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Four key manager skills for remote working

Insight

Lane4 recently conducted a YouGov survey to understand how the performance of UK employees is being affected by the ongoing pandemic. It revealed a workforce that is feeling demoralised and disconnected, but it also showed what employees thought might help.

The survey highlighted the importance of trust between employees and their managers in maintaining performance:

  • 86% of employees feel that their manager trusting them has a positive impact on their performance.
  • 42% believe that providing effective training for managers would be the best way to establish trust between managers and employees.

Why is trust more relevant than ever? In the past, managers could judge (and influence) the productivity and mood of their team by virtue of sharing an office. Now, however, remote working has changed the nature of performance and how it can be observed.

In response, managers need to build trust with their direct reports in new ways. This means reconsidering some management skills that need updating for the Covid-19 world. The following four manager soft skills are key to building trust virtually and helping your team to maintain its performance.

Four key manager skills for remote working

Emotional intelligence in a virtual environment

Emotional intelligence has been recognised as a crucial leadership skill for some time, but it must be re-evaluated in our current context.

Emotional intelligence has two components: awareness of self (understanding your own emotions) and awareness of others (understanding how to manage your impact on the people around you). 

Face-to-face, this second part comes quite naturally to most of us; we can evaluate someone’s emotional state from visual, bodily cues and adapt our behaviour accordingly. We don’t always get it right, especially when we’re stressed, but in general we can navigate our daily interactions without too many misunderstandings.

Doing this virtually, however, takes high emotional intelligence because we are working with limited data. It’s draining to connect with people through a screen or over the phone because you have to pay much closer attention to pick up cues (hence why you probably feel very tired after a full day of video calls).

For the managers of virtual teams, the most important realisation is that connecting with others will not happen without conscious effort and a willingness to invest time in it. You can no longer take anything for granted about your team’s state of wellbeing and should make the time to really engage with your team on a one-to-one basis. This connection will help trust to flow both ways.

Managers also need to be capable of much better-quality conversations about mental health and wellbeing. That might mean being a little more open and vulnerable about your own state, and it certainly means role-modelling healthy behaviours.

Social intelligence in a virtual environment

Social intelligence is a newer concept than emotional intelligence, but a similarly important one. It’s the notion that you can pick up on the social buzz or mood around you, that as soon as you walk into a meeting you know whether things are going well or badly.

The values of an organisation don’t suddenly change just because you’re working remotely; culture runs deeper than that. What is much more difficult now is having your ‘finger on the pulse’ of the organisation.

We’re now operating in a different way to before the pandemic: we’re more task-oriented and project-driven, which means less time spent working socially. So how can managers recreate that virtually?

One way is setting up explicitly social gatherings or activities. At Lane4, we have a curry club where the one rule is “don’t talk about work.” However, we recently had the first curry club in a couple of months, and this time people organically started talking about work in a social way. “How’s X getting on?” and “I haven’t heard from Y for a while, what’s she working on at the moment?”

In a remote team (or organisation as a whole), the opportunities for this kind of social interaction are much more limited, and therefore, as a leader, you need to make those opportunities. It’s about being able to recreate those ‘water cooler’ conversations in the virtual space, not just for yourself but between the members of your team.

Virtual literacy and etiquette

There is a practical and a psychological aspect to virtual literacy and etiquette. The practical side was a big issue at the beginning of the first lockdown: this was about knowing what platforms exist and how to use them properly. It also involved setting out new structures and routines with your team, such as when communication happens and in what way.

As we approach the second lockdown, all of the above is pretty well established

The challenge now is the psychological aspect of virtual literacy and etiquette. As a manager, being totally present and focused in the same way that you would be in a face-to-face meeting is crucial if you are to maintain rapport, and ultimately trust, with your direct reports. Sneaking a look at your phone will compromise the quality of your video conversations, even if the person to whom you’re speaking doesn’t notice.

So, managers need to ‘maximise the tech, minimise the distractions’:

  • Use the right platform for the context of the interaction.
  • Make sure you are familiar with the platform and able to solve issues smoothly.
  • Help yourself stay present by muting notifications, closing your email and turning your phone to silent (not vibrate).

Respect is an integral component of generating trust in virtual teams, so be sure to give your people the attention they deserve.

Adaptability

The final key manager skill needed today is adaptability. The context in which we all operate is changing at a punishing rate, making resilience and the ability to learn quickly absolutely crucial. Adaptability is the soft skill that underpins both of these qualities.

Adaptable managers are able to thrive in ambiguity, quickly let go of ‘normal’, and respond to the changing conditions and needs of the people around  them. That might mean helping your team find new ways of doing things or providing clarity in the absence of casual questions across desks.

For many of us, one of the biggest changes to our working life is the end of the commute. Where it once took 30 minutes or more, it now takes 30 seconds. This, combined with the increasing number of back-to-back meetings, means we have lost those gaps in our days that provide space for reflection. Adaptability can help you switch gears quickly from meeting to meeting, but it is also important to try and build some breathing space into your day. Try getting up and walking around between video meetings, just as you would in the office.

Conclusion

These four manager skills – emotional intelligence, social intelligence, virtual etiquette and adaptability – were valuable even before the pandemic. Since the dramatic rise in remote working, however, they have become indispensable.

As a leader, your people will be facing a variety of barriers to performance and it is up to you to understand and resolve those. By developing these four key manager soft skills, you’ll be in the best possible position to connect with your people and respond to their challenges.

Developing managers virtually

The managers in your organisation won’t just pick up these four skills by magic. They need to be supported to develop the qualities and behaviours necessary in the modern workplace. Fortunately, all of these skills can still be nurtured with virtual manager development programmes, and you can read our guide to virtual learning here.

Real learning in the virtual world

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