Monday, August 31, 2020
Managers have to learn new ways to lead.

[Note: This column also appears in Washington Technology. It is the seventh in a series on how the COVID-19 crisis has changed how government works. Michaela Drust, IBM, co-authored this column.]

Early in the pandemic, Congress appropriated $46 billion to agencies to support technology upgrades for cloud and telework capabilities. However, the challenges facing federal agency transitions to a distance work environment may not be technology driven.

Some federal agencies were skeptical of telework before the pandemic and have had to overcome cultural barriers to continue their work. The Secret Service, for example, was reluctant to move to a cloud platform, but did so in order to enable collaboration tools to keep its employees connected. Employees at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can’t print sensitive documents at home for review. And many IRS employees were idled because their software at work was too old to make the transition to telework.

The coronavirus pandemic has prescribed a new meaning to the traditional concept of a “team.” Instead of a group gathered around a table to discuss and solve problems, teams are now a collection of geographically isolated individuals who communicate virtually and lack in-person interaction. For government agencies that lacked remote work opportunities prior to the pandemic, the implementation of full telework provided teams with new challenges. Some teams were able to embrace these obstacles and overcome them, increasing their strength in the process.

Here are six challenges that managers of remote teams have to master in either the public or private sectors:

Challenge 1: Maintaining Individual and Team Productivity. Technology plays a significant role in bridging the physical distance between teams. With functionalities for video calls, group chats, and document sharing, tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams have allowed team members to work productively and improve collaboration. In many cases, these tools provide the instantaneous communication that is natural in the office and facilitate the co-creation of knowledge by providing storage for documents, discussions, and meeting recordings. In a remote work environment, these tools are the glue that hold teams together and ensure that they stay cognitively connected.

Challenge 2:  Ensuring there is “tech equity” within the team. To be productive, though, managers have to ensure their team members have the connectivity, equipment, security and training they need to do their jobs. Not all employees live in locations that have good connectivity, or their home equipment may not support higher bandwidth needs for video conferencing, so managers need to find ways to compensate for that – as well as being flexible with regard to schedules that can balance work with child care responsibilities. In the corporate world, there is often a parallel investment in continuous learning systems. Some are beginning to explore the use of augmented and virtual reality tools to improve communication and collaboration.

Challenge 3:  Developing new work routines as a team.  Because our individual work-life and home-life habits are different, developing new work routines as a team will take time. However, both managers and team members have to embrace going virtual as a different way of doing work.  This includes going paperless, practicing with the new tech tools so everyone is “work ready,” and ensuring team members are “contactable” during defined work hours. In addition, meetings and workshops need to be organized in advance – clear objectives, pre-reads, agenda, breaks, defined next steps – and have a facilitator.

New work routines also mean that team members have to more intentionally make their work more visible to colleagues via the use of common sharing platforms such as Trello. Platforms allow you to see what everyone is doing in a joint project. This gives people autonomy to work on their corner of the project and allows people see the bigger picture and how their individual contribution fits. Have to be more intentional about it.

Challenge 4:  Learning to manage differently. Glenn Dirks of Teletrips, Inc., says “managing in itself doesn’t really change that much. Managers just have to accept their responsibilities for being a good manager—which for me means defining the work that has to be done, assigning the work to the right people, setting clear performance goals, and then holding people accountable for getting it done .. . . In short, the more you go “virtual,” the more the quality of management matters.”

It’s hard to manage distributed work teams because you can’t easily reach out to colleagues, make informal taskings, or undertake non-verbal socialization to develop and maintain a reservoir of implicit trust among team members. One solution is structured daily check-ins, such as short video meetings (no longer than 10 minutes) among team members. Feedback becomes the life of the team (Do you understand? What do you need to be successful? How can I help?)

Challenge 5:  Building relationships and trust. Distance work involves a culture change for managers: they have to trust their workers to do the right thing and empower them with the information, training, and tools to do it. This requires managers to unlearn the traditional philosophies of command and control, embrace collaboration with their subordinates, and discard traditional concepts of manager-directed work on a day-to-day basis.

While it may be difficult for some managers to shift their managerial style away from their in-office approach, greater manager-employee trust is integral to promoting employee health and wellbeing, especially in a pandemic where employees might require flexible work hours to care for children or parents. “If our employees do not feel safe and protected, they ultimately cannot be productive,” said George Scott, deputy inspector general at NASA. Federal organizations that have built a foundation of trust during remote work have been able to successfully maintain productivity and develop and promote organizational culture.

Challenge 6:  Developing and promoting organizational culture. Culture is about decisions and values about how we work; how we talk to customers; how we talk with each other, and how much time we spend at work.  It is assumed that teammates who work in proximity with one another will naturally and inevitably develop a culture of their own. However, there are three important ingredients for building culture for a remote workforce: teams, tools, and process.

Organizations that are effective at distance work found that building a remote work culture doesn’t start with tools, it starts with principles, such as focusing on customers, doing work that matters, and empowering team members to do their work. these principles should ground day-to-day work.

As a result, remote teams face the challenge of building a social cohesiveness from the ground up. People in a remote team need to be okay that their workplace will be less social than co-located ones are; they have to create their own social support system. A remote team needs to develop substitutes for the informal interactions that typically happen in an office environment.

 In a distance work environment, the same tools that keep people productive can also be leveraged as “virtual watercoolers” that encourage informal conversation and chatting. These tools therefore can help create and foster an organizational culture that bonds colleagues together, albeit from afar. Events, such as virtual happy hours, also enable comradery and give team members the chance to connect in a more casual atmosphere to balance the formality of the virtual office.

Beyond distance work. Ironically, what may be more difficult than managing in a distance team working environment is working in a “split” environment where some team members are in the office and others are off-site. Will the implicit expectation be “office first” or “distance first?” Where is the manager working? Developing and maintaining effective management techniques and communication cues in a split-work setting may be the next challenge facing organizations and managers in a post-pandemic work world.

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Note: This post is the seventh in a series on distance work arrangements. Here are links to the other posts:

Part 1: The Future of Work is Suddenly Here: “Distance Work” is Transforming the Workplace.

Part 2:  How Is the Private Sector Pivoting to “Distance Work?”

Part 3: What’s Been Government’s Experience with Distance Work Over the Past Decade?

Part 4: What’s Happening Today with Federal Distance Work?

Part 5: Distance Work: What’s Happening at the State and Local Levels?

Part 6: Distance Work: Home Alone?

Part 7: Six Challenges Managers of Remote Teams Must Master

Part 8:  Distance Work:  A Three Generation Perspective



Graphic Credit: Courtesy of silatip via