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Remote Control?

By Antoine Bebe

The current crisis can reinforce managerial shortcomings instead of creating opportunities to shift management practices. This does not need to be. Asking yourself a few questions could put you on the right track.

For instance, many managers will say that they are able to sense the energy level or the motivation of their staff just by walking around the office. But when most of work relations are remote, they may feel lost. If you ask them, their rationale for preferring on-site presence is that it enables better work coordination, informal circulation of ideas, and efficient collective intelligence.

However the hidden truth could be different. Indeed many corporate cultures are still based on controlling staff, even though managers may not be fully aware of it. On-site work enables managers to monitor staff members’ behavior: Are they at their desk? Do they chat with colleagues at the coffee machine for too long? Are they actively working or are they handling private matters? Most importantly, in some people-centered cultures, casual encounters between a boss and their direct reports enable managers to check progress of work informally.

Because this type of organic control collapses when all communications are remote, some managers over-emphasize “remote control”. This could mean checking on team members via email or setting up video calls at all times, multiplying unnecessary virtual meetings and overloading workers with redundant reporting tasks. What is requested in the name of efficiency may prove to be totally counterproductive and put unnecessary pressure on staff. While it might fulfill managers’ need for control, it kills off individual responsibility, drains teams’ energy and freezes up any capacity for creativity and innovation. More subtly, it replaces a traditional social contract at work in some cultures, whereby managers’ control and commitment to the group are traded against protection and social relationships with colleagues, with the dystopia of overbearing managers’ intrusion into their staff’s homes while all informal relationships with colleagues have vanished.

This is the reason why we suggest that managers ask themselves these questions:

1. How could the current crisis and its demand for more remote work be an opportunity to review the degree of control and its nature (centralized, decentralized, peer or self-control)? From a bigger picture’s perspective, how could it be an opportunity to review the degree of empowerment of my teams?

2. How could I make sure that 100% of our online meetings bring effective, measurable value to the company, to the team, and to each of its members?

Meetings, whether in-person or remote, are not an effective tool for sharing information. They should instead be dedicated to collective creative thinking, collaborative production, coordination, and decision-making processes. If you feel the need to hold a meeting and you cannot determine its explicit added value, check that you are not acting out of habit or out of a motivation to control.

3. What is the best way for me as a manager to support each of my team members in their specific environment and their specific needs? And how can I best support my team as a whole?

4. How could I make use of the current situation to foster individual and collective development for my staff?

Managers whose primary mindset is “command-and-control” will tend to reinforce their ways of doing in a crisis situation. Because they experience more stress and therefore they can’t help themselves but control even more. Distant work greatly amplifies this reaction. However, to succeed in leading through the unknown and through complexity, managers will need to develop individual and group agility. More than ever they will need to open up to new dynamics if they want their team members and their team as a whole to be more effective. To this purpose, a “nurture-and-support” mindset seems most suited.


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