The ongoing global pandemic has presented a new challenge for organisations: remote management, coupled with the huge shift towards teleworking! Régis Chaperon, consultant for AUSY and expert in risk management and business organisation, shares his experience, observations and recommendations regarding this new model imposed on businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In discussions about remote management during the lockdown, managers and employees have expressed many differing opinions about how it made them feel. 

for managers 

Firstly, for managers, their experience of lockdown differed according to their personality type. Some managers feel an irrepressible need to be in physical and close contact with their teams, in order to feel comfortable in the managerial relationship. This need to physically embody the leadership role is neither a flaw nor an attribute. It may be that this simply comes from a need for dramatic effect, which often stems from an unconscious perception about how a “boss” should behave. Clearly, this need for dramatic effect is only one way of conveying an image of authority and responsibility. Some managers do need to physically act out their role, for example, by standing up during face-to-face meetings to support their words with gestures and body language which emphasise their speech, to open up a discussion with the wave of a hand, or to catch someone’s attention with just a look, and so on. None of these communication tools can be employed when the manager is stuck behind a webcam, or even worse, communicating by phone or via conference call.

Others have found themselves questioning their own role, after realising that their teams, having been forced to work remotely, were fulfilling their duties without any problems, despite not seeing their manager as regularly as when they are working on site. For some, this may have come as a shock, particularly if it cast doubt on the usefulness of their position within the organisation. 

Other managers have had to compete with their own line manager to remotely manage a section of their team. 

Lastly, there are many managers who have successfully and effectively embraced remote management. Some of them may have already agreed to teleworking during normal business activity, prior to lockdown, and others have simply been brilliant at adapting to the new status quo, so well done to them !

the fear of losing control  

The fear of losing control of your team because you are not physically in contact with them is a legitimate concern if teleworking has not yet been fully integrated into company practice. Due to the lockdown measures, many were forced into a change management role, without any preparation or training. It is this group of managers who had to quickly adapt to new methods of management, while at the same time listening to and managing the concerns of their teams in the face of this pandemic. 

However, the fear of losing control evokes a very poor image of management, because it is based on the idea that to manage is to control. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Management is about leadership. It is about supporting, guiding, trusting and listening to employees. Management can be many things, but it is not about controlling others. 

If you are trying to control your teams, it shows that you don’t trust them. And, if you don’t trust your staff, how can you expect them to trust you? 

so, what exactly is remote management?

Remote management is about putting your trust in others. However, this does not mean that the team simply carries on without you! Your role is not to control, but to lead, to ensure business continuity. A leader should be skilled in identifying relevant indicators for weekly reporting. They must schedule operational and non-operational meetings via video or conference call, to maintain a social connection. 

Remote management should be seen as an opportunity to find out about the initiatives and ideas of those employees who are the shyest in face-to-face meetings, not usually daring to speak up. It is about creating cohesion in the team when faced with restrictions and risk. Lockdown has provided a valuable opportunity for training in team-building! But did you take it?

man and woman with mask - videoconference
man and woman with mask - videoconference

for employees

With regard to employees, we have had the privilege of reading a lot of feedback from staff in lockdown. According to RTL, more than 40% of private-sector employees have adapted well to teleworking during the Covid-19 crisis. For some, it has even been an opportunity to discover new skills as comedians, philosophers, sociologists or leaders. However, many had to go through various stages until they were able to set the right boundaries from their work. In some cases, this took several weeks to achieve.

guilt and self-control 

It is common for those who are teleworking to experience a sense of guilt. This means that employees often put pressure on themselves, feeling that they must be available at all times. Employees who might usually take a coffee break each morning with their colleagues when on site, may refrain from doing the same thing at home because their manager takes advantage of this much-needed break to call via Skype or Teams to discuss the latest issue. Simply seeing an “absent” status appear in a collaborative work app can become an obsession for some of the most conscientious teleworkers, to the point where they do not dare to stop moving their mouse around their makeshift desk in the middle of the living room.

However, under normal working conditions, the manager would not usually contact their employees during the coffee break, and furthermore, would generally meet employees in the “tea room” on that particular floor, because they are also taking a break and chatting to colleagues.

