The human interface: remote teams need a soft-skills touch

As most enterprises migrate to remote/hybrid working patterns, what skills must managers develop to manage distributed teams, and what technologies could help?

While most employers believe some time in the office is required post-pandemic, they are generally more supportive of hybrid working practices. That means the days when management kept a beady eye on employees clocking in and out are gone. Hybrid/remote work is here to stay – and the evidence shows it can be just as productive as the old models. But managing remote teams takes fresh skills and a new approach to managing performance.

Technology can help

“Optimizing the hybrid workplace requires accelerating investments to support virtual collaboration and creativity, as well as for scheduling and safety,” notes PwC. Its analysis shows 60% of executives expect to increase investments in virtual collaboration tools and manager training. Conference rooms worldwide are being upgraded to support hybrid Teams, Zoom and Webex meetings.

Sheela Subramanian, Vice President of the Future Forum, evangelizes “brain-writing” as an asynchronous, remote-friendly alternative to brainstorming. “We brainstorm in a Google Doc, the leader then consolidates the ideas, and we all have a conversation about them using Slack,” she explains.

Future Forum, an initiative from collaboration developer Slack, also identified that for many workers, remote working also enabled them to work more flexibly, making it far easier to juggle additional responsibilities around what they do. This has been particularly effective for working single-parent families. “Some 93% want flexibility in when they work, while 76% want flexibility in where they work,” it wrote.

The pandemic drove the rapid deployment of enterprise and prosumer tools to support collaborative workflows. Slack, Trello, Miro, Teamwork and Basecamp are experiencing wide adoption to foster sharing and asynchronous collaboration. According to Gartner, nearly 80% of workers now use collaboration tools for work, up from just over half of workers in 2019.

“As many organizations shift to a long-term hybrid workforce model, cloud-based, personal and team productivity technologies, along with collaboration tools, will form the core of a series of new work hubs that meet the requirements of various remote and hybrid workers,” explains Christopher Trueman, Principal Research Analyst at Gartner.

Future Forum research found that companies that invest in digital infrastructure, rather than relying on legacy systems, see a 54% increase in productivity.

The missing element

Now that people are no longer together in the office, many managers bemoan the lack of water-cooler moments of inspiration. And yet, the transition to remote requires understanding that “your culture is not your office; it’s what you do as an organization, how you work together. What you do does not change because you’re working virtually,” says PwC Partner Deniz Caglar.

One thing that does seem certain is that managers who insist on maintaining old-fashioned micromanagement models are their own worst enemy. As the Great Resignation begins, they risk damaging their own productivity and undermining staff loyalty, a Sifted survey shows. Leaders need to refine communication skills, develop empathy, and accept a goal-focused, flexible approach to team management.

Remote work consultant Rowena Hennigan says: “To build resilient and inclusive hybrid organizations, leaders must grow from the challenges of the past year…this will require empathy, creativity and a strong commitment to building an inclusive environment.”

The reality is that COVID-19 simply accelerated an already existing trend toward hybrid and remote working. A 2012 study found today’s connected employees already sought more flexibility. Almost a decade later, almost every worker who can work from home has worked from home and most want to continue to do so, at least some of the time.

“Leaders must lead by example by embracing both remote and in-office work at all levels of the organization and following the processes they created for remote and in-office work,” said Lynne Oldham, Chief People Officer at Zoom.

The emerging opportunity

As work becomes goal-focused, a growing number of tasks become digitized, which sets the scene for rapid development around business process automation.

One great illustration of this, which has seen intensifying use during the pandemic, is Otter.AI. This automated service works as an extension to most video collaboration systems (including Zoom and Teams) to automatically capture transcripts, minutes and summaries.

Otter hints at the wider potential for RPA to augment existing systems, enabling businesses to improve productivity and reduce costs. According to the third annual Deloitte Global RPA Survey of companies that are implementing RPA now, 78% plan to invest even more by 2021. This should free employees, including remote employees, from routine, repetitive tasks, empowering them to spend more time focusing on agreed goals and less time on administration.

Managers will need to make their own shift in this. As high-value knowledge workers become increasingly goal focused, managers must become “social-emotional experts,” replacing authoritarian presenteeism with a more human approach, exploiting so-called soft skills like empathy, communication and collaboration to empower and support their teams.

Find out how to support your workers in the office and at home with Digital Workplace solutions from Orange.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.