How to manage remotely in the Covid world of work

Neil Bradbrook

By Neil Bradbrook, MD of Falkirk-based business consultancy Ahead Business Consulting

COVID-19 has created mass uncertainty and panic. People are worried about their jobs, their health and their loved ones. Difficult times are when leaders should shine. But how do you lead remotely?

The pandemic has created a whole new set of problems for employees and managers, as well as leaders.

For employees, working from home will suit some better than others. If you have a home office, it’s potentially easier than sitting on the settee and working off your laptop. Or living in a flat-share with several housemates all trying to do the same thing. Video calls and emails are very transactional forms of communication. As humans we are social animals. Not having the kind of watercooler chat and contact with colleagues we enjoyed in the office can feel isolating, with spin-off wellbeing issues.

Managers are generally measured on productivity. They’re used to seeing their employees in the office, where they can watch what they’re doing. Take away the office, and managers can get anxious about what their staff are actually doing. Are they watching daytime telly or putting in the washing? Some managers might start micromanaging, which can be counter-productive.

Leading differently

The leaders trying to pull the whole business together are humans too. So they’re going through the same anxieties about change and uncertainty as everyone else. With the level of uncertainty around coronavirus, it’s difficult to set direction – because you don’t know what’s happening. And then there’s the challenge of finding a way to communicate all that effectively and get your ideas across.

To answer the question I started with, I think there are three key elements to leading remotely.

The first is about removing uncertainty. In my own experience as a business consultant, really effective leaders make some assumptions. They say: this is what we’re going to do. We’re not going to wait for something else to happen. We’re going to progress, to be proactive as a business and give people clear focus. It may be a short-term solution. But it’s something to focus on. A touch point.

The second key focus is addressing that social engagement gap. There were some great stories during lockdown of different approaches. Like setting up drop-in calls, not to talk about work, but just to see how people are doing, either individually or as a group. Some leaders sent personal thank you cards or parcels to people’s homes, to thank them for dealing with the hard times. Not forgetting those employees on furlough. Even if you can’t see people face to face, things like that can make quite a big difference.

Communication choices

Connected to this is the third key element – communication. Before Covid, email traffic was already climbing. But since lockdown, it’s gone off the scale. Suddenly, people are emailing everything to everyone. Trying to read it all is stressful and time-consuming.

Good leaders need to find the right ways of communicating the right information to the right people. A phone call or video call might be good for urgent “right now” information. But for stuff that can wait, email, shared workspaces or even a letter might be better.

My closing suggestion for leaders in the new Covid normal is about training. If you’re shutting offices and making a saving on your premises, don’t bank it. Invest it in training instead. Especially for those who are stepping up to be managers for the first time.

Giving some effective training to your managers will help them understand how to manage effectively – and work with your teams in this new remote world.