The humane guide to managing and being in a remote team (and how to survive being in one)

Article by Avril Millar

diverse woman working from home on sofaHaving worked for most of 10 years from home, only intermittently popping into client offices, I have some prior experience of what everyone else is having to cope with now.

It’s safe to say, however, that I’ve not had to live almost entirely on Zoom calls or Google Meet, and I’ve had the luxury of not being in anyone else’s employ, and therefore not subject – in the main – to their usual office rules. Being able to punctuate my days with meetings or visits to client offices has alleviated the sheer tedium of staring at my cat for hours on end. It helps that I am reasonably self-disciplined (but only reasonably) and so I sort of get through work that needs to be done, in time for whoever needs it, but in my own way.

Unless we have formed deep social connections with our colleagues, chances are we know next to nothing about how they live. We don’t know if their kids get up umpteen times a night, leaving them shattered and grumpy; if they leap out of bed to knock out a  five mile pre-breakfast run or slither out of regularly unmade sheets to slope off to their  desk in their PJ bottoms, with unbrushed teeth and a jumper that could do with a wash.

When we work with people, physically side by side, we all become masters of subterfuge.  I have long been of the opinion that very few people need to do a regular eight-hour working day. If it was possible to monitor every single second of someone’s thoughts and actions, (I think Elsie may be working on this as a side hustle), we would probably find that at least 40% is doing either something entirely different to what they paid for, or nothing at all. I have no empirical proof of this apart from (a) decades of observation, and (b) myself. Sometimes, you need to pull a sixteen-hour day, sometimes you might as well shut up shop and go drink rose with your best mate in the middle of the day.

I have no idea what kind of organisation you work for. If you’re in a call centre/customer support function from home, you have my sympathies, as they are the modern day equivalents of  a clock-in, clock-out factory floor, except that if you can get work on a factory floor it might be more fun and give you more freedom.

For everyone else, unleashed from the office, I have some musings below. Entirely my own opinion of course and you may think it’s rubbish. But as we are unlikely to row back from at least some level of WFH even after Covid has been overcome, I do think we need to start changing how we think about it much more radically than just giving someone a PC, monitor, phone and better chair.

For managers:

  1. As a manager, your performance is dependent on the performance of other people. They fail, you fail. (Usually. There are some spectacular examples of that not being true, but for that you have to be Matt Hancock or Dido Harding apparently.) It stands to reason, then, that everything you can do to help your people deliver what you need when you need it, will help you retain your position. Maybe even advance it, who knows. So, focus on what they do, not how or when they do it. Just that; the quality of the work and the (previously mutually agreed) meeting of deadlines.
  2. Recognise that how your staff arrange their days (outside of as few Zoom meetings as possible; think of a number and halve it) is none of your business. If they go for a walk with their dog at 10am, that’s fine so long as the report you wanted at 9.30 has dropped into your inbox. Maybe you want to ring them to talk about said report? It makes no difference whatsoever if they are on Clapham Common with Rover or sat at the desk fending off rampant toddlers. Rover is probably less offensive.
  3. The daily ‘Town Hall’ at 8.30 might have worked at the office (well, it probably didn’t but that’s another story). It’s utter madness if some of your team have kids to get to school or babies to feed. Now that people are not commuting, nothing is the same at all. Childcare isn’t there, the 7.04 from East Grinstead is no longer the sweaty buffer zone between home and office, during which we transform ourselves from domestic chattels into professional worker bees. Understand that.
  4. No Zoom call needs to be longer than thirty minutes. I promise you. If it is, that’s your fault for not setting an agenda and preparing yourself and your team well in advance.

For the managed:

  1. Do stuff on time. If you can’t, let people know and actually tell them why. Unless it’s pure laziness or incompetence, people need to know what your life is like during WFH. It just might make them feel better too.
  2. Make sure at the very least people can see and hear your properly. Everyone is hating the call, so make it easier for them to get through it. Use a headset if you can; be in the top middle of the screen, not slumped at the bottom corner (makes you look more authoritative too, if that’s your bag). You can always slide off your chair and scream later.
  3. Pick the phone up. We used to talk to people one to one, so talk to them. Bizarrely, a call on an actual phone feels more intimate now than ever. Don’t email if you can avoid it and don’t CC everyone. Please.
  4. If you have an idea for doing things better, speak up. You used to be able to download to your colleagues in the office. Without that, too many people are now downloading on themselves. We are already over-burdened, so don’t do that.
  5. Avoid the chat function on remote calls like the plague (you’ve had practice now at avoiding plagues). This is not the time to accidentally include your boss into your graphic description of your opinion of him to your best mate at work.
  6. But if you forget, remember that people are still hiring. If you always wanted to go out and interview but couldn’t work out how not to get rumbled, this is your chance.

About the author

Avril MillarOriginally a Civil Engineer, I taught Physics and Maths for several years before starting a Wealth Planning business in 1986. After my exit in 2007, I became CEO of a global headhunting firm, managing its turnaround after the 2008 crisis. Since 2009, I have held several simultaneous advisory, Non-Exec and Executive roles across various sectors, including oil trading, healthcare, Fx trading, technology, and sports. I mentor ambitious and open-minded CEOs and entrepreneurs, am entirely results driven and take no prisoners.

I have had a column with Management Today under the name Madame Guillotine (it’s all about the execution), and I am the author of The Kama Sutra of Work.

I am the mother of Tour De France cyclist and Olympian, David Millar, and Fran Millar, CEO of Team Ineos the world’s most successful cycling team (until last week, now CEO of Belstaff).

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