Virtual teams are becoming the norm for many organisations as physical and digital business boundaries become increasingly blurred. Whether employees are distributed around a single region or country, or spread around the world in multiple time zones, there is a growing requirement for careful coordination of workloads and effective management of remote staff.

There is an ongoing belief that management is best conducted with managers and team in close proximity to each other – and a view that success is best achieved when managers are physically embedded within their teams.

However, over the past few years the team at ENGAGE has worked with a range of organisations in which the engagement levels of remotely managed employees are higher than those of centrally located teams. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this statement causes many a raised eyebrow.  Theories as to why we encounter this are discussed, but until now we’ve not had a sufficiently large data set to conduct deeper analysis into why this may be the case.

A recent survey allowed us to compare the results of remotely and non-remotely managed employees spread across offices in over 30 countries at a global organisation. Here, as before we found that:

  • Remotely managed employees (RME) are significantly more engaged than non-remotely managed employees (non-RMEs)
  • RME’s are more likely to be advocates of the organisation and are more loyal
  • RMEs tend to score higher on most survey dimensions.

Overall, our findings correspond to those of other survey agencies, which report that remote workers are happier, feel more valued, are more connected, and show less turnover.

Our statistical analysis showed that, for RMEs, the organisation’s leaders play a much greater part in their overall engagement than they do in the lives of non-RMEs. Significantly, we also found that RMEs receive a better quality of management than non-RMEs in three key areas:

  • Delivering the basics – including regular check-ins, keeping employed informed, enjoying a productive working environment
  • Creating an emotional connection – employees feel empowered, trusted, cared for and that their opinions are valued
  • Support to develop and grow – including career development, connections, recognition and fair evaluation.

When we qualitatively explore some of these issues we find that remote managers tend to follow a regular schedule of (often weekly) calls or video conferences with their RME team members. They usually have a well-structured agenda covering a range of issues such as a personal check-in, project related barriers and successes, developmental progress and a review of key downward and upward communications.

Remote employees also report that they feel trusted and empowered by their manager to make the right decisions and to get work done. In short, they experience a pretty high quality of management.

Existing academic research supports the theory that these managerial monitoring strategies can be what makes or breaks RM effectiveness. If we had time here, we could explore the intricacies of our research further. However, we can summarise with three observations:

  1. Don’t be scared of remote management

It can be an asset to your business! Remote managers do a great job with their distributed workforce, and can also help to improve the way in which centralised teams work by sharing techniques for more structured and organised management. They can also serve as a reminder of how to get the basics right, and how to form emotional connections with teams as well as focusing on individual development.

  1. Remote management can have organisation-wide impact

The success of many remotely structured teams should prompt questions about how managers are recruited, where they should sit, and how they should be trained. What does success look like as organisations expand and adapt to the changing needs of their workforces?

  1. Senior leader behaviours are critical.

They have a measurable impact on the engagement of remote staff. It’s important to understand that employees without a local manager are much more dependent on higher level leadership to create a broader, engaging environment on a day-to-day basis.

It will be interesting to see how attitudes to remotely managed employees evolves in the next few years and whether organisations continue to implement distributed teams out of necessity – or whether they do so because it makes good business sense.

By Nick Thompson
Practice Head: ENGAGE