Remote working – can it continue to deliver long-term?

By Gemma Creagh - Last update

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The onset of the pandemic has propelled managers, leaders and business owners into the slightly surreal world of sustained remote performance management. With the rapid onset of societal lockdowns, organisations were forced to make this transition quickly, and for the most part, without dedicated preparation or training. Let’s take a look at some of the challenges surrounding performance management as uncertainty over the length of the pandemic continues.

While many jobs have proven adaptable, there are of course plenty sectors that are not well-suited for the remote environment and many workers have domestic situations that present overwhelming challenges to working effectively. During this time, some managers may be finding their roles more difficult than before and making their employees’ lives more stressful as they struggle to adapt.

Even prior to the pandemic, the remote management of a workforce presented unique obstacles. It is human nature that managers who cannot “see” those that report directly to them sometimes struggle to trust that their employees are indeed doing their work. When such doubts creep in, managers can start to develop an unreasonable expectation that those team members be available at all times, ultimately disrupting their work-home balance and causing more job stress. This is something that has definitely manifested itself within the pandemic, with many citing a lack of delineation as to when the working day ended.  

But the success stories far outweigh the negative ones. Recent research by leading UK and Ireland branding agency Core revealed that most workers believe that their employers have reacted well to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and from the employers perspective and from the employers perspective, workers have responded incredibly well to the uncertainty of the situation.

If we look at what is happening today and consider the many scenarios employees may be facing — especially those with compromised finances or families to care for — it is certain that workers, at the very least, are struggling to perform at the same level as they did before, or at the least, are seeing some changes in their degree of productivity. This, if not addressed, could create a negative spiral in which mistrust leads to micromanagement, which then leads to drops in employee motivation, which could have a further effect on productivity. With the global economy facing the onset of a recession of uncertain, but forbidding, proportions, the ability to manage remote working long terms is key to economic resilience.

Challenges over the long term

However, an extensive Harvard Business Review (HBR) indicated that there may be significant problems around remote working in the long term. The survey, by the world’s leading business and leadership publication, invited remote workers all over the world to participate in a study that began mid-April of this year. They asked 92 questions to investigate how the pandemic is impacting the work, well-being, and productivity of both managers and employees. Among other questions, they asked participants whether they have the opportunity to choose when, where, and how they carry out their jobs, whether work in the HBR study also asked participants how they feel at work, in an effort to measure levels of engagement, emotional exhaustion, anxiety or enthusiasm.

The first round of the survey took results from 1200 people in 24 different countries..The preliminary findings seem to suggest that many managers are struggling in their roles, and would benefit from more support, from other managers or business stakeholders. The research also suggests that better quality management will improve remote workers’ wellbeing and performance.

Trust and motivation in the remote workforce

About 40% of the 215 supervisors and managers surveyed expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely. 23% of managers disagreed with the statement “I am confident I can manage a team of remote workers” and another 16% were unsure about their ability to do this. A similar number said that they lacked the confidence to influence remote workers to do their job well, and coordinate a team of remote workers effectively. The HBR findings suggest a lack of efficiency for managing remote working, referring to the belief in one’s own ability to master challenging situations.

A similar proportion of managers had negative views about remote workers’ performance. Thirty-eight percent of managers agreed that remote workers usually perform worse than those who work in an office, with 22% being unsure. The good news in the study though is that this is narrowly eclipsed by the 40% who believe that there is no difference between being in the office and working remotely when it comes to performance. However the high percentage of ‘unsure’ responses indicates that there is still plenty of work to do to reassure those in management positions that performance levels are not dropping during prolonged periods of remote working. The HBR study indicates that those that provide little organised structure for remote working are among those to struggle most in terms of managing it. For those managers who reported that their company provides little support for flexible working, the level of self-efficacy for managing remote workers was lower. It seems that when a company is invested long term to remote working, they provide practical support, such as technology and training, and they convey positive messages of openness about this work practice both of which appeared to increase the ability of managers to lead remote workers.

Due to the uncertainty of the situation created by the pandemic, the data in the HBR study may be particular to this period of extreme uncertainty. In more ‘normal’ times, when remote working was the exception rather than the rule, they would quite possibly be coping better with the challenges it presents. However, as this seems to be the only feasible working arrangement for large portions of the workforce for the foreseeable future, it seems that learning to deliver, as both a manager and an employee, will be an ongoing and evolving process. 

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Gemma Creagh

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