I suspect that more than once over this last nine months, the people managers in our businesses have googled 'managing remote workers'. Most will have acquired their skills over time - often on the job and by watching others (good and bad). They have a collection of tools that they reach for when they need to get something done or have a problem to solve. But at the moment – when they the look for one, it does not fit – or it is blunt.

And that's a problem. The agreement between employer and employee is sometimes referred to as a ‘relationship’ contract. It is dynamic - so we don’t expect all of its terms to be written down. The ones we don’t put down on paper (the implied terms) are often about the way that we behave towards each other. Trust is one such term. It must be mutual - and without it, the contract will not survive.

The people managers in our organisations and businesses embody the relationship – and carry most of the responsibility for building trust. The relative freedom, empowerment and autonomy that is a by-product of remote working can result in greater commitment and development. But features of this new environment can also put relationships under pressure.

Many of the physical cues that our managers read and respond to in order to build trust are gone. They can’t see eyes over Zoom or Teams. They can’t read body language. They get ‘screen fatigue’ and resort to email when they know it would be better to speak. They don’t watch the aftermath of their exchanges. They may not see tears, or sense frustration – and if they do, they may not know how to respond. Worst of all, the warning signs of discontent that they might have witnessed in the office may now manifest themselves in ways that are harder to interpret such as ‘radio-silence’ or ‘cameras off’.

Employment Tribunal cases frequently involve fractured relationships and a consequent breakdown in trust. That is particularly true in constructive dismissal claims, but mistrust can also be a catalyst for discrimination allegations. Remote working may expose strained relationships or lead to damaging exchanges and misread signals. In the coming months we could see claims in which the pressure created by this environment has played a part.

To address this, we have to pinpoint what is new about managing people remotely – what is missing and what has changed. Then we must adapt.

Given the importance of personal relationships we must equip our managers with ways to create and sustain these in a virtual world. They may need to adjust their communication style. If they are not structured in their engagement with staff, they may need to create more. If they are a little inflexible, they may need to bend. And it is vital to find time to talk about more than work. The normal dynamics of human interaction are interrupted in video calls which then feel 'functional'. This makes personal connections harder to make.

They must rethink control. Employees may no longer be working in ‘their’ offices or at times that they dictate. And context is important. They might think it odd to ask a junior team member to provide a time to speak that suits that member – but that is now how it must be. It does not mean that the manager cannot ask for performance – it is just that they may need to put more effort into explaining instructions or set clearer timescales for delivery.

And of course they must reframe feedback and performance management. The employee who has been working remotely may not have picked up the signals that their work has not been up to scratch. Alternatively, they may have become convinced of their own inadequacy and a thoughtless remark could have a disproportionate impact. Instead, space and time must be taken to have carefully thought through and meaningful exchanges about strengths, weaknesses and ways to develop.

The irony is, of course, that we know all of this. It's just that someone has given us a new window in on it. So as we close the book on 2020 and move into a New Year, let's resolve to help our people managers look through it.


Joan Cradden