The Art of Distance Management

This is the write-up from the second in our series of virtual coffee breaks – designed to provide a caffeine-enriched forum for discussion amongst senior executives who might otherwise be going stir-crazy during this period of lockdown. 

The topic for this session was: ‘The Art of Distance Management – how to lead, motivate, create cohesion and compensate for lack of interaction’ and our speaker was Andrew Simmonds, consulting lead here at Clustre.

Andrew started the call by summarising feedback he’s received from conversations, over the last couple of weeks, with people in companies, ranging from IBM, who have 350,000 employees globally, to start-ups with fewer than a dozen, and everything in between.

The current situation is not business as usual for anyone. The adjustment’s been most manageable for people already used to working from home, but even for them, and certainly for the vast majority, the last couple of weeks have been the start of a huge social experiment. 

The initial focus has been on the practicalities. For example, one Chief Operating Officer has moved his entire organisation, of around 9,000 people, from being office based to working from home, in just 48 hours. 

These practicalities have been the immediate concern. But the focus now is moving to the bigger challenge: figuring out how to actually manage our people remotely and there are three common themes emerging:


Not everyone has space to set up a home office, especially younger members of your team, who may live in shared apartments and find it quite stressful to try to work from home. Even more senior folk may find their normally quiet space is now shared with their family.

For many of us, the economic shock of this crisis is quite profound. We have friends or family whose businesses are struggling or whose jobs are on hold. And of course we have the human tragedy of covid-19 itself. 

People are used to coming to work and leaving their personal problems at home; but that’s impossible right now. On top of that, we have the added psychological stress of isolation. 

So, it’s important, now more than ever, to check in with every member of your team. You may be speaking to them regularly via video conference, but it’s much harder to pick up non-verbal cues over video. So, make sure you ask how they’re doing.


A lot of people are doing this really well, making use of virtual stand-ups or virtual coffee breaks as an effective in keeping everyone connected. If your team already uses slack or other messaging or collaboration tools, these are coming into their own now.

But, in the absence of direct human contact, there’s a risk people become disengaged. Not only do your people not have real contact with you, or with each other, they don’t have real contact with their friends or family either.

The psychological impact of this isolation should not be underestimated and cannot be completely compensated for; we have to accept the reality that this is quite difficult for a lot of us. So, be aware of this and do everything you can to keep your people engaged:

  • Whatever you would do in the normal office setting, do it even more now;
  • Think about each member of your team: are they proactively engaged or are there signs they’re drifting away. If in doubt, get on a one-to-one video call and check-in with them;
  • And of course, the main thing you can do is to make sure everyone has plenty to do and is able to stay busy and productive;
  • Make sure everyone is able to contribute and knows their contribution is valued and making a difference.


In any leadership setting, regardless of your style, you need to show up, be seen, listen and be heard. These are all more difficult when everyone’s working from home. 

What you absolutely don’t want to do, is retreat into managing by email. Even in the best of times, we’ve all seen people whose idea of leadership is a steady stream of motivational emails. This doesn’t work in an office setting and it certainly won’t work now. 

What you do need to do is get on the video calls, get on the phone, talk to your people and listen to them. Now, more than ever, is the time to lead by example. Your teams will watch how you operate and take their cue from you.

If you want people to collaborate, make sure you collaborate. If you want people to reach out to clients, make sure that’s what you do and are seen to be doing. The tone you set, in your virtual interactions with your team, is the only real social cue they’re getting right now, so make sure it’s the right tone and positive. 


In addition to these three themes, participants on the call shared some of the important lessons they are learning as we all adjust to this new way of working:

  • Something that’s proving very useful, working for a global organisation, is different parts of the world are at different stages. Some teams in China and Hong Kong are starting to go back to the office and are a great source of guidance; they’ve set up virtual rooms so people from other countries can ask questions and learn from their experience. 
  • Allowances need to be made for the varying levels of infrastructure in different countries. For example, in India the bandwidth available to people working from home is quite restricted and video conferences are more challenging. 
  • Humour really helps. Everyone is being a lot more friendly on video calls. In one company, daily prayers have become quite silly; another company has introduced a game of charades at the end of their stand-ups and a virtual happy-hour every Friday. 
  • Applying a daily routine is important: getting up at the same time, doing some exercise and getting into a working routine. It helps to have a system for scheduling calls so people can work around their other commitments (like walking dogs or feeding kids). 
  • It’s important to be vulnerable and authentic as a leader. It’s OK to acknowledge things are difficult right now. And it’s important our people can see and understand what we’re going through, so they know they’re not alone in this. It’s actually really good if your team see your kids walking in and interrupting you; it shows you’re human too. 
  • Some teams are leaving video conferences open, once meetings are finished, so people can continue working, with the sound turned off, but able to see each other. It’s also good to encourage people to walk around and stretch at the start of a call. 
  • One team has introduced virtual elevenses, so anyone can join the video and share a virtual cuppa and chat, or work, just as they would by the coffee machine in the office. 
  • It’s important to be aware of the impact your working habits can have on other people. If you’re under pressure and start emailing people at 10 o’clock in the evening, explain to them why you’re still working at that hour and make sure they don’t feel under pressure to interpret this as the new expectation. 
  • Many people are seeing the volume of emails going up, as their colleagues fall back on email as the easiest way to interact, since they can’t just swivel round in their chairs. One great suggestion is to pick up our phones more and use them for their original purpose.

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