SPECIAL REPORT

From Emergency to Empowerment

As lockdowns ease, there’s a shared understanding that the new normal will be a world in which where we work is less important than how we work. In this guide, eight leading academic experts on the future of work reveal how successful managers are redefining their company structures and their relationships with employees to thrive in a new post-pandemic reality.

FEATURING INSIGHTS FROM

The Great Lockdown of 2020 has presented businesses with extraordinary challenges – but also the silver lining of some unexpected opportunities.

As restrictions are lifted, there is a realisation that, for businesses that have proven they can function remotely, working from home is unlikely to change significantly for a longer duration than originally anticipated.

At organisations where teams have proven they will remain productive remotely, the complexity of adapting offices for social distancing, and the legal implications of ensuring employee health in the workplace mean there will have to be a strong business case made for any return to an onsite location.

Undoubtedly, the way we work, and the relationship between managers and their teams has fundamentally and permanently changed.

We have had the privilege of speaking with eight of the UK’s most influential future of work experts to explore their research into the management science behind remote working. We uncovered that the managers who’ll succeed in a hybrid remote/office-based world are changing how they:

  • Structure their teams for agility
  • Transform key employees into leaders
  • Exercise their duty of care for the physical and mental health of their teams
  • Distribute company money to empower autonomy
  • Leverage technology to facilitate new levels of productivity

This guide has been created to document the key learnings that have come from this unique national experiment to help managers navigate a potential future of sustained remote working.

Our experts

Professor Todd Landman,
Pro-Vice Chancellor for Social Sciences (Human Rights at Work), University of Nottingham

Dr Naeema Pasha,
Director of Henley Careers at Henley Business School, University of Reading

Professor Jacqueline O’Reilly,
Professor of Comparative HRM at the University of Sussex

Dr Emma Russell,
Co-Lead of the Mid- and Early Career Researcher Stream, Chartered and Registered Occupational Psychologist at the University of Sussex

Dr. Petros Chamakiotis,
Associate Professor of Management at ESCP Business School, Madrid, and Associate Fellow at Digit Research Centre

Dr Kishore Sengupta,
Associate Professor at the Cambridge University Judge Business School

Professor Mark Stuart,
Pro-Dean for Research and Innovation, Leeds University Business School

Dr Carl Benedikt Frey,
Oxford Martin Citi Fellow and Director of Future of Work Programme, University of Oxford

Chapter 1: Prioritising strategy and redefining your management structure

In early March 2020, the rapid progression from speculation in the media to a full government mandated lockdown took many by surprise. Managers were forced to implement a move to remote working without a premeditated plan and very little time to prepare. 

Whilst emergency actions enabled short-term business continuity for many, remote working as a long-term solution demands strategy and modified management structures. 

This chapter outlines the key stages in a move to sustainable remote working, and recommendations for appropriate management structures.  

The three stages of remote working

Working together with her team at Henley Business School, one of our experts, Dr Naeema Pasha, created this model to help managers contextualise the challenge of moving to remote working, and begin to think strategically about optimising their teams levels of productivity. 

The model breaks down the move to remote into three stages:

Mobilisation

– in which businesses and their employees get together what they need to work from home.

The key to Mobilisation is to enable people to understand what is required of them. Much of the stress and confusion in remote workplaces happens when people feel their role isn’t clear. Mobilisation demands clarity.

Dr Naeema Pasha, Director of Henley Careers, Henley Business School

Support

– where managers and employers strive to enable people in this new style of working.

Next comes a Support stage, where managers and employers strive to enable people in this new style of working. This is not about equipment but instead includes all the things that you’d want to agree as a manager with your teams; for example:

  • Agreeing the new work patterns.
  • Deciding on appropriate communication – frequency, channels etc.
  • Ensuring that informal ‘water cooler’ communication still happens.
  • And how managers are going to manage. They’ll have to let go of any micromanagement instinct – because that option has gone!
Dr Naeema Pasha, Director of Henley Careers, Henley Business School

Steady state

– where managers look at optimising based on real world data and experience.

