Remote Workers Must Have Purpose: An Interview with Dr Todd Landman

Martino Tramontin •

An interview with Dr Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science at The University of Nottingham.

Dr Todd Landman is Professor of Political Science and Pro-Vice-Chancellor with responsibility for the Faculty of Social Sciences at The University of Nottingham. He is also Executive Director of the Rights Lab, a University Beacon of Excellence carrying out research on ending modern slavery. He has carried out a large number of international consultancies in economic development and conducts leadership work for large organisations in the public and private sectors. Here he speaks with prepaid card provider Soldo about the current remote working environment and how to best utilise staff.

Remote working is no longer a nice-to-have: it’s a part of modern business strategy and culture. But it’s a double-edged sword. Get it right and you’ll improve productivity; get it wrong and employee engagement and efficiency break down. Which is why, at Soldo, we want to provide you with more than just a toolkit for remote-workers. In this interview series, Soldo is working with leading academics and business experts to give you the bigger picture on remote working: from management to wellbeing, finance to HR.

In a world where remote working has become the ‘new normal’ is there a responsibility for business owners to look after the mental health of their employees? How can they do that when they are not seeing them every day?

I think there are some formal basics that can be put into place in terms of check-in times; elements in a workflow where employees feel that there is a place they can go on a regular basis and connect with their colleagues. Any kind of virtual video-conferencing meeting is a chance to touch base. There’s something about the regularity of contact that matters. Don’t let people go adrift for days at a time. 

There are also formal policies in terms of guidelines and FAQs that can be published which will set ground rules for fair and wellbeing-focused treatment of employees. These include mandated break times, scheduled hours during the day for appropriate meeting times to address caring responsibilities, and policies to manage expectations with respect to turn around times for tasks and questions. During the COVID-19 crisis, the government has set out policies on home working by category of worker, furlough policies on eligibility, and general guidance on health and well-being. 

But remember also that working from home is an intrusion of the work environment into the home environment; and everyone’s personal circumstances are different. Think, for example, about the lone person working in a more remote village, who may feel more alienated and distanced from the rest of your colleagues. Organisations are quickly realizing that people who are co-parenting or looking after kids and juggling that with work, might lock themselves in a room for a quick conference meeting for an hour and then go back to home-schooling. It is stretching the capacity of many people and demands tolerance as to what work hours look like. Putting food on the table, educating your kids and keeping your job going means hours are being squeezed, and it is something that will be a burden for many.

Is it time for managers to take a more human approach and realize that the traditional workday is perhaps breaking up a little? Things will happen at different times. Maybe they should think in a more empathetic way about what it means to juggle our work and home lives?

Absolutely. Humanity and empathy are really important; and the basic approach to empathy is to imagine yourself in their shoes. 

Day-to-day, when you’ve just seen somebody in your office, it’s no problem to be brief or terse in an email. But remote-working is a different environment. You need a little more care in the way in which you communicate with people. 

Companies should also give regular updates. Don’t email people relentlessly, but a summary of where we are and how things are going keeps everyone together and connected. I send out an update every three to four days; and I’ve had people write back to thank me for keeping them in the loop. Teams appreciate clarity on what’s happening, when and how. I think there’s a responsibility on employers to summarise as many strategic ideas as possible to provide clarity, give reassurance and keep disparate work teams together.

There’s a responsibility on employers to summarise as many strategic ideas as possible to provide clarity, give reassurance and keep disparate work teams together.

You have spoken in the past about “purposefulness”. What is that, and why does it matter to remote-working teams?

There are many things that staff cannot do remotely that they would have done in their normal role in the office. I’ve found, interacting with many of my staff, that I’ve been thinking laterally about things that they might be able to do. 

For example, a woman I mentor usually travels to Brazil, Uganda, Mozambique and more; working on issues around slavery. She can’t do that right now. Instead, we are working more theoretically on ideas around civil society, law and theology.  

The point is that we all have more resilience than we might expect and more to offer than we might know. Presenting employees with purposeful, meaningful activity that has a visible outcome and impact is beneficial both to the organisation and the individuals concerned. As I move through my staff base, I’m constantly thinking of productive things that people can do in a remote-working context.

