What are they really doing when you’re not looking?
Management Style

What are they really doing when you’re not looking?
Mastering the art of remote leadership

November 17 · Blog

We’ve all been there! Juggling a work call whilst making a cup of coffee. Being frustrated by poor internet and keeping our colleagues waiting. Being unsure why the boss isn’t pleased even when you’re trying your best. Struggling to navigate the fine line between work and home life, deadlines and relaxing, and other competing priorities. Sound familiar? Welcome to the world of working from home (WFH).

The paradigm shift away from conventional workplace is already in full swing. 4.7 million people, or 3.4% of the US workforce, were already WFH before the coronavirus pell-mell¹. But now, more than ever, large and small-scale businesses have resorted to hybrid or WFH as standard. This sudden transition to WFH brings its own concerns for managers and employees alike.

The managerial dilemma

A recent study by Harvard, covering over 1200 people in 24 countries, surveyed both parties regarding remote work. It unveiled 40% of 215 supervisors and managers expressed low confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely. 38% of managers agreed that WFH employees usually perform worse than those who work in office, and some were also doubtful about their level of motivation. The study also highlighted a lack of trust, and a dwindling conviction of managers when handling employees².

Clouded conscience or a clouded lens?

WFH employees at a glance

Disengagement and delays are becoming a routine ordeal - is employee interest waning or is there a bigger, hidden force at play? This brings us back full circle to the question that every manager has at least once pondered:

''What are they really doing when we're not looking?''

1. Learning social distancing from a hermit

Understanding employees is integral to boosting productivity in remote work conditions. Being conscious of which environments they thrive in lays the groundwork for a strong corporate culture. WFH, especially when social isolation is necessary, can lead to physical and mental stress that impacts everyone differently.

The same Harvard study also suggested that 34% of workers felt that their supervisors expressed a lack of confidence in their skills. The need for close monitoring and to always be available have been shown to increase anxiety and work-life conflicts.

2. Part-timing as unpaid caregivers

Did you know that 45% of employees in the US alone are caregivers³?

This implies that balancing familial and professional responsibilities can be exhausting in WFH, causing workers to flag or consider early retirement. The constant fear of being laid off exacerbates the problem. It also leads to presenteeism which brings its own set of challenges. Leaving for caregiving

3. Ironing out their clothes work issues

Ah, the comforts of home. No stiff-collared suits or petty arguments with Karen in the next booth. While unplugging in a digital world is already rather difficult, doing so WFH only exacerbates the issue. Different time zones and internet issues too, cause hindrance and a convenient working space isn’t always feasible to create at home.

What’s the way forward?

Managing WFH staff requires adopting a more flexible managerial style, developing trust with employees, and most importantly, empathising with the external pressures of WFH.

There’s a thin line between feeling challenged and burning out. The former falls under ‘eustress’ or positive stress. Eustress helps us stay motivated, goal-oriented, and optimistic⁴. Realistic expectations should be set and efforts rewarded. New projects that scratch a creative itch are also great tools. Since socialising stimulates serotonin and oxytocin release, our ‘happy chemicals’, consider creating channels for them to do so with their colleagues. And lastly, ensure that robust and responsive IT support is available.

How you lead is the backbone. Here's how you can strengthen it.

Situations like these demand adaptability and evaluation beyond conventional managerial styles. The Situational Leadership Model offers practical guidance to effectively manage remote workers⁵. Situational Leadership Model By emphasising flexibility and versatility, it proposes a ''Directing'' (authoritative) and ''Supporting'' (guiding) approach for managers to tailor their management style according to circumstances. As worker competency increases, managers are advised to shift from a controlling and 'coddling' behaviour to one that allows greater autonomy. Therefore, the Situational Leadership Model humanises employee wellbeing - a crucial factor in work environment, be it physical or remote.

SHAPE helps managers build a healthier relationship with their subordinates, through a Work from home Report. Combined with reporting on Factors Outside Work, Physical Work Environment, and Soft Work Environment, it provides managers a holistic view of issues facing WFH employees and what they can do about it.


¹Courtney, Emily. n.d. "Remote Work Statistics: Navigating the New Normal." FlexJobs. Accessed November 11, 2021. https://www.flexjobs.com/blog/post/remote-work-statistics/

²Remote Managers Are Having Trust Issues. (2021, August 31). Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/07/remote-managers-are-having-trust-issues

³Sammer, Joanne. 2020. ''Improving the Lives of Employee Caregivers Makes Business Sense.'' shrm.org. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/improving-lives-of-employee-caregivers-makes-business-sense.aspx

Lindberg, Sarah. 2019. ''Eustress: The Good Stress.'' Healthline https://www.healthline.com/health/eustress#eustress-examples

P Hersey, KH Blanchard.1997. ''Situational leadership''. Dean's Forum. Citeseer. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.201.4096&rep=rep1&type=pdf#page=4

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