Researcher finds remote working requires intentional management

When Rebecca Downes embarked on a PhD in Management on remote working, she had no idea it would be the buzzword of 2020.

woman with short grey hair and floral scarf with indistinct nighttime background
Remote working suddenly became the norm for people worldwide during COVID-19—including at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of New Zealand, where Rebecca Downes submitted her Management PhD thesis digitally in April 2020.

Rebecca is joining more than 2800 students to graduate from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington this week.

Her research explores the skills used to manage teams remotely.  

“In my career, I have managed three teams where  members were either partially or fully working remotely. I found that the skills that I had developed as a manager working in physical proximity to people didn’t seem to translate into remote working—and I got interested in why that may be,” says Rebecca.

“There was something wonderfully ironic about sitting at home in lockdown, submitting my thesis, while everybody in the country who could was frantically trying to switch to working remotely.”

Rebecca was interested in how managers gain confidence their team is not only working, but working on the right thing—that they are engaged and productive. “Management literature for a long time has assumed you can eyeball people. And that’s different when you don’t see each other in the office day to day,” she says.

“Good remote managers understand the context of work is different. One thing that came up repeatedly in the research is the need to be intentional, and be thoughtful and deliberate in engaging with your team and generating the connection, maintaining open lines of communication.

“Managers needed to develop connections with individual workers. This can mean meeting every week with their remote workers one-on-one, which takes a lot of emotional energy to keep up. It is a big commitment, and you can’t manage as big a team remotely because you can’t skimp on that connection.”

Based on previous research, Rebecca expected to see more focus on clear outcomes as a way of managing remote work. “But my own experience, as well as my research, showed that managers were more effective when focusing on building relationships rather than relying primarily on setting outcomes.”

As well as building relationships with staff, managers were also responsible for fostering positive relationships between team members. Most of the 32 managers that Rebecca  interviewed had channels for non-work related conversations—spaces to share pet photos, talk about day-to-day life, and so on.

“Managers also created tools and processes to allow people to acknowledge their peers and express gratitude. Something we miss working remotely is that day-to-day feedback that reassures us that we’re doing a good job, that we’re valued and we fit in, so creating processes like this using existing technology was really important,” says Rebecca.

“When managing a blended team, managers also made sure that everything was written down so that it is equally available whether you are working in the office or from home. A conversation in the corridor wasn’t counted as work until it had been written down so everybody could see what was being actioned.”

Before COVID-19, says Rebecca, remote working was a relatively under-researched area—but now, research into work and productivity is underway on a huge scale, particularly in the United States.

“Nobody saw this coming. We’re now seeing research into innovation and creativity, and the side-effects of working remotely, with some good data coming out of these studies already,” says Rebecca.

“Before COVID-19, I think a lot of organisations hesitated to allow remote work, because of unknowns—particularly in the management space. Now it is seen as a way of supporting flexibility, as well as equalising opportunity for employees with limited mobility for whom being based in an office can be a barrier to working.”

Rebecca is a teaching fellow at the Wellington School of Business and Government.