Research: Remote Work - Why Relationships Matter

Workplace restrictions surrounding COVID-19 have forced many organisations to experiment with working from home. Now employers are faced with the dilemma - 'should we go back to the office full time or let people work remotely sometimes?' One recent study showed that up to 82 percent of employers now plan to allow employees to work remotely some of the time. As more organisations consider remote work, what can we learn from managers who have been managing full-time remote workers for a number of years?

Our research looked at how managers adapt and what they do differently when managing staff who permanently work at a distance from them and where they rarely see those reporting to them because they are based in a different city or country. When people work away from the office, a natural concern is often how will the organisation know they are putting in a full day’s effort and not catching up on chores or watching Netflix? Organisations have responded in various ways.  Some resort to the use (or increased use) of surveillance software but this can raise questions of privacy and trust. Others suggest the solution is to put more emphasis on objective performance measures - stop trying to manage the work and instead focus on outcomes.  However, if objective, reliable performance measures were readily available, we suspect they would be in widespread use already, for office-based workers as well as remote staff.

So how do managers adapt to managing staff they don’t see day to day? How do they know their staff are working, and what do managers do differently? The answer is more multilevel than you might expect at first glance.

In the first instance, our research found that managers with remote staff encourage their teams to switch to processes and tools that support asynchronous workflows. Some types of collaboration require all parties to be online and communicating at the same time: for example, a phone call is synchronous - everyone must be on the phone at the same time to take part in the conversation. Other types of collaboration are more flexible and allow people to collaborate even if they are not online at the same time. Unlike a phone call, email is asynchronous: it’s a type of communication that can handle pauses and delays if the recipient can’t answer immediately. When people work remotely, especially if they’re in different time zones, it can be useful to have tools and processes that do not rely on everyone being available before work can progress; to support asynchronous collaboration.

Supporting more asynchronous collaboration generally means a shift to more written communication and documentation and to sharing work updates in central, online tools that everyone can see.  Everything should be written down so that people can read it later and shared somewhere the whole team can find it. As one of our research participants put it, “If somebody's emailing around a bunch of spreadsheets attached to emails, that's not good… That's completely silent information. We just don't work that way”. Another team in our research had members spread across the world and could not get everyone online at the same time, so they simply banned meetings instead. Managers found that working asynchronously creates a variety of advantages: documenting everything creates a record of what has been done, when, and why, so important information is never kept with just one person. Because the information needs to be shared to be useful, it tends to encourage a culture of transparency and openness. Also, importantly for managers, it provides a lot of visibility about what people are working on. As one manager put it “Everything [the team does] is shared so it's very easy to see. Nobody does anything, does any work that I can't see. Which makes it so easy to see everything that's going on”. Regular updates and sharing information helps everyone, not just managers, to stay coordinated and informed about the team’s activity.

As a result, managers in our research report that generally identifying their teams’ work effort was relatively straight-forward. The use of tools and processes to support asynchronous collaboration surfaced a great deal of information about what their team is doing. Knowing what their team is doing, managers focus instead on understanding how their team is doing – how everyone is feeling. This means a lot more of the managers’ time and effort goes into personal check-ins with staff and one-on-one meetings.

Why would that be the case? Well, the tools and processes will tell managers what people are working on. But when a direct report is struggling, feels overwhelmed, or perhaps feels that they are not doing a good job, their first instinct might not be to tell their manager. It might be the opposite: to put up a good appearance. As a manager, if your team is not in the office with you, you have fewer opportunities to notice that there might be a problem brewing. In person you might notice that someone has started turning up to work late, looks stressed or unhappy, seems disengaged, or has changed how they’re interacting with their colleagues. But when you only see your direct reports occasionally by video it’s easy, as one manager put it, for someone to “stick on a plastic smile” for the duration of the call; to put up a good face when there is actually an issue. The research found that without the opportunities for in-person observation, managers sought to spend more time checking in with staff to ensure that they get a complete picture, to ensure there is trust and open lines of communication, and to ensure that direct reports have the opportunity to raise issues that might otherwise go unnoticed without day to day contact.

What does that mean for managers with remote staff?  Well, firstly, recognise the value of processes and tools that support asynchronous collaboration. This will benefit team collaboration overall and will also make life easier as a manager because once those tools are working, you will get a much better sense of what people are working on. It also serves as a useful reminder as to the importance of building trust and relationships through personal check-ins with staff and one-on-one meetings.  Most managers in our research met one-on-one with their remote staff every week, often for 30-60 minutes at a time. Obviously, this is a huge time commitment and managers should recognise that as a consequence, managing remote staff well may take more time and energy than managing the same number of people in the office. It may be necessary to adjust your own productivity expectations accordingly or for teams to be smaller.

What was clear though, when we look to managers who have been managing remote staff for years, is that rather than increased surveillance and complicated performance measures, the key to effectively managing remote staff over the long term seems to be more emphasis on good relationships and open sharing of information.

This article is based on the recently completed doctoral thesis of Rebecca Downes, School of Management, Victoria University of Wellington and written in collaboration with Professor Urs Daellenbach and Dr Noelle Donnelly