Reinventing High-Touch Management for Remote Work

When SoftBank Robotics sent its employees home in early 2020, Josh Harcus didn’t slack off, as executives feared employees would. Instead, as he tells the New York Times, he quickly adapted his sales pitches to a digital environment and began running product demo videos in the background of calls. The tactic worked, and he landed new clients – more than 30 over a four-month period – while other sales reps struggled to win any.

Harcus, who now consults independently, says he’s surprised by how much time he spent on the road pre-pandemic (about 80%) and how much money the company spent per trip (about US$5,000 for demos that lasted about 10 minutes). And although leaders were concerned that productivity would plummet with employees working off-site, the reality was that they reinvested the time once spent in back-to-back meetings or commuting to the office into sales calls and customer training. “It turns out we were more productive,” Harcus says. “You just needed to trust us to work.”

Businesses have spent decades perfecting management techniques for giving employees support in an office context. Manager-employee relationships were built on proximity since troubleshooting, advice, and encouragement were just a cubicle away. At the pandemic’s start, sudden work-from-home orders sent organizations scrambling to implement new technologies and adjust to a remote workplace. The transition was rocky for some high-touch managers, who relied on being available to their team to give detailed coaching in real time. An inside sales manager, for example, could walk the floor listening to employees give sales pitches and relay feedback once they completed the calls. With employees working remotely, this was no longer possible.

The migration to remote work exposed many serious cracks in the foundation of high-touch management, says Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy for Gallup’s workplace management practice. “Some managers struggled to lead their team without having employees at arm’s length, and some leaders were concerned that employees couldn’t be optimally productive at home,” he says.

Early in the transition, many managers expressed concerns about how to lead remote teams. According to a May 2020 report from Harvard Business Review (HBR), 40% of supervisors and managers expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely. Nearly a quarter (23%) reported that they could not confidently manage a remote team, while 16% were unsure.

As many organizations plan for remote work and hybrid work environments to persist beyond the pandemic, managers need to take the pulse of their remote teams now to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t, determine how to improve shortcomings, and sharpen their management techniques. These new skills will become the backbone of a redefined management role for the hybrid workplace.

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A tale of two managers

Leaders in high-touch roles had varying success in supporting their teams in the transition to remote work. Traditional managers who exercised control over work processes with little flexibility have struggled, while those who built a culture of trust transitioned more easily and thrived.

Last year, Antonios Christidis, partner at consulting firm Oliver Wyman’s organizational effectiveness practice, hosted a series of discussions with a global bank and 60 of its employees to consider back-to-office policies. In sessions with both leadership and junior employees present, Christidis noticed very little disagreement among the two groups. “You could see that the junior people in the group weren’t challenging anything the senior leaders were saying,” Christidis says.

In breakout sessions without leadership present, however, the discussions were more open, and everyone contributed. “That told me, oh – there’s safety here, and we’ll be able to implement changes faster with this group. Without that security, you’ll have a much longer timeline,” Christidis explains.

Christidis says these are two management philosophies that the abrupt shift to remote work highlighted. He identifies the first type – the “command and control” managers – as rigid and top-down. These managers provide very specific objectives and steps for their teams to get from Point A to Point B, and they monitor them every step of the way. If an employee were to identify a better process, they often wouldn’t feel comfortable suggesting it, or if they did, the manager might turn it down because they believe they know better. Because this management style breeds little trust among teams, these were the managers who struggled when they went remote, Christidis says.

“Trust has been a serious point of concern, especially for high-touch roles,” adds Wigert. “Leaders and managers were concerned that remote workers who were out of sight either weren’t working or weren’t as productive as in-office employees. Leaders had their doubts that their managers could effectively guide remote teams.”

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According to the HBR report, quite a few managers reported not trusting the competence of their own employees, with almost one-third (29%) questioning whether their employees had the required knowledge to do their work.

