Managing Remotely – Three Key Factors for Success

At a recent city event around “Mentally Healthy Remote Working” (minds@work), three of the major problems cited by remote workers were: a) feeling isolated, b) feeling guilty or judged by colleagues “back at base”, and c) lack of boundaries and clear structure.

Technology has made it possible for us to connect across distance and time zones, and work with people from other cultures and global markets… but why is remote working fraught with so many challenges? The answer, I believe, lies in our ability to build the emotional intelligence needed for successful remote working. As is always the case with technological progress, we need to get better at managing the human interface. The following three factors are critical for successful remote working, but often get overlooked:

1. Invest In The “How To” of Emotional Intelligence

strong relationships

Us human beings are relational at the core. Over the years, countless research has confirmed that we thrive physically, emotionally and mentally when we are in healthy relationships with others. The quality of relationships make or break organisations. As the saying goes, when people leave organisations they don’t leave the company, they leave their manager! Where relationships are strong, people are free to be creative, desire to give of their best, and are motivated to find innovative ways to bend the rules to solve problems. When relationships are broken, people find ways to become obstructive and use the same rules to justify why things can’t be done.

Organisations now face increasing pressure to work globally, crossing differences and distances, and placing greater demand on our ability to build strong relationships. The challenge is we still haven’t mastered relationships in a face-to-face setting, so going global is just exacerbating the problem. The cost of workplace conflict is astronomical – £33bn annually to UK plc at the last count by the Confederation of British Industry – and we are still grappling with our ability to be genuinely inclusive in culture and leadership style.

We haven’t mastered great relationships at home either. For the UK and much of the western world, the statistics suggest that one in every two relationships break down, and currently the annual cost of family breakdown to UK taxpayers is north of £51bn. That means that in every organisation, roughly half the employees are at risk of, or are currently facing, major relationship issues. This inevitably impacts the mental presence, emotional well-being and productivity of these employees. Just think about what that does to a company’s bottom line. Relationship breakdown is the silent stealer of well-being and productivity in any organisation.  

If both professional and personal relationships remain a challenge when people are office-based they become an even bigger challenge – and cost – to the organisation when people work remotely. If ever there was a time to get good at building strong relationships in person and applying those principles in the virtual world, this is it.

hinkley point C

The ultimate cost of not equipping people to build strong relationships, especially strong personal relationships, in a remote working context is evidenced in the case of Hinkley Point C, Britain’s biggest construction project the second world war. As recently reported in the Guardian on August 13, 2019, there has been a surge in suicide attempts (apparently 10 attempts in the first four months of 2019), a rise in the number of people off sick with stress, anxiety and depression, and an increase in workers suffering from mental distress.  “The main causes of the distress appear to be loneliness, relationship breakdown and the struggle of being sometimes hundreds of miles away from family”.  The cost to the company is high, the cost to the individual is stratospheric. To be the company that people want to work for – whether co-located or remotely, to avoid negative press and to stay out of the courts, investing in building strong relationships as part of improving wellbeing is now a strategic imperative.

Simply making time to connect on a personal level, creating “virtual water-cooler moments” is crucial. Learning how to establish rapport quickly, understand and embrace differences, read body language and cultural cues, make allowance for and adjustments to different personality styles, resolve conflict, communicate value and appreciation in meaningful ways – these are just some of the fundamentals of relationship capability that we must master as individuals and teams for remote working to succeed. It’s also time to dispel the myth of a personal / professional divide (which we crossed a long time ago with the advent of blackberries and other devices for mobile working) and invest in building strong couple relationships in the very home that work is now increasingly taking place. Without question, the quality of an individual’s personal relationship impacts the quality of their performance and productivity, whether working from home or in the office.

2.  Create A Culture of “Grown-Up” Management

The second issue remote workers mentioned around feeling guilty and judged has more to do with the organisational culture and management style than an individual’s need to be “managed” in order to deliver results. The real challenge is that prevailing leadership culture and management processes are lagging way behind what technology has made possible. The measurement and management of work is still stuck in the time warp of “input” (performance being judged by presence / length of time in the office), instead of “output” and results. Regardless of the lip service paid to flexible working, or core hours, the subtle cues betray the fact that we are not there yet.  Managers are the “culture carriers” of the organisation. Whatever the policies and procedures in place, the behaviours modelled by managers will be the final word on “the way we do things around here”. All it takes is one unchallenged comment around being present for an early morning meeting to kill any attempt of creating a more flexible culture. One quick flick of the wrist to check the time when someone walks in the door, says it all.

father and son playing chess

Even more insidious is the silent pressure when working remotely to pretend that there is no other life form present at home, no other interest outside of work tasks and that effectively the only thing that has changed is physical location. The opportunity to be more present for personal relationships and work flexibly around home “pressure points” like school runs and dinner time, around errands and appointments, or simply around the rhythm of personal peak concentration is lost to guilt and the need to justify the use of time outside the office.

