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Managers struggle with remote work, too

Meghan McCarty Carino Apr 20, 2020
How do you manage a team remotely? Zak Bennett/AFP via Getty Images

Managers struggle with remote work, too

Meghan McCarty Carino Apr 20, 2020
How do you manage a team remotely? Zak Bennett/AFP via Getty Images

Many businesses across the country have now been operating remotely for a month or more — long enough for the novelty to wear off, to settle into some new rhythms and for the inevitable problems to become very clear.

In San Francisco, Matthew Grimm leads a team of audio engineers at Activision, which makes the video games Call of Duty and Crash Bandicoot. They’re going through something like the Seven Stages of Grief, except for remote work. First there was shock.

“We’re not used to working remotely,” Grimm said. “We literally had to evacuate our building because somebody had COVID-19, and so one day they just called us and said, ‘Don’t come in.’ “

Then came doubt about whether he could manage a suddenly remote team.

“Keeping people on task can be a difficult thing because you don’t see them every day,” he said. “You can’t do an office walk-by, and you don’t see them in the hallway.”

Then came anger, which flared at a recent project meeting where people were interrupting each other and the tone got a little nasty.

“There was a lot of confusion and miscommunication,” Grimm said. “People took that very personally, where talking face-to-face that never would have happened.”

How should companies guide workers through the pain to feel OK about working from home? Sam Bacharach, a professor of labor management at Cornell University, said the crisis demands emotional intelligence.

“How do you listen constructively? How do you instill trust? How do you begin that deeper dialogue that actually makes someone want to deliver for you because you’re in their corner?” he asked.

Managing remotely, especially right now, he said, is weirdly more intimate. You’re seeing people in their living rooms, their personal lives laid bare, no hiding behind business suits or cubicle walls. Managers can’t physically watch over where, when and how work gets done. Instead, it’s all about results.

“For the last number of years, we’ve been talking about changing the supervision style, and this is moving the clock ahead,” Bacharach said.

Eric Reddy, who leads a young sales team at Reward Gateway, a human resources software company in Boston, is finding that some work is just harder to do at home.

“There’s not a ton of introverted salespeople out there,” he said. “This is a very unique setting for people who are traditionally extroverted, love to jump on the phones, love to talk to people.”

Typically, Reddy sits with his team in an open office, overhearing their sales calls and giving rolling, informal feedback all day, but that’s hard to replicate at home.

“I’m just noticing a challenge to keep people as motivated and energized as they might have been when they were looking at you in the eye every single day,” he said.

To compensate, Reddy has been holding more one-on-one and team meetings, but on video that can get awkward. He worries it could feel overbearing or confrontational in a way in-person communication doesn’t.

And even teams that are used to remote communication are struggling.

“Being remote in a pandemic is not the same as being remote before the pandemic,” said Carolyn Kopprasch, chief of special projects at the social media application Buffer, which has been totally remote for the last 10 years.

She said right now, the most important skill a remote manager can have is the ability to go with the flow.

“We’ve just had to sort of change our expectations of what a normal productive day looks like for the average teammate,” she said. “Because it’s just not a normal time.”

I think they call that the acceptance stage.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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