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The Virtual Manager: Insights from my research

Dr Mark Pegg provides an update on the series of structured interviews he conducted on Zoom with managers working in a virtual world. They help him understand the impact on their businesses, professional relationships and the changing demands of their customers.

To gather opinions on changes in working lives during the pandemic I have been running an interview series with UK managers. I want their insights to shape a new online training programme ‘The Virtual Manager’ designed to help managers grow and flourish in a vastly different landscape. These managers come from different sectors, age ranges and levels of seniority. I focused initially on sole traders and SMEs then extending my reach to include managers in multi-nationals - accomplished virtual workers before the pandemic.
According to a recent McKinsey global survey, companies have accelerated digitization of their operations by up to four years and the share of digital products in their portfolios has accelerated by a massive seven years. At the end of March 2021, the Office of National Statistics found nearly a third of working adults in Britain were working exclusively from home. When Boris Johnson issued his roadmap for recovery, many organisations were already consulting staff on how and where they want to work. The word I hear repeatedly is ‘hybrid’, no return to a 5-day office week, instead a part home - part office future. Many firms have given up their leases and are looking for radically different space – smaller, more open plan, ‘hot desk neighbourhoods’, more meeting rooms, or no permanent office at all using office hire providers. More meetings will be online with overhead costs and travel budgets cut drastically.

I always receive a terrific response to my enquiry – it has affected us all so profoundly and given everyone so much more time to think deeply about their place in the universe. I ask a standard set of questions:

  • Impact – how is virtual affecting you?
  • Virtual skills today – what sort of skills do you now need to excel?
  • Benefits – the main advantages for you from virtual working?
  • Any downside? – are there any risks, any barriers for you to overcome?
  • Future – how do you see virtual business developing – any trends you’d point to?

Impact


No one doubts the change has been deep and enduring: ‘I haven’t met anyone I work with for a whole year since the 23 March 2020.’ ‘I never used to be in the home, now I haven’t left it for a whole year.’ For some it’s a profound change, even in customer service businesses - a trigger to move from a face to face, paper driven culture to online, paperless operation - but even multinational managers familiar with virtual working are witnessing extensive changes in working practices. One manager with 80 direct reports is the only one based in the UK and sees significant impacts on team relationships.

‘We used to show people around, do everything on paper, but now our customers want to do everything on their mobile phone. We’ve made the first video tours for our website and staff must learn how to work their own laptop cameras, do a grid on Excel and schedule their own Zoom calls.’

‘It’s the lack of human contact – my teamwork all over the world - with people you know, you have a back history, a mental picture to go on, but it’s so much harder to build rapport online with new people or people you don’t know well.’

Virtual skills


It is noticeable how online meeting technology, digital security and cloud databases are much less mentioned - quickly assimilated. Many now point to initiatives to manage ‘Zoom fatigue’, with online ‘coffee breaks’, more ‘town hall’ meetings, new shared meditation and mindfulness sessions. I hear of ‘Zoom free days’ or ‘camera off’ times. Several interviewees notice how older, cautious clients have become so used to talking to children and grandchildren online, they’ve moved on, and accept online as a preferred form of communication.

‘There was a peak where my day was totally filled up with Zoom meetings with no time to do any work, now we are managing it better and there have even been some fundamental debates on why we are having so many meetings in the first place.’

‘We are not going back; they find it easier from home.’

‘Even the technology dinosaurs are not quite so dinosaurish anymore.’

Benefits


Almost everyone mentions efficiency gains, better focus and concentration on their work, working harder where less travel time is simply added into the working day. Many say they flex the day better to optimise working AND personal time. Frequently, people tell me this is the time to consider how best to manage their physical and mental health.

‘I am more likely to go into the office 2 days a week in future and I am still going to travel, but instead of one week a month it will be one week every two months.’

‘Why should senior operational staff give up a whole day travelling to London to present to the Board, the meeting might stay face to face, but will take their presentations online, and why would you hold technical meetings like the Audit Committee other than online – works perfectly well and fits so much better in busy days?’

‘In the office, my bosses were very hands-on, but working from home I have been more trusted, more able to work more independently. I like the freedom. I can manage my day better and be more productive.’

Downsides


Most notice how everything online is so scheduled, so pre-arranged, leaving fewer opportunities for chance encounters where the innovative and creative spark is missing. Some manage it well, but boundaries of work and home becomes challenging with no hard stop to the end of the day. Many say they must impose their own finish to work.

‘Some, especially younger team members, are less likely to speak in a zoom call of 20.’

‘Mistakes can creep in online. Things that would be obvious in the office can be overlooked – we had to do one contract all over again because we’d all forgotten to sign it.’

‘We are less than the sum of the parts. We don’t get to know each other so well, we’re less connected, no learning by example, you can’t coach people or know when people need help or cover.’

‘One negative is it has put individual contributions under the microscope – people give more emphasis to what they have done personally rather than adding value as a team.’

Future


One manager said he expected to move to 2 or 3 days in the office, but it was critical to have intelligent diary scheduling – to ensure when people do come into the office they come in at the same time. And probably the most important change will be in the psychological and social contract between business and workers:

‘All my working life I have been working with people around me and not even for one minute would I have thought I could be stuck in my back bedroom and be as productive as I have been’

‘The things we missed most about the office – the chats, the laughter, being together, going out to celebrate – being a social human being. It isn’t going to be there anymore. We’ve got to find ways to bring this back into our lives.’

Author: Dr Mark Pegg, Director, Chalfont Associates

Tags:
  • #wellbeing

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