The general consensus in the corporate world is that hybrid working is here to stay. Yet, without a blueprint for what good looks like a period of trial and error is inevitable. What is more clear: the role of managers will be critical in making whatever model a company adopts a success and ensuring people feel valued enough not to jump ship.
So far, it’s not looking good.
A January report from global recruiter Robert Walters revealed that 60% of U.K. professionals feel “disengaged” due to lack of face time with leaders, while two-thirds are “highly likely” to leave their jobs for this reason. Alarmingly, 22% report they “don’t communicate” with their managers when working from home, up from 3% at the start of the pandemic. The report concluded that remote managers are “killing company culture.”
While some workers might welcome fewer meetings, Robert Walters’ CEO, Toby Fowlston, suggests managers should be careful not to hand out the “wrong kind of autonomy,” as team members may be suffering in silence.
“As the concrete solidifies on hybrid working schemes, the long-term impact of remote leadership is yet to be assessed, but it cannot be ignored,” said Fowlston. “Professionals vying for progression want to show initiative, adaptability, and the ability to handle responsibility by themselves — and so by nature, they won’t necessarily ask for more face time with their manager as they feel it works against the point they are trying to prove.”
The last two years have shone a light on how legacy promotional structures within organizations have typically advanced people who excel at their roles, into management positions. But they don’t necessarily have the natural aptitude for softer leadership skills, like empathy, which have become a must-have during the pandemic and as more businesses opt for more decentralized workplaces.
Empathetic managers act with purpose and intent
Job van der Voort, CEO and co-founder of Remote, an organization that helps companies worldwide manage the shift to hybrid working, believes there shouldn’t be a distinction between a great manger and a great remote manager. “A good manager is available to their team, making time for everyone. But you don’t need to smell people to manage them,” he said.
Van der Voort, who lives just north of Amsterdam, recommends managers have weekly one-to-one calls with all their reports, to check in with the person, not the work. “Always have an agenda, but keep it light. You want to have the breathing room to discuss more sensitive matters. So don’t rush those.”
This advice chimes with Janice Burns, New York-based chief people officer at education platform Degreed, which has over 600 employees working remotely globally. “The issue is not [lack of] face time, but a lack of quality in manager-employee interactions,” she said. People leave their jobs when their work no longer meets their needs, whether that’s a sense of purpose, lifestyle needs or career growth, she added.
“It’s the role of a manager to understand their team’s needs and where the business can help fulfil them, and that’s what’s broken when so many people are looking for new jobs,” she said. “Quality discussions and relationships can be built virtually when a manager acts with purpose and intention.”
Ujjwal Singh, head of Workplace from Meta (formerly Facebook), agrees. He points to his company’s recent research that suggests almost two-thirds of U.K. employees would consider leaving their jobs if leaders “didn’t show empathy” to staff needs.
“The move to hybrid work has brought into focus a trend we’ve seen for several years: The most visionary leaders are also the most empathetic and know that properly prioritizing employee needs has long-term business benefits,” he said. “This is a people problem, and it needs a people-focused approach. Technology will be vitally important to making this happen, but it needs to be used in the right ways: to level the playing field for everyone, encourage feedback and open discussions and create community.”
Banish the managers
IBM Consulting has a unique approach to management: it has banished managers. “We have ‘career coaches’ rather than ‘managers,’” said Rahul Kalia, the organization’s U.K. and Ireland managing partner.
“We inspire our workforce with a talent-centric approach to create a coaching experience, underpinned by a culture of continuous feedback and regular reviews of individual goals. The result is a highly personalized program that supports the needs of our people and our clients,” he added.
Tech, though, is crucial to improving remote management, counters Will Hale, northern European leader of work management platform Monday.com. “Engaging a disparate workforce is not only about being more attentive or empathetic; above all, it’s about processes,” he said. “Companies need to test how well they are engaging with their digital workforce by asking the least technical person about their day-to-day difficulties with doing their job.”
For example, managers could ask workers how many meetings could be conducted via email, or another channel. Or what do they keep doing each day or week that could be automated? “If people feel a lot of their time at work is going to waste because of imperfect and confusing internal processes, they lose motivation and become less engaged,” Hale added. “When you start asking these questions, you may find that you are adjusting yourself to the business tools, instead of using the tools that can adjust to you.”