One Step Removed – the Challenges of Leading Remote Teams

By Bradley Honnor

With remote and hybrid working set to become normal working practice rather than a temporary emergency fix for some time to come, it’s interesting to note that levels of ‘quiet quitting’ and burnout reported in the workplace have rarely been higher. A Deloitte survey (1) found that 28% of employees either left or were planning to leave their jobs in 2021, with 61% citing poor mental health as the reason.

For many, the opportunity to avoid the commute and arrange work hours around life commitments has proved invaluable. But there’s little doubt that this flexibility can come at a cost, and does not always lead to increased productivity (2). For some remote workers, it’s harder to switch off, and many are reporting working longer hours since working from home (3).

Some major challenges fall out of this for leaders – how to guard against employee burnout, and how to keep staff motivated, creative and engaged, when face-to-face contact and those serendipitous ‘ah ha’ moments around the coffee machine have been all but eliminated.

The risk of burnout

It’s a sad fact that most of the organisations MatchFit are working with are talking about burnout to some degree. Many people feel like they, or someone they know, are heading towards a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. They’re using phrases like ‘unsustainable workload’ or ‘high-pressure culture’. Feelings of isolation can also affect mental health. People will be heading towards burnout if these issues aren’t resolved.

If burnout isn’t addressed, it can develop into a mental breakdown. You can often recognise when stress has become a problem by observing behaviours. People withdraw, or interact with others differently. Their behaviour or expression of their personality alters to some degree. It can escalate to the extent that it becomes associated with a culture of bullying, harassment and discrimination, because everyone is under stress, suffering from work pressures and taking it out on their colleagues.

This type of behaviour can become normalised, which means a lot of us are working in a very unhealthy way. Lots of people are working very late without lunch, or aren’t leaving their desk at all, because they’re working from home. They’re spending evenings and weekends working. We work with enough organisations to know that many people think this is normal!

However, there’s a whole continuum of things that happen before that point is reached, which does present an opportunity for intervention. It’s also important to recognise the difference between healthy levels of stress, such as those experienced with an approaching deadline, and the cumulative effects of prolonged stress from which periods of recovery have not been built in.

It’s also quite interesting to recognise that this is the opposite of how younger generations want to work. They are actively seeking—if not demanding—a different way.

So, one of the many challenges for leaders becomes ‘how do we pull apart the entrenched cultural mindset that long days and unhealthy ways of working are necessary evils for career progression, whilst reproducing the environment of creativity, learning and engagement that traditionally arose from office-based personal interactions?

Engagement is key

As a leader, you have to be smart and flexible, because if you insist that somebody works in a way that they don’t want to work, then they’re not going to stay around for very long. We know that a key motivator is for people to have autonomy and feel that they’re in control of how they work. A leader needs to accommodate this, because if they don’t, it’s going to backfire on them.

There’s plenty of evidence (4) supporting the model that flexibility in the way we’re allowed to work is as—if not more—productive than traditional patterns of long hours in the office with no lunchbreak, not least because that can lead to burnout. Leaders of today need to approach the issue with an open mind and work out how best to incorporate flexible working in a way that benefits both employees, and the business objectives.

However, creating connections and engaging with people working remotely is a different challenge. People do like to work remotely. There’s a ‘back to work’ policy right across the Civil Service now and a lot of people don’t want to come back. A survey (5) by broadband provider Gigabit Networks found that while 83% of businesses wanted their employees to be based in the office for at least three days per working week, only 20% of employees were prepared to do it.

Goals that motivate

Encouraging feelings of engagement with the business and with each other is harder to achieve when people are working remotely, so that isolation factor needs consideration. But motivating someone at home is not so very different to motivating them in the office. It centres around setting goals with a sense of purpose that inspire and stretch people, but not to the extent that they’re overwhelmed.

A sense of purpose and people feeling valued are key to intrinsic motivation. People need to feel important and that they have a voice. That’s one of the fundamental elements of the MatchFit CLIMB programme. Attendees are encouraged to identify and work through issues that are challenging to them, whether that’s a more junior member of staff wanting to be more confident in the workplace or a senior leader wanting to create a more engaged and motivated workforce.

How do you engage people and connect them together?

There is no magic wand. The unavoidable fact is that it takes effort – teams need to be bothered about getting together. We are, though, seeing an increase in teams getting together more from a social perspective. The work may be online, but when the team gets together, it’s actually to socialise.

It’s a given that managers should be asking how people are, and checking in to see how they are doing on a regular basis. But creating well-curated opportunities for people to convene, share ideas and feel a common purpose are also essential. Meetings for the sake of them just won’t cut it anymore, and are a waste of everyone’s time. But not every collaborative event has to have a firm agenda – informal virtual ‘drop-ins’ also have a role to play. They can be an enjoyable, low-pressure, way of fostering relationships, and some organisations have used them very successfully to enhance team cohesion.

And this is really important for creativity and innovation – we need to be bouncing ideas off other people. How many times has a throwaway remark or half-baked idea from one person, actually evolved into something tangible once another mind has engaged with it?

Ultimately, good management—and good corporate responsibility—is really thinking about how you connect people who are working remotely. This is the new world of work, so what is the plan?







Further reading

Health and wellbeing benchmarking tool launched

By the Numbers: Employee Burnout, Workplace Discrimination, and the Great Resignation

The financial cost of job burnout

Once burned out, twice shy: The unaffordable cost of work-related stress