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Check-in, not check-up: How managers need to change in an evolving workplace

It’s been said that ‘managing by walking around does not translate into managing by emailing around’. That might be true – but it’s also not a bad thing.  

In my experience, a manager walking around meant someone checking up to make sure you were at your desk. Not helpfully asking if you were okay, more to make sure you were hard at work. That’s why many employees in law firms, for example, learn the skill of leaving a jacket on their chair when they leave for the day – it makes it look like they are still around the office somewhere.  

We need to move away from checking up and move towards checking in.

Managing and leading people is hard enough in the easiest of times  

Add in a pandemic and major changes in where and when we work, it understandably was going to make managing harder. A study reported by Harvard Business Review in 2020 found that over 40% of managers expressed low confidence in their ability to manage distributed teams. A similar number had negative views about the performance of distributed workers. When managers account for 70% variance in employee engagement (a number I believe would increase if limited to studying hybrid/remote teams), which directly impacts productivity, it is extremely important to make sure all managers have the tools and support they need. 

I’ve got three big tips for helping managers make the transition to managing a distributed team. 

Get onboard 

The first tip is to get onboard. It is going to be extremely hard to manage a distributed team if deep down, or even worse – vocally, a manager doesn’t support the concept of flexible/remote work. Trust is essential for any effective relationship, but it is unlikely to be present if remote workers are made to feel like second class citizens. 

To change this kind of unhelpful manager behaviour, leaders right from the top need to be actively showing their support for distributed arrangements by taking advantage of flexibility themselves and encouraging it in their direct reports. They also need to be communicating why they’ve made this change – whether it be for retention purposes, positive productivity impacts or some other benefit of flexible working. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate

It’s trite to say that good communication is essential. We all know this. But when team members are out of sight, it’s easy to forget about them. Now sometimes we might try to convince ourselves that we are giving people autonomy, but there is a big difference between empowering people and abandoning them. One law firm worker I spoke with said that she went five months without speaking to her manager after transitioning to a remote work arrangement. She wasn’t impressed and didn’t hang around for more. 

People also like to communicate differently. There are so many options: verbal in person or via phone/video, written documents/emails, visual diagrams etc and then you need to choose whether to communicate synchronously or asynchronously. 

Given all these options, it’s important for managers to talk with their team to agree what methods will be used, and an appropriate rhythm of communication. For example, all quick questions are to be via Teams/Slack, no emails unless forwarding something, daily 5 minute huddles audio only, weekly video meetings etc. Like most things, managers will get more buy-in from their teams about the agreed communication plan when there has been some consultation. 

Finally, don’t forget to build in time for non-work communication. Talking about the weekend, hobbies, or even the weather if you’re desperate, helps build relationships and strengthens team bonds essential for team performance and preventing feelings of social isolation. 

Focus on results, not bums on seats

In pure office-based environments it is common to equate time spent in an office chair with productivity. Those employees who swan around the office chatting throughout the course of the day are frowned upon. Those who sit in front of their computer for hours on end are deemed to be “good” workers. However, this is clearly not a useful measure of productivity. It may be that the chatty worker is way more efficient and does a better job than their counterpart. Or perhaps the person sitting at the computer is just watching You Tube videos and searching Marketplace. 

When people work in a distributed team, they can’t just be measured by time spent in their seat – which we also know is a useless measure. Instead, the focus needs to be on results. This means to measure performance and productivity in a distributed team it is even more important than usual to set clear expectations through well written job descriptions, objectives and key results. 

By using these base standards, you can “check-in” on an employee’s progress, rather than “checking up” to make sure they are working. 

Jo Alilovic is an employment lawyer, author of Homeforce, speaker, and founder of flexible law practice 3D HR Legal, who helps businesses go from people problems to teams that get results. 

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