How to lead from afar

WCHICKEN OFFICE workers were sent home in the spring of 2020, managers suddenly faced a new challenge: how to manage teams that were working remotely. As employees gradually return to their desks, a much larger proportion will work from home at least occasionally than before the pandemic. A new book, “Remote Leader,” by James Citrin and Darleen Derosa of Spencer Stuart, an executive search firm, attempts to provide practical advice for managers dealing with employees they don’t see face to face.

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The authors are not part of the dark camp that believes remote working is a disaster. They think it can be as effective as working face to face. They point out that the ability to hire people who can work anywhere means that companies will have an easier time developing a more diverse workforce. A study by McKinsey, a consulting firm, found that 70% of companies believed remote recruiting would help in this regard.

The book offers some useful tips. For starters, keep virtual teams small. The upper threshold appears to be around a dozen. One study found that 37% of underperforming teams had 13 or more members, compared to just 24% of high performing teams. Additionally, top performing teams tended to come from a single department, such as marketing, rather than the entire company.

The trickiest part of a manager’s job is building relationships. It is easy for remote workers to feel isolated, so supervisors need to be in regular contact. But it’s a tough line to walk. There is a difference between checking if someone needs help and constantly monitoring their progress. If team members feel harassed, they will conclude that their superiors do not trust them.

Much of the communication will be via email, which has its advantages. It’s easy to share, can be read multiple times for easy understanding, and can be viewed long after it’s sent. But email also introduces the risk of losing nuance. The authors cite studies showing that emails perceived as neutral by the sender are perceived as negative by the recipient; and recipients regard as neutral those perceived by the sender as positive.

Mr. Citrin and Ms. Derosa also warn of the dangers of virtual meetings. It is not because it is possible to program one that it is necessary or wise to do it. Poorly managed meetings don’t just waste time, they compromise the ability to meet deadlines, which adds stress to workers. Long meetings should have breaks, which the manager should be responsible for enforcing. And any meeting should last 20 or 50 minutes, rather than 30 minutes or an hour, to allow for an interval between sessions in an hourly schedule.

Sometimes the advice from the authors gets a bit generic. According to them, virtual meetings should have one of four purposes: solving problems, making decisions, gaining support or building relationships. Unfortunately, in Bartleby’s experience, an inventive manager could describe almost any meeting as meeting at least one of these criteria. Later in the book, they describe the most important characteristics of virtual leaders as “strong communication and interpersonal skills, initiative, flexibility, and the ability to learn and adapt.” These are certainly useful attributes for all leaders, whether they operate remotely or not?

And some of the suggestions seem markedly out of place. As part of team building, the authors suggest that colleagues post pictures on their shelves or walk around the kitchen and tell the stories behind the items there. Just as Bartleby would love to hear about Bagehot’s egg whisk or Schumpeter’s salad spinner, he hopes this idea doesn’t catch on. The Economist. The same goes for the suggestion that festive virtual parties would be enlivened by having staff dressed, with a vote on best attire, or having coworkers submit videos of their children or pets. Pet videos should be limited to YouTube.

There are some things that need to change when people are working remotely. But not everything does. Managers will need to make a more determined effort to stay in touch with their staff, but those who know how to listen and who can understand how their team members cope should still be able to thrive. If, as most people expect, a hybrid model emerges with working remotely a few days a week, there will be plenty of scope for interaction when managers and team members are both present. What office life doesn’t need are gadgets. Co-workers don’t need to be treated like contestants for a game show.

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the title “How to lead from afar”

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