Then we move into a Steady state stage; the new normal. Speaking remotely becomes the normal way to conduct a meeting. Setting up Zoom meetings ceases to feel unusual. In the Steady state, the basics of remote working have been resolved, which then allows managers to start refining their approach to productivity policy and their own leadership styles.

Dr Naeema Pasha, Director of Henley Careers, Henley Business School

Whether their business is still in emergency mode, or already thinking about optimising its processes, most managers will likely identify with being at one of these stages.

Dr Pasha notes that there may be a fourth stage, where remote workers return to the office environment. This stage is called ‘Reconnect & Revive’, and it acknowledges that employee mindsets will have changed permanently and they will likely expect their original working conditions to be revised. 

Whilst it is unknown how long the 2020 lockdown will last, UK businesses must be prepared for employee resistance if, post-lockdown, managers try to force their teams back to exactly the way things were before.

Dr Naeema Pasha, Director of Henley Careers, Henley Business School

Defining a new management structure 

Senior management teams need to consider how their leadership structures should adapt to fit a new, more flexible, model of working. 

Over the past 20 years, traditional business hierarchies have been replaced in favour of flatter organisational structures. This comes from a recognition that small cross-functional groups focusing on specific workflows can achieve more than larger, less focused teams. 

Many businesses have already got the message about agile teams – what we sometimes call “distributed leadership”, where people work very effectively in small, tightly-knit and connected teams on clearly defined projects.
Naeema Pasha, Director of Henley Careers, Henley Business School

Managing people at a distance can be challenging as, without the watercooler moments, keeping meaningfully in touch with each employee can eat up time. For larger teams it can be impossible for managers to speak individually to everyone on a regular basis. The danger in this situation is that team members feel so distanced from management that they lose their motivation, or are easily distracted from the tasks they need to be getting on with. 

To maintain management standards while working remotely, our experts recommend a shared leadership model – where projects are split up and more team members are given responsibility for smaller chunks of work:  

In a shared leadership model, it might make sense to have one person lead one stage of the project lifecycle, due to their expertise or location. They might then hand over to somebody else who manages the following stage and so on. Our research tells us that remote working seems to create a greater degree of complexity and responsibility per employee. It’s too much of a workload for one person to lead at a distance. It’s better to have more leaders with specialist skills.
Dr. Petros Chamakiotis, Associate Professor of Management at ESCP Business School, Madrid, and Associate Fellow at Digit Research Centre

Adopting a more agile strategy is something that managers should explore with their remote working teams, ensuring that each small group has a clear leader who has been given the responsibility to report progress back to management. 

Most of the business leaders we’ve spoken with over the past few weeks have been implementing a key form of agile team management, ‘the standup’ – even if they’ve not called it that. 

At the core of agile team management, the standup is also known as the daily scrum as, like a team huddle in sports, it’s an important strategic moment in which three important questions are answered by each member: 

  1. What did I work on yesterday?
  2. What am I working on today?
  3. What issues are blocking me? 

Answering these questions means every member of a team is aware of progress and blockers. By sharing this information collectively it strengthens the bond between members. Reinforcing co-dependencies and knowledge sharing keeps everyone focused and working collaboratively on tactical activities, whilst maintaining momentum towards achieving overarching objectives. 

Empower your line managers

Line managers are a crucial element in the shared leadership model, connecting senior management and the front-line workforce. The remote line manager must take on a more facilitative role where their core objectives are based around helping small specialised teams get things done. They need the bird’s eye view of a project portfolio in order to direct and connect teams where required.  

