Upward management is the process of “managing your manager”, or, put another way, of making sure your manager knows how you are progressing your workload, and understands your needs as a worker and as a person.
Upward management is essential for ensuring your workload is appropriate to your skillset. It's also helps provide the right support for long term career development and making sure your manager is able – and willing – to provide the right wellbeing and personal support.
This style of management is a facet of the modern workplace that was always developed with face-to-face meetings in mind. Informal situations, such as a chance meeting in the office kitchen and a chat about how it is going with X, Y or Z – which could be personal or work related – provide an excellent opportunity for the worker to give information to their manager, such as a quick update on project progress or support needs.
This kind of one-to-one interaction is lost when remote working is the norm. There are no serendipitous “water cooler moments” in a remote workgroup. But that does not mean the end of upward management. It just means that both the manager and their direct report need to be more aware of different techniques and how to employ them.
Making remote upward management work
Strategies for direct reports
Managers will be adopting different techniques to their own day to day duties and staff management roles, and will themselves be managed. Taking some of the more mundane strain from your manager will be appreciated, and put the worker in a good light.
Things like providing regular updates on how a project is going, highlighting possible future snags, offering solutions, and suggesting next actions will help the manager keep up to date without them having to chase for information. There is also nothing wrong with mentioning notable successes, too.
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Remote work places a strain on communication, particularly when it comes to personal topics. Direct reports should make an effort to share personal updates when appropriate. Letting a manager know you had a great family weekend, or cooked a lovely meal for friends, celebrated a big birthday, went to a really good gig, brings out your humanity.
This is the type of interaction that might happen prior to a formal in-person meeting or in a fleeting chat in the office, that’s easily lost when working remotely. It can be particularly useful to start a one-to-one with this kind of personal interaction.
Direct reports should also make an effort to help managers understand the everyday dynamics of how work is going. Those chance meetings, or the situations where managers can “walk the floor” and observe a worker’s mood and wider interactions across the team are gone. This reduces the number of cues a manager can work with to help them ask the right questions about work pressures or causes of stress.
Workers should not underestimate the power of these once in-person interactions, and they may need to provide more context or be more proactive in conversations with their managers as a result.
Give more feedback, but think strategically. When managers ask for feedback in formal team meetings or one to one sessions, consider the approach taken carefully. It is fine to disagree with an approach or an idea, and important to be constructive about this, bringing forward suggestions or fresh ideas. Feedback opportunities are a time to shine, but can also be a time when workers can diminish their personal stock by coming across as blockers or negative.
Strategies for managers
Managers need to be appear approachable outside of the formal meetings structure. Remote work increases the reliance on 'quick chats', and it's important the manager is available as much as possible. While the chat might not happen as quickly as a chance meeting in the office kitchen would, managers need to set more time aside for what would otherwise be chance encounters, such as a few words across a desk or a chatting outside a meeting room.
When these chats do take place, managers can adopt a less formal approach to the conversation – and style them as chats rather than meetings. Video conferencing can help these chats go well, as those all-important non-verbal cues from both the manager and their direct reports can be more apparent than in a voice call. In addition to these ad-hoc chats, scheduled meetings without a set agenda, or with a freeform opening section, can allow conversion about both work and personal topics to flow freely.
Allow direct reports to take the initiative and make decisions. It can be tempting to micro-manage when a team is working remotely, and day-to-day interaction is more formalised than it is in an in-person office. But micro-managing can leave workers feeling stifled.
Finding the mix between allowing direct reports to upwardly manage and providing oversight will give them a better sense of control over their work and career progression.
Strategies for HR
It's critical that HR departments educate both managers and their direct reports about the various strains and conflicts that remote working can have on upward management.
Managers need to be trained to handle upward management in a remote work setting, as simply lifting and shifting their strategies from an in-person environment may not be enough. This support could also include setting up some peer-to-peer mentoring for managers, especially those new to a managerial role or new to managing remote teams.
In the new world of remote working upward management is as important as it has ever been. Both managers and direct reports will need to be mindful of the techniques they use, and managers should be able to fall back on HR for assistance when that’s required.
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Sandra Vogel is a freelance journalist with decades of experience in long-form and explainer content, research papers, case studies, white papers, blogs, books, and hardware reviews. She has contributed to ZDNet, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), and The Comms Crowd among others.
At ITPro, Sandra has contributed articles on artificial intelligence (AI), measures that can be taken to cope with inflation, the telecoms industry, risk management, and C-suite strategies. In the past, Sandra also contributed handset reviews for ITPro and has written for the brand for more than 13 years in total.