How can the approach to managing staff support continued remote working?

In 2022 there was 21% more empty office space in London than previously.

Following the worst of the pandemic, many workers ran with the opportunity to continue working from home and carve out a more palatable work-life balance compared to the standard 9 am – 5 pm x 5 days a week approach that was, and still is, employed by many companies.

Of course, it should be acknowledged that there are a great deal of roles which can’t be delivered remotely at all. Many caring or clinical roles, manual roles where you’ve got to be there to fix the broken equipment, and even in largely office-based companies it can be difficult to release certain roles to remote working eg those manning reception or providing building security – so this article says a massive thank you to all those people who are so critical to so many things and in a lot of cases, had to shoulder a lot of burden and keep working as they always had done, through the pandemic, regardless. This blog post seeks to look at the management of those who could remain at home to work and what has happened since.

I think it’s right to think about it not as a single subject topic based just on ‘where does the employee want to work from’, but all the contributing layers that are contained within that desire.

So what is it about working from a set location that isn’t working for employees?:

  • the length of time added on to your day from a twice daily car-based commute in rush hour
  • the hours spent travelling by public transport. Taking the train from Birmingham to London Euston every day for 48 weeks a year equates to 15 days worth of time spent journeying to and from the place of work – and that’s not including tube/bus/walking time
  • the stress of trying to leave work on time to rush to deliver routine caring duties whether this be picking children up from school or checking in on a relative
  • managing unexpected home- or health-related incidents and emergencies only made more difficult and stressful to respond to when you have downtime returning home before you can deploy a response
  • how difficult it can be to look after yourself. In the example of a GP appointment you need to be able to commute and simultaneously sit on the phone on hold for 30 minutes in order to get an appointment, and then hope there’s one at a time which fits with work (and allows you to still be able to pick your children up on time from two different schools…!)

I think the above list covers many of the stressors that employees are faced with.

Of course, there are companies who had taken steps to change with the times (even pre-pandemic) to adopt more modern ways of working, who taken steps to lessen the impacts – for example making more flexible work patterns available like four day weeks, variable start and finish times, variable weekly hours eg Flexitime, TOIL (Time Off In Lieu), part time roles and job sharing.

My children are young adults now but one of the defining features of many of my years of working when they were in primary and secondary school is seared with the memories of the visceral stress involved in trying to balance their needs and those of my job. Of course, if anything ‘gave’ it was always the GP appointment I really should have booked 3 months ago (and this is not good; it’s not good for the employee and it’s not good for the company either in the longer term).

And perhaps those employers, who had already changed their approaches, managed better with the pandemic and the post-pandemic period? Were they more ready because they were already pretty flexible? Had they already issued IT kit that enabled more flexible approaches to allow remote working to take place?

I believe it was also necessary – in fact, critical – for managers to adapt and alter their mindset too, and reevaluate what was and wasn’t actually, genuinely important. Of course, we then need to determine, what does ‘Important’ mean? What should be the criteria we assess our employees on? Aspects of this are explored in the article linked below.

Sethuraman S at Worthy shares their insights with Manager lists out what she does and doesn’t care about employees and it’s striking a chord

Some organisations appeared to be able to tolerate working from home during Covid but once this passed there was a move to
‘get back to normal’.


The Real Life PM

And whilst manager mindset and approach is what we are partly scrutinising here, the mindset at the SLT level is also critical. That is going to have a significant, impacting trickle-down impact on how managers manage, and what criteria they manage on.

And I think this is where we’ve seen the ‘let’s get back to ‘normal’ ‘ types of responses with RTO (Return To the Office) missives issued as a result. Undoubtedly a great many employees breathed a huge sigh of relief to just be able to get up and get on with their work, all in the same location.

Of course, that’s not without its difficulties and challenges and for some who prefer face to face and setting off each morning to somewhere different, it’s a positive for them to head off to another workplace. Indeed, the project management methodology, Agile, is based entirely around valuing above all else, face-to-face conversation as the most efficient and effective way to convey information.

I believe the push to RTO was because remote working was perceived as bringing with it a ‘loss of control’ from the management perspective, and a (mostly misplaced) suspicion that remote workers won’t do their work or will be lazy, doing the least they can (and managing to ‘get away with it’, because they’re remote).

I think the call to return to the office is in some cases a bit of a self-own both in terms of what the mindset of leadership and managers is, as well as an accidental admission that how they had been managing their staff wasn’t actually very good.

Again there’s great variability in the approaches companies take to develop how they manage their staff, and what criteria they manage on.

Often times whether an individual employee is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ employee has been based around how much time they were off sick or how many times they had to leave early – neither of which factors relate to more valuable performance indicators such as:

  • productivity
  • timeliness of delivery
  • quality

And there’s the benefits from implementing the right management approach because it can translate into supporting the organisation with some really critical stuff like:

  • workforce flexibility/organisational responsiveness
  • staff retention
  • marketplace success
  • organisational longevity
  • ability to support innovation and growth.

Perhaps the default model was familiar and gave a ‘false sense of security’ to organisations and when the pandemic hit, suddenly it felt risky? Organisations wanted their workers back in the office, to ‘regain control’. But perhaps one of the reasons many staff continue to be reluctant to return to the office is because they feel nothing’s changed, and the organisation just wants to go back to ‘how things were before’ – whilst in the intervening time, the workforce mindset has moved on?

So what needs to change for organisations to not be worried about allowing staff to work from home?

Check out the article linked below that looks at how technology can support different working models, with some thoughts on the effectiveness of traditional approaches to management.

Amy Leschke-Kahle at Yahoo!finance Old-fashioned management is failing to reverse the productivity slump. It’s time to ‘grownupify’ work.

So what does a good staff management approach look like today?

We need to turn our attention to look at how the work staff do is managed. Should managers, instead, perhaps focus more on an approach like this:

  • Assign clear deliverables / outputs so it’s clear what work has to be completed
  • Have clear quality criteria for deliverables
  • Set a clear due date for deliverables or set out how long an activity should take to complete
  • Switching to a routine feedback model
  • Putting in place effective channels that support communication by individuals, and within teams.

Exploiting the organisation’s core suite of applications (for many it may be Microsoft 365) where you can set and manage tasks, collaborate, communicate, and create catch-ups, 1:1s and team meetings.

With the right devices and software and the right management approach it should be possible for individual employees, working with their managers, to switch seamlessly from remote to office to hybrid and back again, without no loss of management ‘control’, giving the organisation assurance that the staff are getting their work done.

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What do you think? Did you go remote but you’re now being asked to return to the office? What would make it easier for you to give your best to your job, whilst maintaining a balance with home life? Let me know in the comments below or join in the chat at the Real Life PM Community, in the Newsletter & Blog Forum – just hit the button below.

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