Remote Work Requires Different Management Skills

I’ve been arguing this for the last few years. I worked remotely before the pandemic, so I’ve seen what it looks like when a team is built remotely instead of being pushed into being remote by circumstances. Every time I see an article decrying the reasons why remote is bad for people, I come back to the same argument, that “thing” doesn’t have to exist in that way when you’re remote. The failure isn’t “remote working.” It’s in trying to do the same thing remotely that you did in the office. It’s a lack of imagination, an inability to view the world differently.

A recent discussion with the authors of Remote Works: Managing for Freedom, Flexibility, and Focus (Berrett-Koehler Publishers; February 7, 2023) gave us a good look at the areas where managers play the biggest role in determining whether remote working is successful. They identify the three non-negotiables:

  • Managers must lead with intentionality
  • Managers must build trust
  • Managers must respect employees’ autonomy

I’ll let you go to the article to read about those non-negotiables, but I agree. I think this is the real problem when it comes to bosses complaining about how remote isn’t a good option. They haven’t managed a remote team; they’ve been managing a team that works outside the office. There is a difference. You can’t just look around to see who’s working. (This was always a poor way of measuring success anyway and led to presenteeism, but I digress.) You can’t communicate once and assume everyone will eventually hear about it. You can’t have vague measures of success. You design a system that gives precise and intentional instructions with clear measurements, and you trust your employees to meet those measurements. You also have clear and consistent consequences when expectations aren’t met.

Too many managers haven’t been taught how to do this. Too many managers have not developed the skills to adjust to remote work. Too many workers haven’t been developed to adapt to remote work either. There are whole groups of people trying to do remote work with no direction or strategy being led by people who then decide that remote isn’t a good option for their company.

Organizations that understand the non-negotiables for successful remote work will have a considerable advantage in attracting talent in the future. I know which side of that divide I would want to be on.

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