Successful managers will put meaning into work, so that people aren’t just sitting at home processing papers, pushing forms and feeling left out of the work that matters. Those successful managers will also thank them for doing their work – and then ask if there’s anything else they can help with. Taking that extra time with individuals reaps exceptional dividends.

How does a CFO keep an eye on company finances and manage company spending at a distance?

There are always financial controls in place, so whether you’re working remotely or working inside a building, the process remains largely the same. If people are working remotely and looking for cost approvals, there may be different delegated authorities for approving expenditure, but those shouldn’t change too much. 

Where you may have to extend some leeway is in helping remote workers equip themselves for home-working. Some people will need hardware and software to be able to work from home and I think that the company should make that available as best they can.

This issue of delegation extends well beyond finance. How can managers delegate effectively and avoid micro-managing when they are working with teams at a distance?

It goes back to purposefulness. If you empower people to make decisions, and allow them a certain amount of autonomy and trust – interpersonal trust – you can actually empower a whole team to run off with a knotty problem and then solve it, virtually. 

Today’s software allows you to keep a whole archive of decisions, chats, shares and other documents online, so that there’s a permanent record of decisions taken. This means that boards can rest easy. Because there’s an audit trail, teams can have access to the same information, and managers can review decisions with confidence – and leave teams to get on with the work.

Micromanaging and over-managing teams, on the other hand, won’t work. At a distance, it instils a kind of “learned helplessness” where people feel that they can’t make a decision until they get approval – from somebody who they often can’t get in touch with. The business environment then inevitably grinds to a halt.  

Everyone knows that the speed with which decisions need to be made is important in today’s business; but the prioritisation of decisions matters too. The way that teams have been responding to having to work remotely really gets down to a mix of company culture, leadership culture, and the predispositions of members of the team. 

Some people are risk-takers, others are incremental and like everything on a spreadsheet. But sometimes we don’t have the time to have everything on a spreadsheet – we need to just ballpark ideas, make an in-the-round decision and go with it until there is further clarity. 

In unpredictable times, and where remote working keeps people at a distance, allowing people to move forward is hugely important. Conversely, when they feel like they’re stuck in a decision-making matrix where they can’t get anything done, it leads to purposelessness. 

It’s crucial to empower local teams and let them crack on. Remote working today, with the reporting ability of technologies, provides for that. Furthermore, remote working today often includes international teams or home-workers who are pulling apart the nine-to-five and working at the times of day that suit them. One team member might be able to work in the evening, while someone else might pick work up at 7am. The collective output and increased productivity may actually be superior to sitting in prolonged meetings in the office.

Is there an organisational structure that better suits dispersed workforces?

Every business requires some sort of a hierarchy,  but I think the more horizontal, flatter structures create empowered teams that come together. It requires managers to be a little more adventurous and staff to be a little more autonomous. Again, there’s a real role for lateral thinking in a flatter structure, where you allow people to think of creative ways to solve problems.

The risk in dispersed teams is that you end up replicating processes or building parallel structures, which cause institutions to become siloed as a result.  Cross-working between teams is therefore exceedingly important, so that everybody informs everyone else about what they’re doing. Without that communication, there’s a great risk of massive inefficiency.

Is there a generational difference in how remote-workers should be treated? Different groups of people need different support, but it’s not just a case of “younger people are better with technology…”

I think there are two variables at play. One is generational and revolves around familiarity with technology. It also includes our ingrained habits: more experienced, not necessarily older, people can fall into the trap of “I’ve always done it this way, and I’m not going to change”. 

Second, there’s the risk appetite of natural early adopters. There are many people in the workforce who are 50-plus who absolutely embrace technology as it emerges; equally there is a cohort of people who just don’t like change and will find moving to remote working harder. 

Every person is different, and their comfort with technology is different. One of the reasons for the success of Microsoft Teams and Zoom is that these tools are so easy to use that the barrier to getting involved has been reduced to near zero. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been using Microsoft Teams and people have figured out how to raise their hands, for example. Etiquette has developed around how to govern meetings online, and we have seen moderators in meetings ensure that everyone gets heard. Seeing new forms of social etiquette develop for the teleconferencing era has been incredibly exciting to watch. 

