“Confidence doesn’t come from KNOWING what will happen. It comes from knowing that no matter what happens you can ADAPT” – Simon Sinek
In January 2020, some experts said we were dealing with the flu – no different than others – and that we should not worry. Reality has shown that the world has gone through one of the most extensive experiences of shaking the status quo through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Social distancing, which has sometimes led to isolation, the precautions needed in such a situation, and especially the “continuous eyes gaze at the screen” have strongly influenced areas in which organizations have invested a lot lately: collaboration, commitment, belonging, diversity cognition, performance teams.
With the development and distribution of vaccines starting in December 2020, predictions about a return to “new normal” or “next to normal” are much more optimistic. But it will still take time, and the road requires attention and action. I mean, w will be fine, let’s be optimistic, but still keep our eyes peeled and find alternatives.
There is a kind of nostalgia for those face-to-face times, or maybe even a hatred of being “at home” for so long. The second spring of the pandemic has come, and the world longs for air, nature, movement, but especially for physical proximity. A handshake, a collegial hug – such common things – are (still) to be avoided.
What many of those we talk to during this period agree is that we can no longer go back to what was before the pandemic as a “way of doing things.” And that means especially that the job becomes different, if not already different.
Digitization, transformation, resilience, adaptation – these were the words most often used during this period.
The Valoria team wanted to see what happens in this transition in a very specific context: working in a remote team or remote teams. And we asked operational managers, entrepreneurs, and human resource managers from different industries: insurance, technology, industrial consulting, professional services, construction, cargo, and freight industry what happened in their companies and what did they do about “work from home”.
The first question was:
What challenges do managers have in managing remote teams?
Based on the answers, we can say that the challenges can be grouped as follows:
Technology and business processes
The technical endowment was a challenge especially in the entrepreneurial area where investments were needed to ensure the endowment with resources for those who work from home.
Monitoring the progress in business processes had to overcome both the social distance and the difficulty of managing the workload of each team member. Also, what worked before well has come to no longer help us now, namely the habit of recording the time worked to the detriment of the partial or final results of the task.
As an observation, people started working longer, but not necessarily more efficiently. Thus, discussions about efforts versus results seem to have increased in frequency. However, both managers and team members want to focus more on results than on the number of hours worked.
Attitude and skills in online communication
About communication skills in general, those who prepared these (so-called) soft areas before the pandemic were satisfied with how they were applied exactly when there was a greater need.
The biggest challenge was the presence in the virtual environment. Online meetings have become not only a habit but a “must do” that has turned into frustration, fatigue, and even disgust. For managers, working with people who do not open their camera and/or microphone was a similar activity with a multiplication of leadership effort, accompanied by the frustration of the lack of a visible reaction.
Why? Because “participating effectively” has become a challenge with 3 vital elements: connection, the camera on, microphone on. So, on this subject, the question for the team leaders was: how to get their attention when they just “seem” to be present, I only see their names on the screen and they are mute and off-camera?
Moreover, virtual communication preferences vary between team members. So is the ability to use so-called remote cooperation tools. This makes participation in team activities more unequal than in the face-to-face case. In some cases, even managers have difficulty doing so.
It is one of the characteristics of the manager’s activity. From our observations, we believe that most of the time is used in such activities. This is not a hero – the manager – who solves the problems himself.
And here, the following issues seem to be the challenges in the day-to-day management of operations:
- Problematic situations do not seem to be identifiable in time and seem to be escalating faster
- The reduction of “spontaneity” in communication, made the answers, the reactions appear late
In many cases, a positive side of this last reality was observed: the answers were more carefully elaborated, by decreasing the negativity and increasing the number of constructive elements.
However, there were also cases in which, through the over-use of written communication and the copy of manager email in the “cc” area, real personal conflicts were triggered.
What remote work seems to have brought is a reduction in leadership style control and an increase in confidence for autonomy, tolerance for adapting to particular situations, openness to opinions, and bottom-up feedback.
This is the good part, more realistically said desirable, because otherwise, the reduction of control came with the great test of fear of losing control. And where, until the pandemic, to record the presence, to make the time, to make reports were fundamental activities, the fear was amplified.
Managers had to make changes on the fly to adapt their style to the new situation. According to a Blanchard study on tailored styles, less than a third of managers switch naturally from style A to style B and only 1% have the natural ability to switch to more tailored styles. The rest, we need to learn.
And the managerial development training was much less during this period, the attention is mainly focused on the “remote” aspect, more on remote techniques to the detriment of the leadership aspects adapted to the situation.
One of the most controversial pandemic prevention measures has been social distancing. Which has inevitably led to emotional distancing, and we only have one more step – if not done in certain situations – in which people feel isolated. And an employee in solitary confinement certainly does not rely on himself or his colleagues.
What resulted from the answers we received is that social distance and increased virtual interaction greatly affect the team’s successful ingredients: collaboration, disputes over ideas, proper and mature management of emotions, attention to the common goal.
And especially the energy given by the team spirit was influenced. Obviously, there are nuances here, and those who worked on the dimension of teamwork before the pandemic did not feel these influences in all aspects of team life, but especially in informal activities, which allow physical presence.
While many things are a big unknown in today’s business world, one thing seems certain: Remote teams are here to stay even after this period. Leading such teams is not a simple collection of meetings on zoom/teams/meet/bluejeans or any collaborative platform. We need a mix of actions, both the fundamental ones related to leadership as we have always known them and the unusual, creative, out-of-the-box ones.