Many people end up living in a permanent state of internal conflict where the life they live on the outside contradicts the life they live on the inside, made all the more frustrating by the fact they are physically at home. The very work /life balance, efficiency and effectiveness that flexible working seeks to achieve is lost to feelings of guilt, being under the microscope and pressure to overwork.

Learning to lead well and to give genuine support so people thrive are essential skills for managers to ensure the emotional wellbeing of remote workers and the success of flexible working policies. Leaders need to demonstrate commitment to the new flexible/virtual ways of working by setting their own example, modelling the ways in which employees are expected to work, remain accountable and achieve a better work/life balance.

The future of work is about management of grown-ups by grown-ups – colleagues and bosses who are emotionally intelligent enough to build and maintain long-distance relationships of mutual trust, respect and accountability. For many companies this requires a real shift in organisational culture and assumptions, development of leadership capability and behaviours, and changes to policies / processes around job design, performance measurement and reward.

3.  Equip People with the Skills to Schedule Based on Values, not Todo Lists

The third issue mentioned by remote workers about lack of structure and boundaries goes to the heart of the issue around creating a healthy work / life balance. For decades we have grappled with this tension, even though physically turning up to the office created a degree of structure. With remote working there are now literally no boundaries, and people now need to learn to establish healthy boundaries around home, work and life properlymaybe for the first time. For many of us these boundaries have long been blurred to non-existent but we have not given ourselves permission to push back and create our own workable structure and balance. With the trend to flexible working and an “always on” digital culture, we need even stronger emotional intelligence, clarity of individual purpose and empowerment to set the boundaries that work for our own emotional health, wellbeing and productivity, and for the wellbeing of those who matter to us..

The problem is we still live with outdated beliefs – like this nebulous personal / professional divide and the implication that some things cannot be discussed in a work context despite the fact that they have always determined if and how we show up to work. So, because we are still not able to talk freely about personal relationships/partners, children, aging parents, illnesses and other “personal” issues in a professional context, at least half of the things that motivate, inspire, ignite, energise and drive us in life need to be edited out of our conversation and “way of being” most of the time. People feel forced to silence the grating of contradicted values on the inside for the sake of a pay cheque. This constant editing is unnatural and unsustainable… and ultimately breaks us. No wonder mental ill health is soaring. No surprises that in this era of working fluidly and flexibly, employee wellbeing has risen to become a major strategic concern.

business man on scooter

The challenge of working remotely is that people feel doubly pressured to prove they are performing when away from the office and dare not even believe they can take charge and order their lives in the direction of the balance that works best for them. For successful results from remote or flexible working, people need to be empowered and equipped to order their lives and key deliverables around the things and people that matter to them while being trusted to deliver on their job. Until we learn to establish clear boundaries driven by our own values and priorities, we become slaves to the digital intrusions – the chimes and pings of emails, texts, chat groups etc – basically other people imposing their agendas.

In the classic urgent / important matrix, these intrusions all seem urgent and important. Everything written on a todo list seems to have equal weighting. Yet the things that are truly important to us – like the relationship with our partner or children, or our health – aren’t the things that scream for our attention, not at first anyway. These are the things that we keep postponing … until they break, or we break … or both.  

The key to success for remote workers here is to learn to schedule based on values and priorities rather than on todo lists, as we wrote about in our blog on Avoiding Relationship Strain When Working From Home . It’s rare for many of us to give thought to our own values and priorities, and hardly, if ever, do we stop to think about our life’s vision and purpose. Yet these are the things that inspire us to live, work and play full on, without the pressure of being compared to others or the guilt of saying yes or no to the things that need to be yes or no for that season. When we take the time to identify our own core values and priorities, the clarity and focus that comes from understanding who and what are important to us become rocket fuel in our engine on any given day.  Remote / flexible working creates the opportunity for individuals (hence organisations) to tap into the energy that comes from being “authentically aligned” where our diaries and the lives we live on the outside reflect the values we hold dear. But we must learn how to do this well and consistently.

When we take charge of our schedule and reclaim pockets of time to invest in our key relationships and our own self-care, we become re-energised and re-engaged. Suddenly, we see a world in which the pay cheque or career doesn’t have to come at the high price of sacrifices we assumed. We can choose not to live in a permanent state of stress and overwhelm despite the deluge of things that get thrown at us 24/7. We can choose to say no to the wrong things so that we have the mental, emotional and physical space to say yes to the right things and / or the things that are right for this season. And we can choose to structure our day around the people and things that matter to us and still get the job done!

To make remote working successful, employees need to be empowered and equipped to create their own value-based schedule and trusted to deliver results through clear goals, milestones and accountability, rather than micro-management.

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Relationship breakdown and the workplace - YouGov Research Report

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