How to manage people successfully from a distance

Hybrid working is here to stay, and that means new management tactics are needed

One thing's certain: It's been a year quite unlike any other for tech chiefs and their teams. From setting up remote working in days to transforming entire business models, IT departments have kept their organisations running from afar – and all the evidence suggests it's been a resounding success. 

So much so, in fact, that industry experts believe the post-COVID age will be characterised by a hybrid mix of home and office working. Employees in all sectors have got used to working from home – and the boon it provides in terms of flexibility and productivity – and they're not looking to return to their office desks, at least not permanently.

Fewer than one in ten workers wants to return to the office full-time when restrictions are eased, according to research from the University of Strathclyde and the University of Manchester. Almost three-quarters (78%) would prefer to work in the office for two days or less, while almost a third (31%) would prefer to not spend any time there at all.

Employers also believe there's no going back to how things were before the pandemic. Take Nitin Chaturvedi, chief digital and technology officer at KFC Global, who believes businesses will probably end up with a hybrid model, where employees are in the office for some of the week and at home for the remainder. "I think most people probably agree on that," he says.

The Chartered Institute of Personal Development (CIPD) reports that 40% of employers expect more than half their workforce to work regularly from home after the pandemic. That's quite a shift – prior to COVID-19 only 5% of the workforce worked mainly from home, according to the Office of National Statistics.

But if hybrid working is to become the new normal, how will CIOs manage their IT teams? What lessons have they learnt during the past 12 months and what does successful leadership from afar look like?

A change in culture

The CIPD research suggests the move to hybrid working will require a significant culture shift, with new ways of working and associated policies and practices. The good news, as the great work-from-home experiment moves to the operational phase, is that CIOs have learnt valuable lessons from supporting remote working during the past 12 months. 

Lily Haake, head of the CIO practice at recruiter Harvey Nash, says IT chiefs must focus on staff demands. Her firm's research suggests a quarter of digital leaders think the majority of employees will continue to work predominantly from home. CIOs will have to think very carefully about how they motivate their disparate workforce.

"One thing CIOs should be preparing for is how to ensure that people are engaged, rewarded and productive in a world where physical presence is just less important," says Haake, adding that tech chiefs must keep a careful eye on employee retention. 

The things that have traditionally tied workers to their employers, such as a short commute, have become irrelevant while working from home. If CIOs aren't careful, they could easily lose their top team members to rival organisations who are offering more money or perhaps a better employee experience, says Haake. 

"Finding ways to keep people motivated remotely is a minefield and people are striving to find the perfect solution," she says. "Honest communication and recognition are crucial. It's also really important to shout about what your people have achieved; make sure that they're recognised for the amazing things they do." 

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That's a sentiment that resonates with Laura Dawson, CIO at the London School of Economics, who believes empathy is a crucial element for motivation. She says successful leaders have remained open and accessible to anyone in their team during the pandemic – and they'll continue to use similar tactics to ensure remote workers feel connected.

James Maunder, CIO at private hospital The London Clinic, also believes it's important to focus on strong personal interactions. Executives who manage people successfully from a distance ensure they maintain human connections, which have a tendency to get lost when people don't bump into each other at the water cooler. 

That can mean setting ground rules for work, too: "If I see one of my team members repeatedly messaging me on a Sunday, for example, I will – with curiosity – explore why they feel they need to work on a Sunday," says Maunder.

A new approach to business

CIPD and Microsoft research suggests that the workday is often longer at home, with one in three (30%) UK employees working beyond their shift. The research suggests employees also miss meeting colleagues in person, with 65% saying it's what they miss most about the office. The conclusion from the research is that bosses must focus on worker wellbeing.

Thankfully, the most effective managers have learnt during the past year that leading from a distance requires a new engaged approach. Rob Doepel, partner at consultancy firm Ernst & Young, says traditional command and control tactics are unlikely to work in a world of work where your people are spread across a range of locations rather than the next desk.

"It's about having the power, confidence and trust in your teams to pull yourself back and give them space," says Doepel. "Trust the process, step back and think about what you can do as a coach and empower your team, and not switch back into, perhaps, a different way of leadership that we know is not as effective."

While leading from afar hasn't always been easy, the best managers have learnt during the past 12 months that empowering staff to make their own choices has produced big benefits. As Boots UK CIO Rich Corbridge suggests, tech chiefs have often had to give their staff leadership opportunities – with unexpected benefits. 

"We've moved people around into new roles," he says. "People who've never touched marketing before are now leading martech projects. We've got people who hadn't done real leadership roles that have been able to shine in such a way because of this environment and they're now leading big teams doing important work." 

Such forms of empowerment are promising. Just as there's now probably no return to the presenteeism of the past, there's also hopefully no return to the traditional command and control styles of leadership. The best leaders have gained the confidence to let employees set their own work agenda – and, in the long term, that should provide benefits for everyone.

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