A lot of managers who felt confident and effective in the office are getting pushed by remote work to a space of discomfort, where they feel disconnected from their teams and an inability to get the pulse of what’s happening. This is a very common sentiment, especially for long time leaders who have layered a lot of experience and nuance in the way they worked in an office. The same however applies also for people that are new at management, and they have to take steps in the remote environment.
This article will outline some structural obstacles and provide a framework to face the fears that every manager doing remote management is likely having.
Before getting to the framework, we need to address one elephant in the room. Some managers will have problems with remote work not because of remote work, but because remote work exposes how their management style is ineffective and possibly outright bad.
There are a few elements of bad management that will be exposed by remote work. Here are the most common ones:
- Power posturing
- Gaps exploitation
Micromanagement is a condition that happens when the managers float around people’s desks, and try to question, review, and change all the things, even getting to the most minute details. Remote work exposes these managers by making this floating behaviour impossible, so any action becomes explicit: a message written in a chat, private or public, doesn’t have the same impermanence required for micromanagement to happen unnoticed.
Power posturing is a condition that happens when a manager projects a physical image of power, using a whole range of techniques: loud voice, outfit, body postures, gestures, placement in the space, etc. Remote work exposes these managers by removing the weight of the physical presence entirely, thus making all these techniques ineffective. They might try something different, but it becomes easier to notice.
Gaps exploitation is a condition that happens when a manager tries to have their way by changing things outside the spaces where the discussion should happen, and outside accountability, thus an optional (and exclusionary) after-work drink becomes a boon to push one’s own agenda. Remote work exposes these managers by having more emphasis on writing, scheduled calls, and removing effectively all the gaps that were used before to put pressure on people.
Managers that used these traits to gain their position will try to oppose remote work very strongly because they are losing these ways to impose themselves. But let’s be clear: they weren’t good managers before, they were just able to avoid being recognized because the office space provides plausible deniability: “I was just passing by”, “I was just stretching”, “It’s just a drink”, etc. All of this goes away when remote, so their shortcomings are evident — and thus they will fight to get everyone back in the office.
These are to be considered pre-existing conditions because they will slow down and limit the effectiveness of any shift to remote work — which includes the effectiveness of this framework. In some cases they will be so disruptive that they will effectively stall any progress, for example if these people are executives. Spotting these conditions will allow to remove roadblocks and enable a smoother change.
At the same time, there’s no implication here that everyone that wants to be back in the office is a bad manager: there can be very good reasons to have some office time depending on company, role, product, etc. It’s usually easy however to spot the difference between the two cases knowing the conditions listed above.
One of the main drivers of the implicit benefits that an in-person office is presence. It’s thus important to first acknowledge that getting away from the office environment means having a definite loss of presence. This is unavoidable.
This understanding could then lead to an attempt to identify such implicit benefits and try to transfer one-to-one office dynamics in a remote work environment. This is a well placed sentiment, but the wrong strategy. The kind of presence that the office implicitly creates can’t be replicated.
What has to be done is to try to instead embrace the remote work environment, and identify which new and alternative forms of presence can be used and leveraged. This principle is the foundation of the framework.
There’s one addenda to this: good distributed companies are also known to have in-person meetups from one to a few times per year. This is because there’s still value in having people to meet in person. 1-4 times a year in most companies is a good balance.
Presence Framework Overview
Due to the lack of presence, any manager that shifts to remote work should put more emphasis on the human, connective side of things: the social aspects of remote work. I’ve seen so many times “hyper efficient” managers that kept all the communications strictly functional… and while the team worked ok, they didn’t feel like a team (note that some people might like this, so this is not a judgement assessment, but a call for awareness).
The presence framework provides a lens through which a manager (or more generally a lead) can re-tune their skills to be effective in a remote environment. Here I want to highlight again that it assumes that a manager is already a good manager, or has the potential to be one. This framework doesn’t invent a new way to do management, nor it’s a fully comprehensive view on how to do it: it just provides a structure to be more effective working with a remote team and a remote organization. It’s not a management framework, it’s a remote framework for managers.
Each of the work and social aspects need to be fulfilled at three different levels: individual person, direct team, full organization.
This identifies six quadrants:
- Work + Person → Mentor & Coach
- Work + Team → Signals & Tasks
- Work + Org → Share & Connect
- Social + Person → 1:1s
- Social + Team → Social touchpoints
- Social + Org → Open socials
Note that for managers that lead larger teams the “team” refers to the people directly reporting to them, not to the overall group. In this scenario, the overall group is a mix between team and org levels.
Work + Person→ Mentor & Coach
The work needs of the person are fulfilled by direct mentoring where possible, coaching when it’s a better choice, and more broadly supporting with a personal touch. While in an office environment this kind of connection could happen informally (and some leaders are incredibly good at this) in a remote environment there’s no way but being explicit. The important aspect here is to emphasize the combination of knowledge transfer and personal connection. It’s not just knowledge. It’s not just personal. It’s both.
