News & Insights

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The Virtual Manager

Our regular contributor, Dr Mark Pegg ran a series of structured interviews on Zoom with virtual managers in SMEs and sole traders. The idea was to draw and colour an emotional picture of what they’re thinking and feeling.

Everyone knows the COVID-19 lockdown has revolutionised virtual working. The data is fascinating: recent Office of National Statistics figures for Great Britain showed 38% of those in a paid job were working from home and in London an amazing 59%. But what lies behind the numbers? We all have our own lived experience. What is the impact on the new breed of virtual managers?

Normally I’d have classrooms full of real-life managers to engage with, but with no face-to-face relationship I don’t have this rich feedback: the nuances, subtleties and feelings about real life virtual working. So, I decided to run a structured interview series with virtual managers on Zoom – to gather insights I’m missing. It’s ongoing, based on a small, unscientific sample size, focuses on managers in SMEs and sole traders, and calls on my own network of contacts. Unashamedly I’m seeking to draw and colour an emotional picture of what they’re thinking and feeling.

I asked a standard set of questions:

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

They spoke very freely, and I can share some highlights in their own words:

Impact - Most managers said they moved online at short notice, but it was a natural extension of a developing trend:

‘It speeded-up existing paperless trends – even our most conservative clients have changed. I think they’ve got used to it now, maybe prefer it, and we’ll not be going back’.

‘Changes were made in days that had taken months and years in the making; things that probably should have been implemented ages ago have been done – they had to do it, but they’ve done it with very little fuss.‘

Virtual skills - many talked about mastering the technology and maximising the functionality of online video conferences. This was rarely new to them – they’d nearly all participated in video calls frequently before lockdown, they simply needed to get better at it:

‘I have got to manage my screen time better – it’s twice as fatiguing; a one-hour online meeting is more tiring than a two-hour face to face meeting.’

‘I’m exhausted at the end of the day – I usually get a headache and sore eyes from concentrating hard on a small screen for so long.’

Benefits - the strongest feedback was from those with long commutes. The challenge now is to maintain work-life balance – to stop travelling time translating into a longer working day:

‘I really don’t miss the daily commute; I’m saving hours every week. I’d still like to go in when it’s all over, but definitely not every day.’

‘I’m saving massive amounts of mileage driving to meet customers – the traditional sales visit is probably over’.

‘I started my new business just before the pandemic. I began with 2 now I’ve got 47 customers and bringing in more – this’s worked out well for me, especially with home schooling going on.’

‘It’s been a great leveller for staff out of London who have a London Headquarters – they used to feel very left out and now we are all in the same place.’

Downsides - everyone missed the ‘water cooler’ conversations, the human relationships, close rapport with other people and social life they enjoyed at work:

‘Spontaneity is the thing I miss most, a multi-disciplinary team in a large open plan office, I really miss those random office conversations that fires creativity – the ability to just walk over to someone’s desk for a chat.’

‘Quieter team members, the introverts, are more hidden online, definitely in larger meetings, but even in smaller ones those who like to talk dominate unless the meeting is really well chaired.’

‘We remember how much we are missing real life when we stop to enjoy visits from children or a cat walking over the keyboard during the call.’

Future – all said they expected the new normal would be very different, several believe that having set up to do it and got used to it, home working is here to stay:

‘We will move to smaller, cheaper offices, clients are used to not coming in anymore.’

‘For my boss it was a ‘Eureka’ moment, and he is now doing a weekly podcast for clients.’

‘We’ve gone a lot more informal – customers, colleagues, everyone – I think this is here to stay.’

Feedback from these interviews has been so vivid, so heartfelt, that I plan to continue them for a while longer, building an even better picture of the virtual managers’ world as it really is.

Author: Dr Mark Pegg, Director, Chalfont Associates

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