In our remote working world, the line manager will become a network broker; a person who knows who to speak to, in order to bring teams together to solve problems or create. Employees can add value to the organisation in ways that no one imagined was possible, simply because that brokerage has taken place.
Prof. Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science, University of Nottingham

In an office-based management structure there’s less need for line managers and many businesses haven’t given anyone this role. This is something that we’d recommend all remote management teams reassess. Giving key employees a new level of responsibility, whether it’s simply to lead the morning meeting, or to be fully responsible for their team’s performance, can free senior management to focus on the wider business strategy. 

Chapter 2: Optimising your day-to-day remote working processes

Once new strategies, management structures and policies are put in place, businesses can focus on settling down into remote working routines. 

From avoiding micromanagement to maintaining employee wellbeing, this chapter will provide actionable takeaways on how to navigate the most common challenges as remote working becomes the ‘new normal’.

Don’t worry: everyone’s still working!

It’s entirely natural for managers to feel the fear that their remote teams are doing nothing because they can’t actually ‘walk the floor’ and see the work being done. Our experts universally agreed that on average the opposite is true.

There is consensus that the classic manager’s fear of remote workers automatically slacking simply is not true. I think, if anything, that working remotely has led to an intensification of work.
Prof. Mark Stuart, Pro Dean for Research, University of Leeds

Research from businesses and teams in China shows that moving from office to remote working initially leads to a drop in productivity. Then, as people become acclimated to their new way of working, productivity increases again. 

The point made by all the experts we discussed this with is that there is nothing about remote working, per se, that causes employees to significantly change behaviour. If that happens, then there are other factors at play. 

If team members were good workers before moving to home working, then that should not change. As discussed in the previous chapter, there will be some cases where external factors will cause employees to struggle to get through their workload. The role of managers is to identify these factors and talk them through with their team member to see how it can be resolved.

Let employees be more autonomous

Whether managers like it or not, with distance comes a requirement for employees to take more control over their roles. They can’t ask their bosses or colleagues questions nearly as easily as when they’re sitting around a table in an office. This means they need to be able to make decisions themselves. 

A powerful technique to empower employees to be autonomous is to set clear expectations as to what acceptable performance looks like, and then let them get on with it. 

There are some fundamental rules around clarity and honesty on both sides. Managers must specify what good performance looks like, for both teams and individuals. They should set clear expectations: what delivery can we expect, what quality can we achieve?
Kishore Sengupta, Reader in Operations Management, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

When team members know the goals that are expected of them and have the tools to be able to achieve them then they are much more likely to thrive in a work environment that demands more autonomy. 

The OKR (Objectives and Key Results) model is used by companies around the world to set expectations and targets at an individual and a group level. Once these are set, team members understand their goals and are able to operate more autonomously. Objectives describe what needs to be done, and Key Results measure how that task is to be done. Many managers are aware of this model, but haven’t looked at implementing it for their own teams. With teams hungry for structure, this could be a good time to do that.

Don’t stifle your team by making them feel like they’re stuck in a decision-making matrix where they can’t do anything. With all today’s reporting technologies, you can empower local teams and let them crack on. With international teams working day and night or local teams moving under their own steam, the collective output may actually be superior to endless meetings in the office.
Prof. Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science, University of Nottingham

Advanced communication strategies

How and when we communicate has been the most talked about element of this shift to remote. Now that managers have set up their synchronous and asynchronous communications tools, and everyone’s comfortable using them, it’s time to get more sophisticated with how they’re being used. 

The rules of remote communications:

Be obsessively clear

Distance is the enemy of clarity. Every manager must put more effort into being understood. In meetings, explain everything. Be clear and concise so that everybody sees the rationale behind your decisions.

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.
Prof. Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science, University of Nottingham

Keep in touch personally

There’s never been a time where remote working success is more achievable than in 2020 due to the plethora of business communications tools available to businesses. Whether you’re using Slack or Microsoft Teams, in addition to the standard group communication channels it’s important for managers to set up and make use of private channels with individual team members. This creates a safe space for individuals and a direct personal link with their line manager where they can discuss issues confidentially.