Wigert says this distrust led to bad behaviors, such as micromanagement. Some managers forced employees to keep video on during the workday to verify that they were working. Other managers required their employees to check in and out with them every day, he says.

By contrast, managers who established psychological safety focused on output rather than the steps employees take to get there. Christidis says these managers empowered employees to make on-the-spot decisions and trusted them to get work done.

The HBR study shows that workers with relatively hands-off managers who reported low levels of monitoring were more relaxed at their jobs; just 7% said they were often or always anxious. By contrast, 49% of workers experiencing high levels of monitoring reported feeling that amount of anxiety.

Teams with managers who had established psychological safety prior to the pandemic made a smoother transition to remote work because there were no behavioral blockers, Christidis explains. “They already had trust. They naturally knew how to develop quality relationships and how important that was. When the pandemic hit, they figured out ways to carry those philosophies over to the virtual space.”

The past year-plus took a toll on employees and managers alike. In a survey of 1,200 people from May 2020, 51% told Monster that they were experiencing burnout working at home during the pandemic. In April 2020, 79% reported that they felt that their stress and anxiety due to the pandemic was impacting overall productivity, and half of those respondents still felt that way by February 2021.

This puts managers in a challenging position. Pushing employees too hard or in the wrong direction could sacrifice their well-being and lead to turnover. “Managers are stressed – even more so since managing remote teams,” Wigert says. Remote work highlighted the strategic imperative of supporting mental health and well-being within the organization – leaders supporting managers and managers better supporting employees.

To maintain engaged and productive distributed teams, experts agree that high-touch managers should reexamine their traditional practices.

High-touch manager discussing data with employees

Reevaluating three key management skills

Successfully converting high-touch, in-person jobs to a remote environment has largely hinged on leaders adjusting their approach to communication, performance management, team cultural norms, and employee welfare.

Eric Reddy, who leads a sales team at human resources software company Reward Gateway, used to sit in an open office where he and his team could hear and react to each other’s sales calls throughout the day. “Hearing a great question your colleague asks a prospect or laughing off a terrible call is a great learning opportunity on a daily basis when you’re physically together,” Reddy says.

About two months of remote work, Reddy noticed a drop in morale in the company’s sales development team. “The team was still showing up each day, but it was hard for them to stay fully engaged since they weren’t seeing the same successes as before,” he says.

In response, Reddy held more team meetings and check-ins; he encouraged salespeople to listen to their recorded calls and use messaging apps to share wins and failures. He also encouraged the global sales team to collaborate on projects, which helped them learn from one another. After those changes and a shift in sales strategy, sales picked up and engagement quickly followed.

Not every manager demonstrates Reddy’s agility. As the reality of a hybrid workplace emerges, experts suggest evaluating managerial skills in the following areas.

Woman smiling, holding her phone

Communication: Establish the right tempo and tone

High-touch managers must reassess how they communicate with their distributed teams and how frequently they do so. Failing to reinvent communication practices causes employees to be anxious, unsure of their priorities, and fearful of not meeting expectations, Wigert says.

To at least maintain, if not improve, relationships, high-touch managers should prioritize one-on-one check-ins with team members. They should thoughtfully consider the frequency and method of these check-ins, too, says Benjamin Granger, head of EX advisory services at Qualtrics. For some, a weekly check-in using video is sufficient, while others might prefer a daily check-in with chat.

Setting check-in expectations is a gesture of trust, Granger says. “You’re making it clear that even though we can’t be together in person, we’re still going to connect regularly.” The focus of these touchpoints is not to monitor their work but to make sure they have what they need to get their work done, he says. “Framing it this way makes it more collaborative and less like micromanagement.”

While check-ins are important for establishing work priorities, they’re also critical for maintaining employee well-being. In a June 2020 report on employee experience, McKinsey found that trusting relationships, social cohesion, and inclusion were among the top factors that improved well-being, bested only by job and financial stability.

