A Remote Workforce Presents Unique Challenges for Managers

The shift to remote work, whether full-time or part-time, has not only impacted workers, it’s required managers to adapt their styles, develop new skills, and overcome unique challenges.

Struggling with trust, adapting to new forms of communication, and finding a balance between providing too little and too much direction seems to be the top issues, according to recent studies.

In a Harvard Business Review survey and report, 40 percent of managers said they have low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely, and 38 percent believe remote workers typically perform worse than those in an office. Maintaining employee motivation was another top concern, as 41 percent of managers surveyed agreed with the statement, “I am skeptical as to whether remote workers can stay motivated in the long term.”

“When such doubts creep in, managers can start to develop an unreasonable expectation that those team members be available at all times, ultimately disrupting their work-home balance and causing more job stress,” the report says.

Avoiding Micromanaging

Managing remote workers with skepticism can often lead to micromanaging, which can increase stress levels and result in lower production. Twenty-one percent of workers in the survey agreed their manager constantly evaluated their work, with 11 percent agreeing that their supervisor “keeps very close tabs on me by frequent checking.” Of those reporting high levels of monitoring (more than four on a five-point scale), 49 percent said they were often or always anxious doing their job.

The “always-on” expectation can lead to burnout, especially with technology allowing instant communication at any time. A Tech Republic poll showed 27 percent of remote employees experience virtual-meeting burnout, known as “Zoom fatigue,” saying they are “trying to pay attention, but often zoning out.” Many said they spend more time in virtual meetings than they did with in-person meetings when they were in an office.

Randall S. Peterson, professor and academic director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School, says it’s crucial for managers to understand how their workers feel and to focus on the quality of the interpersonal relationships. The goal is to make employees feel connected and trusted. Instead of checking up on workers to “make sure they’re working,” a more productive approach for managers may be to check in to see how they can best support them.

Harvard Business Review’s Five Tips for Better Managing Remote Workers

  1. Start at the highest level possible. Key Point: “The managers who struggled with leading remote teams had low job autonomy and excessively controlling and low-trust bosses.”
  2. Provide practical and moral support for remote working within the organization.
    Key Point: “Ensuring workers have the equipment needed, providing resources to support staff wellbeing, allowing extra leave for workers if needed, and giving training to support flexible working.”
  3. Educate managers about the potential benefits of remote working—when it is designed well.
    Key Point: “If autonomy is low and micromanagement high because of managerial mistrust, benefits of remote work are unlikely to arise.”
  4. Train managers in how to devolve job autonomy and to check in rather than check up on.
    Key Point: “Frequent and regular communication is even more important when employees have autonomy. But rather than checking up on people as a way to micromanage them, managers need to check in with people and provide them the information, guidance, and support to work autonomously.”
  5. Train managers in how to manage by results. “When you give people the discretion to decide for themselves how and when they will work, it is important to assess whether they are delivering the results. Hence, managers need to put more focus on the outputs of the work than the inputs.”

Equipping Remote Workers to Succeed

Empowering remote workers with tools, tech support and training, while communicating positive messages were important factors for helping increase managers’ confidence. On-boarding remote and on-site employees, so they have the confidence to do their jobs effectively is key. Managers who cultivate employee wellbeing tend to convey a sense of connection and certainty, which is increasingly important in a time of uncertainty.

“It’s more important than ever for managers to ask whether people are getting their ABCs: their autonomy, belonging and competence,” Peterson says. “Leaders who don’t get that from their own boss will tend to overcompensate with the people they’re managing; they’ll micromanage, and that’s not helpful.”

Many companies expect to maintain at least some semblance of remote employee’s post-pandemic. Such a landscape likely will include a blend of telecommuting and face-to-face workers. Working from home was significantly on the rise since before 2020. Since 2005, regular remote work (not including self-employed individuals) has grown by 140 percent, according to Skip the Drive. According to Owl Labs State of Remote Work, 42 percent of remote workers plan to work remotely more often over the next five years.