Keep an eye on who is contributing and who is not

Communicating as a group via video calls means less confident employees can be unable to get their voice heard. Encouraging the use of functionality, such as Zoom’s ‘raise your hand’ feature, allows everyone a chance to speak.

Watch for signs that your team need feedback

Employees who are only communicating through text can miss the feedback and positive reinforcement that comes from face-to-face interactions. A simple ‘thank you’ can be a loaded communication experience – in text it can seem abrupt without the smile and non-verbal communication that would go with it face-to-face. Managers need to identify the signals that a team member is struggling and deal with them quickly.

Colleagues compensate for presenteeism by constantly peppering off email after email and nobody can keep up. Email is the bluntest communication tool and it can do a lot of damage.
Prof. Jacqueline O’Reilly, Director, DIGIT, the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre, University of Sussex.

Limit the length of meetings

Meetings are the bane of effective workflow in offices. There’s a myth that remote working solves this issue, however it is not always the case.  Without the requirement to book meeting rooms and times in people’s diaries, it’s actually easier to set up meetings. Over-sharing of meeting links with colleagues can lose teams hours each week. Some managers are even opting to use the free version of Zoom to limit their meetings to 40 minutes to keep them as concise as possible. 

An effective technique to combat this is to implement meeting types with set durations. An example set up could be to have review meetings at 30 mins, check-in meetings limited to 15 minutes and quick question meetings set at 5 mins. 

Walmart keeps their meetings to 15-minute phone conversations and they make decisions very quickly. They may sometimes seem a little curt, but they come to a meeting prepared. There’s no waffling about, they know the key questions they need to ask, make decisions and then work out a plan to implement them.
Prof. Jacqueline O’Reilly, Director, DIGIT, the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre, University of Sussex

Focus on communicating information rather than just chatting

With less social interactions it’s simple for meetings to slip into general chats. There is obviously a time and a place for this type of communication and many leaders are setting up company quizzes and online socials. Managers need to keep work meetings focused on the job at hand.

With all the modern channels through which we interact like email, Slack, Teams, Zoom and Skype, we are over-consumers of communication. Information is critical, but it needs to be accurate, salient and delivered at the right frequency. Sometimes modern media is like a constant stream of alerts. As leaders, instead of over-communicating, we should communicate in context.
Kishore Sengupta, Reader in Operations Management, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

One-to-many doesn’t replace two-way team communications

It’s tempting to motivate the troops with town hall style video conferences. They are easy to set up; the message only has to be delivered once. But they are also one-way: would you raise a hand in front of 500 peers on a video-conference to question a senior manager?

Broadcast channels are seductive because you can reach more people – electronic channels mean leaders can run town halls on steroids. But communicating in relatively small groups is a lot more meaningful. You can convey energy far more effectively with a smaller group, particularly when you’re in a virtual room with employees who might not usually have access to a senior member of the team. They will love it – and that’s how you get commitment.
Kishore Sengupta, Reader in Operations Management, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

A manager’s role in employee wellbeing

After a number of weeks of lone working, managers are having to deal with more complex issues around how performance is affected by their employees physical and mental wellbeing. 

As employees settle into the day-to-day of sustained remote working, there are a number of simple things that managers can implement to help employees.

Set boundaries

Working in an office environment, we are used to certain boundaries:

  • Physical: the ability to shut the door and leave work at the end of the day.
  • Temporal: opening hours; the nine-to-five.
  • Psychological: formal ‘work mode’, relaxed ‘home mode’. 

With remote working, these boundaries can easily become blurred. Effective managers will help employees to re-define those boundaries ensuring that, even though their work and home lives are now integrated, the difference can still be established.