While not specifically between the manager and each person in the team, it could also be incredibly valuable to explicitly organize peer support between the various members of the team. This won’t directly improve the direct relationship with the manager, but it lays the interpersonal foundation that can support a whole team’s growth.
- If the organization has existing growth paths, the manager can lean on that for this. Just remember however that it’s still important that this isn’t completely delegated. The manager should still be involved personally, just indirectly.
- If the manager has skills that are able to support the mentoring process, then the manager can take charge of mentoring directly.
- If the manager doesn’t have the skills to mentor in the areas needed by the person, then they could find someone in the organization or hire someone external, while supporting the logistics and organization of the mentoring with the other person, and following their growth.
- Coaching is also a strong approach, as sometimes there’s no need for the knowledge transfer included in mentoring. Coaching can be at times even more effective as it’s more empowering for the person. Similar to mentoring, this could also be delegated to a professional (internal or external) as long as the progress is follower and the personal touch isn’t lost.
Work + Team → Signals & Tasks
This is a major area of focus, and it’s further split in two different aspects. The signals are all the inputs that the manager needs to keep getting in order to be aware of the work done and support the team appropriately. In physical spaces these can be just the awareness around the discussion happening in the open space around the people, but when remote that is gone. As such, it’s important to create these communication channels that keep the manager updated.
The other area is about tasks, which means that the manager, and the team as a whole, has visibility on the activities everyone is doing. This usually requires some kind of tool, but in small teams could also be done lightweight by sharing in the preferred communication channels. This provides a way for the manager to not just have another signal, but also to provide feedback, guidance, support, and remove roadblocks.
It’s important for tasks to not fall in the micro-management trap: the visibility this approach provides isn’t meant to give a way into every discussion and every detail, and to question everything — as noted at the beginning of this article micro-management is one of the negative preconditions that will reduce the effectiveness of any remote work. Trust is essential. Similarly, this doesn’t make the manager a project manager, unless that’s the role, of course.
The underlying philosophical shift that tasks imply is that the manager shouldn’t manage by time, but by outputs — or even better, outcomes. A manager that tries to manage by time in a remote environment is going to have a hard time, create distrust, and overall impact negatively not just their effectiveness but the whole team’s. Unfortunately, this is why some managers feel that remote removed their ability to be effective: they managed by time, and that’s just not possible when remote.
- Stand-ups can be very effective. In some teams this could be done in audio (or video if you insist), but even better when remote is to do text stand-ups.
- If the organization doesn’t have any way or tool to organize tasks, it’s wise to either discuss this at a higher level, or at least start using something within the team. In small teams could be something as simple as a Trello or GitHub kanban board.
- Weekly team meetings could have the agenda changed from open discussion to structured discussions — if they aren’t already. They could then become a space where work done is highlighted, larger questions are raised (not resolved), and blockers are discussed. For extra points, meetings could include a social moment, either opening or closing.
Work + Org → Share & Connect
Any good manager has a practice that allows them to be connected with the organization as a whole. Most established companies already have some routine here, but if not, make sure the manager is able to have a two way communication going:
- Outward sharing of the work done by the team, to create awareness, accountability, and celebrate wins.
- Inward connection to stay informed and coordinate with other managers across the business unit and the company.
This is probably one that is most difficult to balance, especially at the beginning, because a lot of managers will start pushing for “meetings” to happen to try to keep everyone on the same page. It’s ok to start there, but that should become an iterative learning moment to then try to reduce these to other forms of communication, likely more asynchronous.
- Leverage existing discussion spaces, and review the structure of these in order to fulfill both the outward (sharing) and inward (connection) flows. Larger organizations might need different approaches here, do some experimentation to see what works for you.
- Think more deeply about the communications that are happening, and even more importantly, why?. What’s important? What’s the actual goal of these communications? Is this actually needed? A lot of meetings might be reduced, or transformed.
- Have regular 1:1 conversations with other managers, directors, executives across the organization wherever possible (and as the schedule allows).
Social + Person → 1:1s
Good managers already have a good practice of doing 1:1s with the team. There are however many techniques and philosophies that could be used to conduct these, and the one I advise as it works best in remote environments is to have 1:1s as a personal moment. This means:
- It should not be about work, and if it has to be for any reason, at least dedicate part of the time to connecting as people.
- The agenda should be directed by the person. They decide what to talk about each time. This is important to give agency and allow them to express at their own comfort level.
- It should be a safe space.
This might not align perfectly with your existing way of doing 1:1s, but it’s still what I would suggest overall in terms of remote work. If it doesn’t work for you, find a different way to have that personal, individual connection. Don’t rely exclusively on group activities, as this is a different quadrant in the framework.
- I’ll be frank, there aren’t many options: it’s just 1:1s. You just need to find the format that works for you.
Social + Team → Social touchpoints
In the office this is often left implicit, it just happens with the people in the team finding time to spend together. But remote? It’s essential that every manager makes sure that the team has some kind of social touchpoint to interact with each other. I don’t think here there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. The important aspect is to have the space, and make sure it’s a space that everyone is comfortable in. This might be easy in some teams and hard in others, so take your time and try different things.
