Do your managers open doors?
Reflecting on conversations I’ve had over the past two years with friends, colleagues, managers and other professionals in the HR and leadership space, the reality of working from home has (unsurprisingly) been a very hot topic. From the personal reflections on why they love a 42-second commute each morning or miss having their team around them, the conversation has often turned to more organisation-level questions about whether some degree of remote working will work for their organisations in the long term.
There are countless factors that play into this decision, and we are still in a world where quick reactive decisions are required to match a rapidly changing health landscape. However, we are also entering a phase where slower, more considered decision making is appropriate. New norms and standards have been established and matters of workplace choice and flexibility have become crucial in hiring strategies and talent retention discussions.
Despite over two years of doing so, most managers are still grappling with the challenge of effectively managing people who are dispersed physically:
“How can I make sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to when I can’t see them?”
“How can I keep motivation and team connection strong if I’m not there in person?”
“Can we still be innovative when we’re not together every day?”
I find these conversations interesting for two reasons. The first is that I have heard positive reflections on each of these same issues.
“We actually talk more purposefully about what we’re doing and when because you can’t just overhear it and assume you know the details.”
“I say hello to Peter’s dog each morning on the stand-up call and I feel like I know my team more as real people now”
“We’ve made more progress on innovation in the last three months than the last two years”
The second reason is that these questions don’t actually feel new. If you take off the elements related to where people are working (can’t see them, not there in person etc…), these look like the very same questions managers and leaders targeted in 2019 – how to efficiently deliver, keep people motivated and drive innovation and connection at work.
The added element of distance and general upheaval from a pandemic has obviously added layers to these questions and brought up very real puzzles for organisations to sift through. Has it complicated the challenge of strong management within a team more than a merger and acquisition scenario though? What about a change in the senior leadership of a team, or a 180-degree turn in strategic direction for a company? Or, are we dealing with a new face to a very old management character – the ability to manage through change?
The skills and resilience it takes to manage through change remain constant. Our own Roffey Park research and insight highlight key issues around perspective, trust, communication, connection and collaboration as crucial to success in this area. The pandemic may have acted more as a magnifying glass to these existing management development needs as opposed to a catalyst for some novel problem and solution. So what does this mean for those leaders asking the questions above?
Challenge the assumption this is purely an issue of location
If managerial capability feels like a major barrier to introducing elements of workplace flexibility, it’s also likely holding you back from getting the best out of your people inside the office.
Roffey Park’s research on leading virtual teams stated that what is “desirable to have in a traditional manager” becomes “vital” in a virtual one. Managers who feel uncomfortable leading teams without an eagle eye on their work may not be making the best use of their time, or setting the best mood for their team, at the office. The manager who struggles to communicate ideas to their team over zoom isn’t likely to transform and ace that skill just because they’re in a meeting room. Really question and critically reflect on whether the managerial pool you have concerns about – do they have the skills they need and are simply challenged by the added complexity of location or are there skills gaps that a shared location minimises but focused development could solve?
Question if your managers are unnecessarily shutting the door on opportunities
Developing your managers’ skills and helping them stay resilient through change of any kind will inevitably keep your business more resilient to change as well. That is valuable in an abstract sense for the future opportunities your business might encounter, but it is worth thinking shorter term too. What opportunities could you say yes to in the next few years if you invested in managerial development today?
In the conversation on offering workplace choice, this might be offering your talent new options that encourage them to buck the “great resignation” trend or give them a better employee experience. In recruitment discussions, you might have more leverage and be able to paint a new employee proposition. And, of course, there will be other opportunities that have nothing to do with workplaces at all but are definitely made possible by having more confidence in your managers or giving managers more confidence in their own abilities.
No matter what decisions your business makes around the issue of workplace flexibility, it strikes me as a shame to hastily close the door on any new opportunity because of management capability. That particular factor is within your remit to influence, shape and grow, and doing so may just allow you to offer your current teams, future talent and the business itself options that make a difference.