This feeling of guilt may be experienced on teleworking days outside of the lockdown period, and it can take several weeks of experience to set the right pace of work and to properly manage your emotions.

the opposite: the feeling of abandonment 

This is a paradoxical but very real feeling. Employees may feel abandoned when obliged to work from home, and even more so during the lockdown period that we have just experienced. Many employees had never teleworked before and suddenly found themselves away from their colleagues, at home, possibly with their children and spouse in the same situation. Our minds can play tricks on us, because having the whole family together at home can remind us of holidays or weekends, which are very different from coping with the demands of a real working day. You may have had to adapt to working with your child as your new colleague, while they ask for help with their French homework, or to the noise when you are both in the middle of the living room on a conference call, talking about completely different things.

The feeling of abandonment may quickly arise because your manager, who used to drop by your office every morning to say hello, doesn't see the point of calling you at home every morning just to say hi. Matters that may seem trivial in the real world of business can quickly become an issue when teleworking. It is thus precisely because your manager doesn’t think it is appropriate to call you every morning to say hello, that you may experience this feeling of abandonment. 

employees in consulting industry 

For employees of IT service providers (or ITCs) and consulting companies, in particular, it is not uncommon for the feeling of abandonment to invade their thoughts. Their affiliation to the employer company should be more visible than usual, because it is the employer and not the customer who is responsible for organising telework, including all the legal, administrative and logistical aspects.

Employees, who were not contacted by their direct line manager or anyone in the company, quickly began to feel abandoned, just a few days after the lockdown was announced.

Fortunately, most managers in this type of company have stepped up their efforts to support their teams when making arrangements for teleworking, and have contacted their customer service employees to prepare safety plans and check on their health.

setting clear boundaries for teleworking 

During the Covid-19 crisis, we have all been through the same experience. It takes time to establish clear boundaries when teleworking. Managers and employees have had to go through a number of stages, and rethink their working relationships and how activities are organised and managed.

They have reported two different experiences: for managers, the experience has helped them to gain perspective on their personality and their leadership skills during a crisis. Employees may have experienced a feeling of empowerment and possibly autonomy.

In my view, this is the perfect opportunity for all companies to learn from this experience, by collecting genuine feedback. An action plan can then be developed to ensure organisational resilience in the future, by embracing teleworking, organised on a selected and regular basis and in small doses. If companies offer teleworking just one day a week, this will ensure that their staff are experienced with this approach to work which, as we have seen, requires a real ability to adapt. Organising work in this manner will ensure that mobile computing equipment, and VPN access, etc. is kept in proper working condition.

In fact, many employees could have switched to teleworking during lockdown, but were forced to take the risk of going into work because of a lack of IT resources on a sufficient scale to cope with mass teleworking. Many accountants and administrative staff, whose job, by definition, involves being in front of a computer screen, were not able to work from home because there were no VPNs or not enough laptops for all employees.

Therefore, there is also an opportunity for these companies to think about scaling up their IT infrastructure so that they can improve their response in the event of a future crisis.

in conclusion

It has been said many times: teleworking during lockdown was not the same as real teleworking.

It is clear that the strict lockdown measures imposed, coupled with the threat of a global pandemic, muddied the waters. The teleworking period went on for too long, in a high-stress situation with stressed out employees, and the arrangements were put in place as a matter of urgency.

In spite of this, we have all demonstrated that we can adapt and find innovative and effective solutions in order to continue doing our jobs, even though our work was not considered essential to the survival of the population, nor was it applauded every evening at 8 p.m. Let's hope that this crisis has made our companies’ leaders more aware that their business relies solely on the professionalism of their employees, who continued working under conditions of extreme stress, sometimes even putting their lives at risk. This crisis has also demonstrated how resourceful we can be and that we can adapt much more quickly than previously thought.

Now that the lockdown is over, our companies are continuing to adapt and many have suggested a gradual return to work, reminiscent of the ascent of a deep-sea freediver: in stages. Few companies have opted for the “all or nothing” approach of calling all their employees back in to work on site every day. A gradual return with the right mix of a few days of teleworking and a few days in the office, where health protocols still apply. Clearly, the crisis is still not completely over, but we are starting to feel optimistic and believe that there will be a return to normal.

A return to normality that will never be quite the same as before, because as we have all seen: teleworking works. Teleworking will be even more effective if it is implemented in a selective and part-time manner with the proper support, whether for employees, managers, or executives.

So, let’s embrace the idea of a “new tomorrow”, where we are more agile and resilient, without losing sight of our shared objective of quality of life at work, and all the benefits that come with it. And this can be organised. Our companies have everything they need to transform and to capitalise on this situation to create a new relationship with work, a new relationship with management, and a new business model.

If this topic interests you, feel free to contact me for a discussion. Maybe via videoconference?