• Managing people

No More Nine-to-Five

Three Rotman experts discuss the challenges and opportunities for those leading a remote workforce


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Remarkably, 75% of participants in a recent Rotman School of Management webinar said that working remotely, due to the Covid-19 crisis, their productivity was either greater or the same as working in the office. This echoes a wider recent survey by INSEAD which found 78% to be more productive.  

67% of Rotman participants said they were getting enough support from their managers (begging the question were they getting enough support beforehand?). 4% said they were getting too much managerial support.

If these stats are at all representative, they suggest that insights from this timely webinar, Leading a Remote Workforce, delivered by Rotman’s Professor Geoff Leonardelli, Alumnus Rachel Megitt, and Dean Tiff Macklem, may have more than short-term relevance. The current situation represents a huge experiment in remote working, the results of which may have a profound effect on how organizations structure their work in future.

The experiment is going to reveal many challenges, unintended consequences, and opportunities, which will inform how we approach work in future. In many ways the way people are coping with the crisis is very impressive. On the other hand, many are suffering emotional strain and anxiety caused by uncertainty, industry sector disruption, and strain on their personal lives. The internet has been central to this experiment. Although computer power has been with us for decades, the fact it is now ubiquitous in our daily lives has never before been so starkly demonstrated.

Geoff Leonardelli recommended these four key rules for leading a remote workforce:

More leadership. More than ever, in a remote working context, leaders need to be visible and supportive and to make co-workers feel valued—not for their physical presence but for the work they are doing.

Avoid making assumptions. When co-workers fail to respond, it is important not to ‘assume’ or make up your own story. Leaders need to know each team member’s circumstances and recognize some may be under pressure for many reasons.

Set routines. It is important to maintain set routines for team meetings etc. and keep as close to office schedules as possible. But the advantage of working from home is that work life balance can be reconceptualized. People can truly integrate work and life. Leaders should recognize the demands on their co-workers working at home, particularly those with children, and should also encourage people to take breaks and not to over work.

Build trust. Maintaining regular transparent communication with the whole team is key to building trust and trust is essential for effective remote working. It is important also to communicate the rules of engagement as far as how to communicate. Video conferencing can be very effective, though for some people find this uncomfortable.

Of course, many organizations are suffering due to the crisis. And keeping morale up in the face of financial difficulties, necessary redundancies, and general uncertainty is an essential leadership requirement. The crisis is an opportunity to show truly authentic leadership. Without physical proximity leaders necessarily have less ways to exert control, so authenticity is more important than ever. By being transparent, sharing experiences, showing personal vulnerability, helping co-workers understand what the organization is going through and what the plans are to get through it, leaders can build team cohesion and resilience.

Rachel Megitt pointed out how working remotely leads to teams having more formal conversations—no more informal chats passing in the corridor. This can have benefits in formalizing communication but it does take up much more time and teams need to find a sensible equilibrium. She also points to a potentially positive, if unintended gender-related consequence: in the commuting, nine-to-five, business day many women, typically with child rearing and domestic pressures, tend not to be around for informal after work meetings in the office or the pub. At least for the time being this is no longer an issue.

With this, Tiff Macklem raised the broader question of diversity and inclusion—an ongoing concern for many companies and the focus of much academic interest. In periods of economic stress some communities are often left behind. With remote working, leaders need to be aware that some people will find it more difficult to transition to the new ways of working than others. More senior people are more likely to be comfortable with video conferencing technology etc. than those from more junior positions, though conversely younger ‘digital natives’ may take to the new context better than older people. Working remotely may also expose educational and class divides in the workforce previously less noticeable and leaders need to be sensitive to this to maintain inclusion.

Looking to the future, Macklem believes we need to think hard about how our organizations will rebound and what strategic lessons we can take forward from this big experiment—will we return to our offices and continue as before, perhaps as Megitt suggests rather exhaustedly? Or will remote working become a much greater part of our working lives? And critically what lessons we can learn in order to anticipate and prepare for future crises?

Rotman School of Management is Canada’s leading business school and has Canada’s largest group of management faculty. It is home to some of the most innovative research institutes in the world

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