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Uncertainty can make managers do strange things. In a recent interview for Philosophy at Work’s Virtues of Virtual  report, Bruce Daisley (ex Twitter VP, author and host of the leading business podcast ‘Eat Sleep Work Repeat), told me the story of a manager who asked a member of their team to WhatsApp him in advance of restroom breaks. It would seem that the uncertainty involved in managing a dispersed, remote team caused that team leader to do something, let’s assume, they would not have done if they could see their colleagues working diligently in the office.

If you observed the behavior of the manager in Bruce’s story, what would you do? How would you support that manager to find more thoughtful and constructive ways of providing oversight in the virtual context?

Maybe you’d start with questions, asking them about how they see the situation so that you can begin from a place of empathy. That would be good. But at its core, the manager in our story is reacting to a deep difficulty of working with dispersed teams. It’s a challenge that has come up numerous times in my conversations with clients over the last six months, and it’s a challenge that, while existing in the traditional office, has been fuelled by accelerated moves to virtual working.

Here it is: managing dispersed teams highlights the limits of a manager’s control.

While there has been a growing acceptance that employee performance should be measured in terms of value added rather than time spent, being dropped in the deep end of virtual working has recently tested just how good a relationship individual managers have with matters of trust and control. And that’s a test set to persist as organisations continue working out how they will manage a blend of dispersed and co-located teams going forward.

To help managers in this next phase of what used to be called the ‘future’ of work but has now become very much the present, I want to suggest that we begin by recognizing that we’re not just dealing with behaviour. Instead, we’re helping managerial colleagues grapple with a deep feature of the human condition – namely, their finitude. They are charged, for good reason, with motivating engagement amongst their team(s) and providing appropriate oversight, and the virtual context seems to shine a light on the limits of their capacity to do both those things.

So how can we help managers navigate what is not just a challenge of organisational logistics, but something with deeper existential significance? My suggestion is to help them trade control for accountability.

Providing oversight is a necessary component of management, but if the virtual landscape highlights the limitations of top-down control, then let that be an opportunity to trade control for a more collaborative form of accountability. In practice, this can mean giving team members greater autonomy over stages of projects or speaking candidly with teams about each member’s preferences when it comes to virtual communication. If the virtual, dispersed landscape calls for a more egalitarian approach, that need not mean oversight and accountability need suffer. But it does mean that each person involved will need to be invited into a more collaborative conversation about how oversight can be gathered positively and constructively.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to trading control for accountability. Here are three questions managers can ask themselves as they thoughtfully navigate this transition. I hope they prove helpful to you as well as you have authentic conversations with the managers you support over the coming months.

  1. Do you have a clear idea of exactly which tasks you could relinquish control over? Before reducing control over a project, it is important to  understand how the work breaks down into its atomic units (chapters of a report, lines of code, slides in a presentation), and think about which of those units might need more oversight because of complex interdependencies or context that, for good reason, only certain members of the organisation can access.
  • Are you focused solely on execution, or would you like to have a little more experimentation? Think about the right to autonomy and creativity coming with the responsibility to share the fruits of intellectual labour. If new innovation within specific aspects of your organisation is be sought, consider those areas as candidates for relaxed control.
  • Do you have willing and self-starting participants? Whoever is making the decision to trade control for collaborative accountability must also be in the business of building a community. Collaboration is only as productive as its least motivated participants, so whatever more decentralised project is  undertaken, make sure that the team is as bought into it as the manager (if not more!).

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

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