Not only that, different people will welcome the intrusion of work life into home life to a different degree. Some love the flexibility, others hate the feeling of “never switching off”:

The research I’ve done suggests that there are individual differences in the extent to which employees want those boundaries to be strong, and to which they’re happy for those boundaries to be more fluid. Some will want managers to help them separate work from home life. Others who enjoy more fluid boundaries and managers should facilitate that freedom to help those people to work more productively and with great satisfaction.
Dr. Emma Russell, Co-Lead, Mid- and Early Career Researcher Stream, University of Sussex, Chartered and Registered Occupational Psychologist

Subtly enforce routine

Without some form of daily structure, it can happen that remote workers start sleeping in and working late at night. Having team members on different schedules can lead to inefficiencies and frustrations. Having a fixed schedule of daily standups at the beginning of each day means that team members are starting at the same time.

Use zero-based calendars

Being given more autonomy in their roles can be a source of anxiety for many. With less direct support from managers, it can feel overwhelming, especially for more junior members to marshal their focus. 

Encouraging staff to divide their work load into chunks and allocating calendar slots until their diaries are full, on a daily or weekly basis, can be an effective technique to manage responsibility anxiety. This zero-based approach to managing calendars means that everything they need to do has time assigned to it. It leads to better time management, less over-commitment and more focused work while making them and managers more aware of where time is being spent. 

Employees should take this opportunity to learn more about how they are working, and where they could be more productive.

We do far too many things by default. We usually multitask, but remote working is an opportunity to move into sequential mode. In sequential mode, some things w on’t get done, but what does get done will get done very, very well. Remote working is a chance to appreciate the value of depth rather than breadth.

Kishore Sengupta, Reader in Operations Management, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

Consider providing mental and physical health budgets

The connection between physical health and productivity is as well-proven as it is intuitive. It’s very easy for employees to start working in the morning and finish in the evening without even thinking about physical activity. Mental health is equally at risk in such uncertain times.

Taking a proactive approach to mental and physical wellbeing pays off commercially as well as morally. A recent report from Deloitte made a compelling case for offering proactive support. It found that for every £1 invested in proactive and preventative mental health support, businesses will see an average of £5 returned in less absenteeism and increased productivity.

Many of our customers are using Soldo to give their staff budgets to get subscriptions to apps like Calm and Headspace, which are fantastic for calming anxious minds and helping restless employees get to sleep. Other teams are using apps like Strava and Runkeeper to create shared social experiences around exercise. Using a tool like Soldo makes it simple for managers to get in front of these complex issues and give their teams a health budget which employees can use as they see fit to take care of their wellbeing.

Be fair

Remote working can create inequalities between employees. Some employees’ jobs may be more difficult to perform from home. Some may be on lower salaries with less comfortable workstations, and some will have family lives to maintain at the same time as working. These pressures can create significant levels of anxiety and put strain on their personal relationships. 

Lower-paid workers are likely to have smaller homes which are less comfortable to work in and a harder environment in which to juggle work and family life. So there is a subtle potential for remote working to create multiple inequalities which managers should keep in mind.

Dr. Carl Benedikt Frey, Oxford Martin Citi Fellow, University of Oxford

Open and candid conversations with your staff about their home office setup gives managers the information they need in order to support each employee to maintain their mental health and reach peak performance. 

Financial stress, especially for those with families, can have serious consequences for mental health and productivity. Faced with a barrage of messages about the dire state of the economy and understandably fearing for their future security, it’s important that companies take financial responsibility for the tools and equipment that staff need to do their jobs.

Chapter 3: The employers’ legal duty of care

Employers have a legal duty under The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 29, to manage and reduce the risks which employees are exposed to when they carry out their work. 

This has significant ramifications for businesses that to date have been focused on business continuity. There are many ways in which employees’ physical health can be affected by how they’re working and the onus sits on companies to take responsibility to minimise this risk. 

CFOs and business owners face a logistically difficult challenge in ensuring that employees’ home work environments aren’t negatively affecting their wellbeing during working hours. 

As managers are realising that a return to the office is unlikely to happen imminently, there are obligations that need to be considered by companies regarding the moral and legal duty of care they have for their teams. 