This can also change over time. Under relaxing periods this could be a more cognitively intense activity, and during periods of stress might even take the form of a space where people vented a bit together and shared their emotions.
- Some teams I know picked an online game everyone liked, and played as a team for 1h.
- Some teams had a social chat having tea together, often discussing different brews.
- Some teams just shared a different ice-breaker question every time and enjoyed the discussions that started from there.
- …and so on. Make sure everyone enjoys the activity. In some teams it might be difficult, but it’s essential to not just assume people will accept an activity. Be creative, ask for everyone’s ideas, find your own.
Social + Org → Open socials
Individual managers might not have a lot of leverage to start company-wide or organization-wide activities, but whenever possible having open social moments that connect more people than just the direct team could be an excellent approach.
One core aspect to keep in mind here is that these social moments should be:
- Optional — if people feel that something like this is mandatory, it will not work as intended. % of participation is a good measure, but it’s not a decision-making measure.
- Varied — change them up over time, organize something different every month, or add anything that breaks the monotony
- Invite guest speakers, and after that allow time for people to stay and discuss between them. It’s not great to invite and then “bye” and everyone goes back to what they were doing, in that case a recorded video is better. Use for example breakout room features in video apps.
- Provide a theme for different events, so there’s some guidance on what to do and it’s not just an open chat with a group of people.
- Use Donut to have 1:1s across the whole company or across specific groups of people. Nice, informal, and opt-in.
Combining my personal experience in consulting executives that need to switch to remote with surveys that have been done recently, I’ve synthesized a list of the most common fears that managers have expressed:
- Lacking awareness of the work done
- Losing personal connections
- Losing company culture
- Lack of transparency
- Losing career opportunities
- Lacking training for junior people
- Lack of quick response when something urgent arises
If you review the Presence Framework you’ll notice that most of the fears are addressed within the model. Let’s review them.
Lacking awareness of the work done is addressed by signals and tasks (work + team). Creating connections, getting the right tools, getting weekly overviews, doing text stand-ups, this all creates the awareness managers need.
Losing personal connections is challenging, but it’s where the whole social criteria applies: 1:1s, social touchpoints, open socials are all essential to re-establish these connections that might weaken outside the office.
Losing company culture doesn’t have a direct answer because “culture” is a very amorphous definition itself. Yet, the presence framework as a whole is meant to support this in a fractal way: culture is created by people, and if every manager and every team boosts the social dimension as the framework suggests, the impact scales to the whole company. This is especially coordinated at a higher level by the open socials (social + org).
Miscommunication can generally happen everywhere, but what managers usually mean in a remote context is usually miscommunication because of the heavier use of text, with the assumption that face to face is better. This isn’t always true — text provides detachment, time to reflect, allows even to ask others to review a reply before doing so! — but when it is, it’s easy to jump in an audio or even video call, thus allowing for that quick exchange meant to resolve more subtle issues. Text is primary, but not exclusive.
Lack of transparency is addressed by how the framework increases the number of communication channels and interactions, especially in terms of sharing and connecting (work + org). This is also generally supported by tools that aren’t “closed by default”, but where conversations are visible and transparent to everyone.
Losing career opportunities is very subtle, and often refers to the chance of someone to be able to see there’s an opportunity first, and then to either be sponsored or suggest they are the right choice. This is addressed by providing explicit mentoring and coaching (work + person) as well as by the increased transparency that the whole framework provides.
Lacking training for junior people can be approached in different ways. Part of this can be supported by company-wide growth programs, but the rest that happens in the relationship with the manager is provided by the combination of mentor and coaching (work + person) as well as 1:1s (social + person) as well by the increased transparency provided by seeing everyone’s work in having a shared view provided by signals and tasks (work + team).
Lack of quick response when something urgent arises can’t really be solved apart from setting expectations within the team of what’s expected, and what’s not expected. Not making this explicit creates just a constant “always on” pressure to everyone in the team that’s not good for mental health. This is very tool-dependent: for example it could be that normal questions and communications in the main team channel are expected to be replied within 2-3 hours (good for a few pomodoros of focus) but direct tags should be replied as soon as possible.
Across All Management Styles
All these suggestions work across all the 6 management styles. There aren’t — at least in my experience — styles that work better or worse, outside the existing considerations between each one of them.
This is what I mean when I say that remote work highlights when there are poor management practices, but good management works well in remote work regardless. The change isn’t in the management skills by themselves, it’s in how explicit one needs to be in creating the space for these skills to express themselves.
Similarly, this is also why this framework doesn’t replace existing management skills, nor is a general management framework: it’s specifically about making the existing abilities shine.
- PWC (2021) It’s time to reimagine where and how work will get done
- Matrix (2021) Working from Home Report
- S. K. Parker, C. Knight, A. Keller (2020) Remote Managers Are Having Trust Issues
- Capgemini (2020) The Future Of Work: from remote to hybrid
Thanks to Margaret Hanley, Jason Mesut, Eva Schafroth and Brian Hoadley for the valuable feedback that contributed to make this article sharper and clearer.