwork themselves and potentially burn out, she says.

“With a large number of team video calls and meetings at this time, it is important to remind people they need to switch off, disconnect from work and separate their personal time when working from home,” she says.

One of the most practical ways to achieve this is for managers to lead by example by balancing their own work and ensuring people know they can step away. They could also keep an eye on the timestamps on emails sent by staff and consider checking if they are OK or why they are still online.

“People might just be taking advantage of the flexible hours, but be proactive in ensuring people are not drowning in their workloads,” says McIntosh.

Contact

A number of charities have taken advantage of the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme since the measure was introduced, but what can managers do to support furloughed workers?

Some spoken to for this article emphasise the importance of keeping in regular contact with employees that have been put on furlough, as long as they do not end up providing services for the organisation, which would breach government rules.

McIntosh says managers should communicate business priorities if furloughed staff have indicated they want to remain in the loop on company business. “It will ensure they keep up to date and don’t feel left out, as well as providing reassurance in a fast-changing and uncertain situation,” she says.

The DSC has furloughed just over half of its 33 staff. Edwards recommends weekly Zoom meetings with furloughed staff to show them that they are still part of the organisation, although this must not be compulsory. Other measures might include WhatsApp groups for sharing jokes or competitions, having virtual drinks and ensuring people know they are missed and how hard people are working to enable them to return.

“The final thing is to remember that everyone is human,” says Edwards. “Most of the furloughed staff are desperate to get back to work, and a minority of the non-furloughed people might feel that their furloughed colleagues got the better end of the stick.

“It’s just important to be understanding and recognise that everyone is dealing with a situation we could never have imagined.”

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