One of the clearest areas where there’s a responsibility for companies is in protecting people who are working at home on a long term basis from the risks associated with using display screen equipment (DSE). Another area that managers may not even be aware of is the ergonomic health risks associated with working from home.

Practically this means that employers need to be carrying out risk assessments identifying employee concerns and providing possible solutions. Staff need to be provided with equipment to reduce the risks such as laptop stands or risers, portable external keyboards and input devices. We recommend providing each member of your team with a budget to buy what they need to work safely.

In accordance with regulation 3, companies may need to provide full workstations – desks and chairs – for employees. What’s less clear is how employees who don’t have space for a workstation should be handled. What is clear is that it is vital and legally responsible, for managers to discuss working environments with their team members.

If an employer provides equipment (mobile devices) for mobile working, and expects employees to use them during their work, they have legal duties to educate their employees on any associated health risks, to assess those risks, and to provide additional equipment to help control the risks. Employees also have a legal duty to follow instructions and training, and to use equipment provided to them for the purpose of managing and reducing risks.
Mobile Working Risk Management, The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors.

According to the snappily entitled ‘DSE Regulations (the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 as amended by the Health and Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2002’, these are the regulations that employers need to comply with:

Health and Safety DSE Regulations

Regulation 1

Identify who your users are

Know and understand which staff are using mobile technology.

Regulation 2

Assess the risks, i.e. the workstation

Identify and understand how those staff are using that equipment.

Regulation 3

Provide a suitable workstation

Provide equipment to allow staff to set up a suitable workstation and adopt good posture wherever they are.

Regulation 4

Work routine

Ensure staff understand the need for breaks and ensure work routine allows them to take those breaks.

Regulation 5

Eye-sight testing and glasses

Provide eye-sight testing and corrective appliances if required.

Regulation 6

Provide training

Training about how to use (mobile) technology safely.

Regulation 7

Provide information

Educate staff about the risks and how to mitigate them. Advice on setting up mobile workspaces.

Beyond the workstation there are other considerations that have a direct result on a team’s ability to work productively:

Wi-Fi

For those on low speed Wi-Fi networks, working from home has proven to be especially challenging. Many businesses are offering financial support to their employees to cover upgrading their residential broadband. Even for those with good speeds there is a question around whether employers should be contributing to costs. 

Hardware 

Remote technical support has been common practice in large organisations for years, however for smaller businesses it could be worth outsourcing this function to a specialised provider. For employees who have major issues with their essential devices, businesses need to be able to send out same day replacements to ensure continuity. 

Software 

For cloud-based team solutions like project management software, this can be purchased centrally and controlled by managers. However, there will be specialist requirements such as a PPC manager needing ad budgets, or individuals requiring inbox management tools, or a webmaster needing more virtual webspace for a company site that needs to be managed. 

Where managers 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.
Prof. Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science, University of Nottingham

Keeping an eye on expenses

Ensuring that employees have everything that they need from a legal and a productivity perspective involves distributing company money across distances. 

Without access to the petty cash box, employees need a way to access funds, in a controlled way, when they need them. 

Every team member borrowing a director’s card would lead to administrative nightmares, as would dealing with multiple individual credit card statements at month end. Many businesses are turning towards shared expense accounts, such as Soldo, which allows management to distribute named company cards to individuals which are centrally managed online. 

Give remote employees a budget and the freedom to spend it. Make it obvious that budgets can be used for equipment, for example, but not other classes of product; and that purchases must be tracked. But truly, I think that most people won’t misuse those freedoms. Overall, that will be more effective than layers of restrictions aiming to control costs.
Kishore Sengupta, Reader in Operations Management, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

Soldo’s company cards give employees the freedom to make purchases within defined parameters and budgets.