Kevin Eikenberry, founder of business consulting company The Kevin Eikenberry Group, suggests starting check-ins with a personal question – ask how the employee, their kids, or their family is doing, for example. This signals that the manager is interested in the employee’s holistic health and that the relationship is important.

“Managers need to know and appreciate every employee as a whole person,” Wigert says. “Understand what engages and drives them at work. Now more than ever, employee performance hinges on each employee’s engagement and personal well-being.”

Group of young adults, photographed from above, on various painted tarmac surface, at sunrise.

Performance management: Assign clear goals and trust your people

High-touch managers should clearly define performance metrics and communicate them to employees.

Reconceptualizing what productivity looks like will reduce a micromanager’s counterproductive impulses. Eikenberry says, “Many managers were used to looking over employees’ shoulders and defaulted to micromanaging. Employees looked like they were busy, but the problem was that they assumed that busy equaled productive.”

Instead of defining success as hours worked, e-mails sent, and meetings planned – which don’t necessarily translate to successful business outcomes – Wigert says managers can assess performance based on the goals they achieved and the quality of their output.

Clear performance metrics also help managers establish how often to provide feedback. Infrequent feedback, a Gallup poll found, is tied to low engagement: For employees working remotely 80% to 100% of the week who received feedback only a few times per year, just 16% reported they were engaged. For those receiving feedback a few times per week, however, engagement was significantly higher, at 63%.

“Static performance reviews, annual goals, and infrequent feedback never really cut it before the crisis, and they certainly won’t cut it now,” Wigert says. “You need to set these clear expectations and be agile about how you adjust those goals as the work and needs of employees change.”

One hiker helping another climb up a rock

Team cultural norms: Invest in relationship-building

High-touch managers help their organizations build a strong culture of connectedness, which is even more critical in a disorienting time. In 2020, a sense of belonging emerged as one of the strongest drivers of employee engagement, according to the Gallup survey. Just 20% of employees who felt they didn’t belong were engaged, compared to 91% of those who felt they did. One key factor that influenced employee sentiment around belonging: manager effectiveness.

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In Novant Health’s digital products and services group, Misti Fragen, the group’s VP of learning, research, and culture, tells The Enterprisers Project that she knows how important connections and a positive virtual culture are to remote work.

To keep her group connected, she created opportunities for casual online interactions. This included opening a Zoom meeting room at different times of the day for people to gather and scheduling 25-minute mindfulness activities. She developed a theme day calendar to encourage employees to dress up, planned virtual tours of museums, and hosted comedians and tea times.

“We owe it to our teams to invest, connect, and lift them up,” Fragen says. “Shining a light on engagement, learning, culture, and connecting has helped keep us united during this time.”

According to Wigert, high-touch managers must assess the health of their teams’ culture and create ways to foster this sense of belonging. He says, “Often, finding shared purpose and accountability makes work more meaningful for each individual team member.”

Group of business people, including high-touch managers, working around a table

Managers set the tone for future employee engagement

A manager’s success – their team’s performance, engagement, and retention – hinges on their ability to show that they value their team.

In a Qualtrics survey, 10,000 Americans were asked to choose between several pairs of hypothetical job packages. The job pairs differed slightly in characteristics. In one option, respondents might have the best imaginable manager and a flexible workplace but company values that are misaligned with their own and a below-average compensation package. In another, they might have a compensation package that exceeds their expectations and company values that align perfectly with theirs but the worst imaginable manager and an inflexible workplace.

Of all workplace characteristics, direct managers ranked as the most important – above the immediate team, benefits, workplace flexibility, and even compensation.

As high-touch managers brace for yet another change – returning to the office and managing hybrid teams – it’s important to absorb the experiences from the past year-plus and use them to sharpen management techniques.

“Blended teams present their own unique set of challenges since bringing people together through multiple modes of communication tends to be even more challenging than when everyone works 100% remotely,” Wigert says. “Communication, rules, and norms can become very difficult to prescribe in a way that works for everyone. That’s why it’s important to get this right now.”