There is one rarely considered difference that is exceptionally generational. Younger people tend to be need-to-know learners. They don’t read the manual, in fact often there is no manual. They will download an app, see if it works and push buttons. And if it doesn’t work quickly, they will discard it.  Young people also learn by video – they will watch someone else on YouTube.

I was, and most people of my generation are, book learners. 

That’s very analogous to the way I think the workforce is thinking: can I do this by tech, or do I prefer to use more traditional methods?

Etiquette has developed around how to govern meetings online, and we have seen moderators in meetings ensure that everyone gets heard. Seeing new forms of social etiquette develop for the teleconferencing era has been incredibly exciting to watch.

What are your instinctive ground rules to keep productivity up and employees engaged?

Despite the fact that you’re working remotely, there is still an expectation of engagement. And engagement means responding in a timely fashion to requests for information, accepting meetings as they’re put into the diaries and attending them; and if you can’t, giving ample warning to colleagues that you’re not going to be there and the reason why.  

Meeting etiquette is really important: we need to maintain calm and be sensible in conversations, despite how difficult some decisions that need to be made might turn out to be. Be clear and concise so that everybody sees the rationale behind decisions. 

I think it’s hugely important to give people thinking time, because different people across a staff base will understand ideas at different speeds, especially remotely. Some will take more time to recognize and comprehend the seriousness of an issue and how it might affect them as well as the business. 

All of this comes down to effective, inclusive and considerate communication.

And now some “don’ts”. As ever, don’t be impatient with people. Ranty emails rarely land well! Take the time to understand the position that someone else is coming from when they’re explaining something to you. Try to empathize with their position, appreciate why it’s of concern to them and explain things as best you can – especially as without face-to-face contact it’s easy to misinterpret what people say.  Make a commitment: “I can’t give you an answer to that now; we need to look at everything in the round and I will feed back to you in a certain number of days”. Giving that clarity and following up as promised is a really good ground rule for managing people in general, but particularly a dispersed workforce.  

In fact, I don’t much like the word “managing” – I prefer the notion of leading: what are we going to achieve together by the end of the week, how can we get from A to B, rather than “I need you to do X”.

In larger companies, is there a new role for line managers or team leaders in keeping remote workers together?

“Line Manager” almost sounds like an antiquated term now! A line manager was somebody that stood at the end of the table when all those little parts were being put together…

The line manager now is actually a network broker; a person who knows who to speak to, in order to bring teams together to solve problems; or equally, when you’re looking to develop new activity, to pull people with ideas and skills together to see what they can create. Employees can add value to the organisation in ways that no one imagined was possible, simply because that brokerage has taken place. Not surprisingly, the more a team is dispersed and unlikely to communicate informally in the office, the more that brokerage function is of value. Smart managers at all levels are constantly networking and thinking about crossing silos and boundaries as much as they can.

Long-term, can remote working change the way a business works for the better?

What matters most to me – and I’m sure it’s true for other employees – is my own bandwidth; my ability to get work done and make useful decisions. In the long run, I think remote working will increase employee bandwidth. 

We’ve been hearing for a long time about the digitalisation of work and the displacement of certain jobs. I worked with some colleagues in NBC Amsterdam last January, who wrote code and robots to perform repetitive tasks. For example, a person was booked off for six days just to download files and move them. In 24 hours, they had written a solution for that entire task to be performed by robots. 

However, that did not get rid of her job: it bought back six days of her bandwidth so that she could do other, more high-value tasks. Remote working will be just as empowering. What’s sacred about the nine-to-five day, for example?  Employees already clamour for flexible hours. The way tasks are achieved and at what hour of the day is massively less important than the value of the outcomes and outputs themselves. People will be able to care for children or the elderly at home: they will be able to do support work and then pop back into office mode. 

I also think that the spontaneity and flexibility of meetings in a remote working context will mean that “meetings to have meetings” will disappear. Similarly, people who set up a two-hour meeting and feel that they have to fill the whole two hours with content will also go by the wayside. You don’t need two hours. You need to make decisions – and hopefully everyone’s prepared in advance and can buy into those decisions. The purpose of a meeting is to build consensus. Remote working is accelerating our ability to buy back time through more efficient conversations online.

Key Takeaways

This interview is part of a series by Soldo, the prepaid company card solution that makes your expense accounting simple. You can read more interviews from Soldo’s interview series here.