Trusted by over 60,000 businesses, Soldo is the smart way to manage remote company spending. Soldo gives your employees prepaid Mastercard® cards which empower them to do their jobs with simple but controlled access to company funds. Set rules and budgets by role, expense type and policy – so your finance team will never face any nasty surprises. Your Soldo online dashboard connects to all major accounting softwares, making your expense reporting processes seamless.

Chapter 4: Reviewing your tech stack for long-term success

In the race to remote, the lockdown of 2020 forced many businesses to implement technology in a way that they may not have done before.

Now that communication channels and project management tools have been established, many managers are looking closely at what is working and what is not, and amending their remote working tech stack accordingly. 

  • Video conferencing
    • What? Stay in touch with teams and run meetings where everyone can contribute.
    • Who? The leaders today are Zoom, and Microsoft Teams, you might also like Join.me (through a browser) and Cisco’s WebEx (used by some large companies).
  • Spending and Expense Management
    • What? Give employees the freedom to buy services so that their work isn’t interrupted by process bottlenecks.
    • Who? Use Soldo for highly configurable prepaid cards to distribute funds so that employees can do their jobs unimpeded; plus easy employee expense reconciliation.
  • File Storage
    • What? Keep documents safely in the Cloud, rather than on individuals’ home computers where they can be lost, stolen, or damaged.
    • Who? Microsoft (Office 365) and Google (G-Suite) both offer storage space with most of their paid packages. Dropbox is gloriously easy to use and reliable. Box is a good alternative.
  • Teamwork
    • What? Desktop access to documents, conversations and third party systems all in one place, for a seamless collaboration experience.
    • Who? Many project management tools (see Project Management below) will offer some of these pieces of functionality, which may be enough. But for an all-in-one experience, the market leaders are Slack and Microsoft Teams.
  • Project Management
    • What? Keep an eye on progress through projects and workflows when everyone is dispersed; and get alerts when things are not going according to plan.
    • Who? This is an extremely busy market, and most project professionals have their favourites. Check out Trello, Asana, Monday, Basecamp and Jira at the very least.
  • Password Security
    • What? Away from the office, keeping passwords safely locked away is more of a priority than ever. Keep all your security credentials safely in one place.
    • Who? There are three market leaders with similar features: OnePassword, Dashlane and LastPass.
  • Remote Desktop
    • What? A forgotten piece of wizardry that no remote working business should ignore. Avoid grief, confusion and unnecessary travel when you have IT problems by passing control of your computer to a third party. 
    • Who? TeamViewer is the undisputed leader, and it has plenty of functionality free of charge.

A more advanced use of communications tools

One tool isn’t necessarily right for every piece of communication. We’ve all had moments when we feel like an email was curt of discourteous, and these feelings can be amplified in the remote working context.

People tend to assume that technologies like Zoom are perfectly suited to every task, but that’s wrong. Yes, video-conferencing feels more natural because you can see your colleagues and you can speak to them at the same time, synchronously. But it’s not the right tool for every application. My research suggests that different technologies are appropriate for different types of tasks. Sometimes even the phone, however old fashioned it might be, is still the best tool. There’s no perfect recipe.
Dr. Petros Chamakiotis, Associate Professor of Management at ESCP Business School, Madrid, and Associate Fellow at Digit Research Centre

Here are some tips to help you pick the right tool for the job:

  • If a conversation is potentially ambiguous or sensitive, use a communication tool with more richness in terms of its social cues – i.e. video or even a phone call rather than just email. 
  • There are times when efficiency is vital. In that case, Slack, email and other text-based communications will be most appropriate.
  • Formality may also be a factor. Video-conferencing is more of a formal channel – it’s planned in advance and synchronous. Slack and WhatsApp groups, for example, are less formal, require less time and effort on both sides. 

