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What would you say is the biggest challenge facing managers at the moment? Keeping a great culture alive while working remotely? Onboarding new employees effectively in a virtual environment? Motivating and engaging people when the energy of face-to-face is lost?

I’ve lost track of how many conversations I’ve had recently about managing culture, onboarding and engagement at a distance. But as each of those conversations went deeper, each of the HR directors I was speaking with noted plenty of positives about remote working, but arrived at the same source of their manager’s challenges. Each said something along the lines of, “What we’re seeing is that our managers are struggling to lead with confidence when they can’t actually see the people they are managing”.

It is at once the most basic challenge, and the greatest source of difficulty that comes with managing dispersed teams: you don’t know what or how your people are doing. I’d like to share one insight from a recent report, The Virtues of Virtual, that I think speaks to the challenge of managing at a distance. It won’t resolve every instance of the challenges I’ve identified above, but it is a robust tool that every manager can have at their disposal as they engage, motivate and spark culture from a distance.

When we spoke to workplace happiness experts for our report, the resounding message was that clarity was key, but not in the direction that most of us might think. When it comes to managing remotely, the key to clarity is that it needs to be primarily in the service of employees/team members, not managers. If this piece of the puzzle falls into place, team culture, engagement and even accountability will benefit.

When the veil of distance means that a manager cannot know what their reports are up to, it is understandable for that manager to be tempted to ratchet up reporting procedures in an attempt to gain clarity about how their team members are getting on. That response certainly has its place. After all, new ways of working do call for new ways of communicating and being held accountable. But the experts we spoke to communicated a different approach. As the author of Love It Or Leave It, Samantha Clarke, told us, clear boundaries are important, not just for managers but for their team members. In her words, each employee should be asking themselves, “Where am I being pushed to a remit or a place where I’m not performing my best?”. When managers support their teams to ask such a question, they are leading others in the direction of personal clarity that has a direct correlation to engagement and performance.  

Supporting others to voice their preferences and create constructive boundaries is also supportive of organisational culture. As the consultant and author Jon Barnes shared with us, “We’ve not been brought up to set our own boundaries and make them explicit. In school, we were told where to go at what time, and most people still can’t self-manage now because the office creates a routine for them”. In the context of the 2020 disruption of office life, managers that encourage their teams to clearly communicate their preferences and boundaries are helping them move beyond the limiting habits that Barnes identifies. In doing so, managers communicate respect for each team member and help them feel free. This is crucial as respect is vital for engagement and accountability, and freedom is the wellspring of culture.

Here are three questions about clarity that managers can discuss with their teams as they continue developing confident remote leadership:

  1. Can our team jointly agree on collective times both to communicate and to disengage from the conversation? This is an opportunity to carve out a period that is sacred for your team. It is when you all enter a pact to go heads-down and engage in deep, cognitively-demanding work.
  2. If employees need to have more time offline, how should they go about communicating this to the wider team? For example, find the equivalent of a ‘cab light’ your team can turn off to indicate that they are now engaging in deep work (e.g. blocking time on calendars, signing out Slack).
  3. Can we clearly assign specific types of messages to different communication channels? Little red circles with the number of new messages catch our attention because they’ve been engineered to do so. To keep the anxiety at bay, consider making rules for each channel you use (e.g., keep Slack for non-urgent messages and make phone calls for the most important matters).

Dr. Brennan Jacoby, Philosopher and Founder – Philosophy at Work

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