The Art of Distance Management – Part 2

This is the write-up from the ninth 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.

This was our second virtual coffee break on the question of how to manage people while working from home. When we covered this topic three weeks ago, we talked about this being a steep learning curve, under challenging conditions. We were just into the second week of lockdown and there were three common themes emerging:

  1. Don’t assume everyone’s OK– this situation is affecting everyone differently – and some are facing bigger challenges than others. 
  2. Stay connected– there’s a risk that people may become disengaged – so make sure everyone can contribute and knows their contribution is valued and making a difference.
  3. Demonstrate leadership – now, more than ever, is the time to lead by example – and, by the way, it’s OK to acknowledge things are difficult.

Three weeks on, and in week five of the lock-down, we hear people describing this as the new normal and wondering whether things will ever go back to precisely the way they were before. Personally, Andrew hopes they will, because videoconferences are a poor substitute for real human contact – a case of you don’t know what you had ‘til you miss it. 

Nonetheless, this has been a hugely accelerated shift to virtual working. It was already a trend, so it seems likely at least some of this shift is going to be permanent.  Especially as social distancing is going to be with us for quite some time.

So, what more have we learned, over the last few weeks, about how to manage people, with everyone working from home?

The practicalities of managing people while working from home

We’re certainly learning a lot about the practicalities. Especially the importance of discipline and preparation. Videoconferencing is a great way to meet and discuss things, but it works best when everyone’s properly prepared and as much work as possible has been done offline, ahead of the call. 

A lot of people are commenting on how much more productive they are when working from home. This is partly because they’re not wasting time travelling or sitting in unproductive meetings and partly due to a lack of distraction. 

The problem is, a lot of that distraction is actually hugely important social interaction. One of the things we’re learning is we don’t go into the office just to work – the social dimension of having a job and working with other people is a crucial part of our lives.

So, how do you compensate for this, when all your team are working from home?

In one of our earlier virtual coffee breaks, one of our member firms, Zuhlke, who are software engineers, described how they manage “pair-programming”, using videoconferencing. 

Pair-programming is the well-established practice of having two coders work together on a given task. What they’ve found is, in addition to all the normal benefits, there’s a very useful social benefit in having team members in regular or constant communication, using Zoom or Microsoft Teams. 

So, there’s possibly a more general lesson here, about encouraging members of your team to work together on tasks, even though they’re physically separated.

There’s a lot more we could say about the practicalities of working from home, and this is probably the most widely covered subject at the moment, second only to Covid-19 itself. 

Generally, most people are adapting well to the work part of working from home. However, the psychological strain of social isolation may be more of a problem, which is why it’s more important than ever to stay connected with your team. 

It’s hard to know what you can do to support people who are struggling with all this, but it certainly helps to have a routine. 

Andrew’s strong recommendation is to increase the frequency of scheduled interactions, whether they are stand-ups or progress meetings or regular one-on-ones with each member of your team. The more structured, scheduled interaction you have, the better. 

So, those are some of the practicalities, but how do we manage our teams, what should you actually be doing and what should be your priorities? 

Focus on planning how your business will recover from this crisis

Most companies are now starting to think about their how their business will recover from this crisis and what plans they need to put in place to manage this recovery. Another of our member firms, Fluxx, have just published an excellent article on how to create your Covid-19 business recovery plan (see link at the bottom of this write-up).

The main point they make is the level of uncertainty. Things are going to change and keep changing. So, the key to recovery for most companies will be the ability to continue to adapt to the new normal. Because the new normal is going to keep evolving. 

This means, from a leadership perspective, we need to make sure we’re listening to our employees, customers and suppliers to make sure we understand their challenges and priorities and are responding accordingly. 

For example, one of the UK’s water companies has moved its entire call centre capability to remote working in less than a week. And they’re using an idea management platform, from another of our member firms, Wazoku, to capture all the ideas, needs and requirements of their call centre staff, during this transition, and to continue capturing these ideas as they learn what’s needed for them to work safely and effectively from home. 

Embrace digital learning as a great way to keep your people busy and productive

This focus on identifying and responding to constantly changing problems, means your people need a way to rapidly acquire new skills and abilities. These might be as simple as how to use videoconferencing software, or as complicated as how to develop better client relationships. 

In fact, Covid-19 is proving to be something of a lightning-rod for changes, that were already happening, in how companies think about training and is dramatically accelerating the move to digital learning.

By way of example, Deutsche Telekom have closed all their stores, displacing 100,000 workers. These are people who are not used to working from home. So, to keep them engaged, Deutsche Telekom have been working with another of our member firms, Skillsoft, to put together a four-week, role-based learning programme, designed to take an employee from a customer service role to a customer service manager role. (You can read more about this here).

In summary

So, to summarise what we’ve learned in these last few weeks:

  1. Don’t assume everyone’s OK – this situation is affecting everyone differently – and some are facing bigger challenges than others. 
  2. Stay connected – there’s a risk that people may become disengaged – so make sure everyone can contribute and knows their contribution is valued and making a difference.
  3. Demonstrate leadership – now, more than ever, is the time to lead by example – and, by the way, it’s OK to acknowledge things are difficult.
  4. Start focusing on how you’re going to manage the recovery of your businesses. This puts a premium on the ability to continually adapt and on listening to the concerns of your people, customers and suppliers, and responding imaginatively. 
  • Embrace digital learning as a great way of keeping everyone busy and productive.


The discussion that followed Andrew’s remarks touched on several further, important aspects of managing people remotely: 

  • “What I’m missing most, when I’m not in the same room as the people I’m talking to, are those accidental conversations where a thought or idea just occurs to you and you can bounce it off someone.”
  • “I’ve set up a regular call with the CEO of one of our member firms, ostensibly to work on a specific task, but actually it’s become a broader thing where that sort of unplanned discussion also takes place.”
  • “What we’ve been doing is keeping in touch with everyone in our teams far more frequently, either 1-2-1 or in a small group. We want to see how everyone’s doing, how they’re coping and what we can do to help.”
  • “I found video meetings weird at first but now I’m getting used to it and I’m enjoying it and we’ve moved beyond just work and now talk about other things, including our families and interests outside work.”
  • “One area of our business which I thought would struggle to adapt, is the offshore outsourced service centres, but they haven’t. More generally, companies are finding they can do things remotely, that they would never previously have thought possible.”
  • “We’ve found that outgoing people are more comfortable with the changes we’ve seen and are participating more actively. Whereas, other colleagues, who aren’t so outgoing, are finding it much harder and we’re having to spend time one-on-one with them.”
  • “People in technology related businesses are OK with videoconferencing, but many less technically literate people are struggling. We think these people will be going back to working in the office, because they’ve found working from home so stressful.”
  • “I think the most striking thing we’ve seen is the importance of an organisation’s values. Lockdown is a pressure test for the strength of a company’s values. Companies with the strongest values are surviving in better shape.”
  • “Some employees are becoming disillusioned with their leaders, because they don’t see them living the values of the company. As a consequence, rather surprisingly, people are happy to talk about moving company even at this difficult time.”
  • “In biggest leadership challenge is still to come. Companies furloughed their workforce, or asked them to work from home, almost overnight. The challenge now is how and when to bring back them back. It will be difficult to get this right and to set the right tone.”
  • “I spoke to someone in the Civil service and they are working half-time from home and half-time in the office to maintain social distancing. I think we’ll be living in a half-and-half world for some time to come”
  • “We need to go and put into practice what we’ve heard today.”

Covid-19 Business Recovery Guide:

To download Fluxx’s article on creating your Covid-19 Business Recovery Guide, please click here

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