Remember that people have different attitudes to video-conferencing. Many people feel uncomfortable being on video. It can feel very exposed. If possible, allow those less confident with video to participate audio-only.
Naeema Pasha, Director of Henley Careers, Henley Business School

The tech divide: managing across generations

It’s tempting to think that younger employees are simply “better” with technology than their mature counterparts. Dr Naeema’s research from Henley Business School suggests otherwise:

We did some research that looked at four generations in the workplace; and rather than being specifically generational, we found that certain technological influences happen to a group of people around the world at a particular time. When the iPhone arrived, for example, it was a transformational technology. People were empowered to communicate differently. So it is technologies, not generations, that influence culture and attitudes to work. And because technology is moving ever faster, those cultures and attitudes are changing faster too.
Naeema Pasha, Director of Henley Careers, Henley Business School

Whilst tech is becoming simpler to use for all generations, Professor Todd Landman suggests that the way different age brackets learn how to use these tools still differs:

There is one rarely considered difference that is exceptionally generational. Younger people don’t read the manual, in fact often there is no manual. They will download an app, see if it works and push buttons; or learn by video on YouTube. I, and most people of my generation, however, are book learners.
Prof. Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science, University of Nottingham

A small investment in training, a buddy system, or just the occasional PDF manual to support older employees who had a pre-digital education, will give everyone a chance to perform effectively.

Chapter 5: Expert opinions on the future of work 

Remote working technologies have promised a workplace revolution for at least two decades. Improvements in technology and the extraordinary upheaval presented by the 2020 lockdown now mean that those promises are, for many businesses, becoming a reality.

Pointers to the future

Despite the lockdown’s nudge towards permanent remote working, its full effect – particularly when combined with other technology influences – is unclear. But our academic panel did present some ideas:

Improved productivity 

Historically, the challenge to productivity from remote working has always been that it was implemented tactically for individual workers, rather than with the backing of a wholesale corporate strategy. With whole teams moving to a remote work regime, companies can now assess the impact on efficiency, cost and ultimately profitability.

There is an opportunity to effect change. It’s a big issue because we have a productivity problem across the UK economy, and it’s been going on for a long time. Achieving improved productivity involves organisations looking at work in radical ways: across the wider business strategy, processes, management practices etc. and flexing them accordingly, too.
Prof. Mark Stuart, Pro Dean for Research, University of Leeds

Supporting a fluid talent pool with changing career expectations

The future of remote and flexible working will allow more people to flex work around their lifestyles, vital skill development and changing career ambitions.

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. “Meetings to have meetings” will disappear. The purpose of a meeting is to build consensus – and ideally everyone will prepare in advance and can buy into decisions. Remote working is accelerating our ability to buy back time through more efficient conversations online.
Prof. Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science, University of Nottingham

Buying back bandwidth 

By cutting back on unnecessary meetings and fine tuning efficient communication, employees are buying back time to focus on what really matters – at work and at home.

Social and technological change is going to be so continuous that we must all have an evolutionary approach to jobs, or we won’t survive in the workplace. If we want to stay economically active, we will need to look at our skills development, and workplace flexibility is a key tool. The freedoms of remote working and flexible working hours all make finding the time to invest in skills easier.
Naeema Pasha, Director of Henley Careers, Henley Business School

In conclusion

The Great Lockdown of 2020 has taught us that, for many businesses remote working is not only possible, but holds significant benefits around productivity, work-life balance and employee satisfaction. The effect of this time on how companies view the role of the office will be profound. 

The next transition for companies will involve a deep analysis into how their companies performed during this nationwide shift in working practices, in order to keep what worked, and understand what didn’t. 

With the right strategies and technologies, businesses will achieve happier and more productive workforces, enabled and connected in novel ways, and capable of delivering targets with new-found resilience.

Whether your business adopts remote working completely, or a hybrid model of flexible working between home and an office, the fact remains, that the key to successful team management and productivity lies in transparent communication of the ground rules and expectations for how employees and their managers work and interact. 

We hope that this guide has armed you with the research-led knowledge and insights that will allow you to think at a deeper level about how you lead your team to success. 

The 5 rules of managing a hybrid-remote team