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Sonata Notes: Why Managers Struggle with Remote Teams

Multiple studies have found remote workers are 5% to 13% more productive than on-site workers, but you might not know it from talking to their managers.  

Nearly 40% of managers surveyed by Australia’s Curtin University expressed reservations about managing remote workers, and 72% of managers in a SHRM study said they’d prefer having their entire team in the office.

Other studies yield surprising (and not so surprising) insights about how and why managers struggle with remote and hybrid teams:  

  • Younger employees like remote work, but many younger managers do not.  82% of Gen Z knowledge workers say they want to spend the majority of their time working from home.  However, 25% of managers under 30 doubted their ability to lead remote workers, versus just 12% of managers over 30.

    Looking beyond stereotypes of younger people being tech-savvy, this confidence gap is understandable.  Where experienced managers simply have to adapt their skills to the remote environment, new managers have to develop their skills in a remote environment, which is exponentially more challenging (especially if their organization hasn’t fully mastered the paradigm at a strategic level).

  • Non-professional managers and supervisors have the hardest time with virtual management.  In most organizations, there are people in supervisory positions who wouldn’t call themselves “managers.”  Not surprisingly, these individuals tend to struggle more with remote/hybrid teams than those who’ve studied management as a discipline.  One survey found that 53% of non-professional managers/supervisors felt remote workers were inherently less productive than on-site workers, compared to just 24% of professional managers.   

  • Insecure remote/hybrid managers project their negative feelings onto remote workers.  Managers who doubted their own ability to lead remote teams also thought less of remote workers.  

      • 70% said they considered their remote workers easily replaceable.
      • 67% felt they had to monitor remote workers more closely than on-site workers.
      • 43% said they sometimes forget about remote team members entirely when assigning tasks and planning projects. (SHRM)

So how can organizations help remote/hybrid managers get past their fears and insecurities?  

  • Establish clear guidelines.  Managers should not have to invent remote work policies and collaboration processes on their own.  Organizations need to provide them with comprehensive, evidence-based guidance on how to lead a virtual or hybrid team.  However, during the pandemic, many managers were thrust into virtual team management with little more than some forwarded “tips and tricks” articles to guide them. 

  • Explain how virtual team management is, at its core, simply good management. A survey by Bain & Company found that organizations with sound management pre-pandemic experienced a 5-8% productivity increase during the shift to remote work, while organizations with poor management practices suffered a 3-6% decrease in productivity.  The message here is clear: while virtual management does require some adjustments for the format, fundamentally good managers should have nothing to fear.  That said, mediocre and poor managers will find their shortcomings amplified, especially when it comes to issues of trust and monitoring.  

  • Educate managers on the benefits – not just the challenges – of remote work.  If leadership talks about remote/hybrid work as a problem to be solved, then it’s not surprising if managers develop a dim view of remote work arrangements.  However, if you present it as an opportunity to be seized, and give equal attention to the advantages of a well-managed remote team, their attitudes and performance should improve accordingly. 

  • Encourage trust over micromanagement.  Good managers seek to maximize the autonomy of their team members without abdicating their own responsibility for outcomes.  And this is doubly true in virtual teams.  While a manager’s impulse might be to either obsessively monitor or completely ignore employees they cannot physically see, both of these paths can damage productivity and morale.  Learning to trust people based on the results of their work – versus expecting people to “look busy” at all times – requires maturity, but is a good policy in any environment. 

  • Expect managers to have (or develop) “virtual competence.”  Organizations have always expected managers to be effective communicators and strong professional role models for their team.  In the new, virtual/hybrid world, that expectation needs to be expanded to include effective online communication and modeling good remote work habits.  If the boss always comes across as uncomfortable in Zoom meetings or constantly complains about their slow internet connection, that is not going to inspire trust and confidence among virtual team members.

If your organization is interested in strategic advice and training on remote/hybrid work, contact Sonata Learning for a consultation.

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Emil Heidkamp is the founder and senior learning strategist at Sonata Learning.  He works with NGOs, corporations and government agencies to implement training and knowledge management initiatives impacting thousands of learners in over 50 countries.