Engaging managers: the key to success in flexible working

Theresa Mayne looks at the importance of managers in hybrid and remote working

Much has been written about the importance of the role of a manager especially recently with the rise of hybrid and remote working. Business leaders are becoming much more aware of the influence managers have on the employment relationship between ‘the workers’ and ‘the employer’. Like any relationship, the employment relationship is built on trust and confidence and so to protect this is key to the relationship surviving natural turbulence and being able to thrive.

One of the ‘four enablers of employee engagement1 is engaging managers. Many researchers agree that the manager role is pivotal when it comes to creating a working environment that is fair, supportive and an enjoyable place to work. Managers are key persons in the chain of communication, without whom, the employees may not know or experience the other three enablers of engagement: strategic narrative, employee voice and organisational integrity.

Many organisations have made significant progress with improving employee engagement and upskilling management teams to become good people managers, but these methods have largely relied on being present, e.g. having regular team huddles, 1-2-1’s and disseminating information over coffee or when chatting whilst waiting for a meeting to start etc. Opportunities to chat become lost or less frequent when staff work remotely either some or all the time. 

The opportunity to develop important relationships is reduced if people do not spend time together

With homeworking and hybrid working becoming more permanent it is vital that we understand the importance of the manager’s role in terms of bridging the gap between home and work locations.

The impact of working remotely

The nature of communication changes when teams are dispersed. People are no longer listening in to conversations and picking up snippets of information that they hear incidentally whilst getting on with their day. People are unable to join in with conversations that spark some interest or relevance to what they are working on. 

Camaraderie is reduced significantly, and new employees do not get to be part of the team quite as easily as most of their conversation is more formal and work focussed so do not easily get to know the person behind the role. This impacts on morale and the ability to pick up knowledge, whether directly or indirectly, that enables good performance, sparks creativity and generates awareness of the wider issues. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs2 taught us that humans need a sense of belonging and to feel part of a community. Our workplaces are communities of connected individuals serving a common purpose. People are able to move up the higher motivation levels when they feel that they belong, the sense of belonging is more difficult to achieve when they are physically apart as the ‘togetherness’ is not so evident. As well as impacting motivation, this can lead to lower productivity and a reduction in ideas and problem solving. 

The opportunity to develop important relationships is reduced if people do not spend time together, getting to know each other, building trust and having some down time together. Managers are unable to pick up on signals that not everything is OK, and the opportunity for a member of staff to grab a manager’s attention in the moment is not there. This makes it difficult for managers to be fully supportive to their team’s wellbeing and to witness and celebrate wins which are all drivers of good employee relations. 

What can a manager do?

The priority for any manager that manages staff that work remotely is to build communication channels that are effective. This can vary from team to team depending on the nature of the work so needs to be carefully thought about to ensure what is put in place is relevant.

There are various options available and of course technology has provided some fantastic solutions. There are collaboration tools on the market for free or at very little cost that can be used in a variety of ways. These tools are not just a method of delivering information from one person to another but are a way of keeping people connected and visible to each other. 

Banter can often still be part of everyday working lives and everybody can ‘see’ conversation rather than ‘hear’ conversation. Whilst this does not replicate the physical workspace, it goes a long way towards mitigating the impact of moving away from it. 

Managers should be aware that not everybody is comfortable with using tech in this way so if new ways of communication are introduced then support and training will need to be thorough.

Checking in with individuals on a 1-2-1 basis has become an important way of observing mental health and wellbeing. Asking the question “how are you today” and probing to find out how people really are rather than the question being interpreted as a greeting gives employees the opportunity to open up. This enables the manager to offer appropriate support and creates a culture where employees feel able to speak openly about what is going on for them without the fear of being seen as weak. It is far more effective to support an employee that is struggling, than to carry an employee  who is hiding their struggles.

As well as the day to day, managers can organise regular team meetings that take place in a physical space. If teams are dispersed, the location can change each time and the meeting be held in a café or shared office hub so each person in the team can effectively host it. This enables a bit of down time conversation as well as covering a set agenda. This is the opportunity for staff to get to know each other at a human level and not just as work colleagues.

The good news

Community exists whether people are physically in the same space or not. The sense of belonging and being together is diminished but not impossible to achieve. Special attention needs to be given to new starters to help them feel part of the team right from day 1 to avoid feelings of isolation from the community but this can be moderated with the right tools and attitude towards inclusion. Using appropriate collaboration tools, less formal discussion between colleagues can continue, allowing strong working relationships to be built. With some adjustments in management practices, remote teams can be as vibrant, engaged and productive as any other team that work together in an office with the added benefit of achieving work life balance which we know also brings its own benefits. The key is having managers that have the right attitude, aptitude, skills and knowledge to manage people effectively, efficiently and with the right level of empathy and support.

1. Engage For Success (2015). The Four Enablers – Engage for Success. [online] Engage for Success. Available at: https://engageforsuccess.org/the-four-enablers. Accessed 22.06.22

2. Maslow, A.H. (1943). Theory of Human Motivation. Wilder Publications, pp.370–396.

Theresa Mayne is the director of the Line Manager Academy and can be contacted at theresa@linemanageracademy.co.uk


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