What I’ve Learned During My Decade As a Remote Manager

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Sep 4, 2020
This article is part of a series called Remote Work.

When COVID-19 hit this past spring, few of us expected our lives to be disrupted to such an extent. What began as a sudden interruption and presumed short-term shift in the way we work is beginning to look a lot more long-term, if not permanent. As the virus continues to afflict citizens at a seemingly unabated pace, arguments against remote work are becoming harder to make.

Still, many companies are struggling to accept the concept of this new reality. It’s not hard to understand why — if your company culture runs on roundtable meetings, water cooler conversation, and the ability to sidle up behind someone’s desk to see what they are up to, then the sudden inability to do any of that can feel very daunting.

Like trust, a company’s culture can take a long time to build and only a very short time to destroy. Leaders of business are not crazy to be concerned about this new mode of working, well, working. The camaraderie of the office can be a delicate, and in some cases cherished, thing. Sharing the same workspace allows for strong relationships to be built. It’s fair to say that in the online space, it can be harder to forge the level of rapport that can develop face to face.

It’s not impossible, though. 

My Transition to Remote Work

Eleven years ago, I started working for a company that used conventional office spaces. I checked in with employees, formally and informally. I always knew who was on time and who was running late. Customers could walk up to my door and engage with me. Just over a year into my tenure, the company decided to make a huge, wholesale change and eliminate all of their office space. All our staff, from that point on, were work-from-home employees.

At the start, I had the same concerns any office manager might have. How will I know if Colin is being productive if I don’t see him making coffee? How will I make sure everyone does their job without me directly supervising them? How will I stay productive at home, myself? Will I get distracted and slip into a rabbit hole of YouTube videos? Will the isolation get to me? Will I simply miss seeing people?

These concerns were all valid. But once I actually started remote work, I realized pretty quickly that my fears didn’t hold water. Or at least, they weren’t nearly as problematic as they first seemed.

On the personal productivity front, I quickly found that I was far more efficient as a remote worker than I ever was in an office. The biggest reason for this was, of course, the lack of interruptions. The constant knocks on my office door were no more. While the knocks were replaced by emails, these I was able to classify into two categories: those that needed immediate attention and those that didn’t. 

A knock on the door, or any in-person interruption, always requires an immediate response, even if it’s just to say, “Can you come back later?” There’s a set-up cost for every distraction you must extricate yourself from and a time lag before you can return your full attention to work. The constant distraction of the office became a thing of the past.

It Worked for Me. What About My Colleagues?

So, it worked out for me. But what about all those people who reported to me? What would they do when they knew I couldn’t check on their progress at work? Would they get distracted without me there to give them the side-eye when a frivolous office conversation went on too long? Would I…have to just trust them? Egads! 

Let me just say, this was by far the most eye-opening discovery of my new virtual work environment: Productivity and performance did not go down with virtual work. On the contrary — they went up for everybody. 

You don’t have to take my word for it. When you remove the distractions that come with any office, the tiring and time-consuming commute, and battles with faulty office equipment, people get more done. 

And here’s the other thing: people really do want to do a good job, and most workers are trustworthy, even when you’re not watching them. What I’ve learned in my 10 years as a remote manager is that people who don’t care about their performance are a real anomaly. They are not the norm.

Even better is the way remote work increases the depth and quality of the pool of potential recruits for your organization. Imagine a situation where you are in a business that does not need to concern itself with geography for most (if not all) of its positions? Many companies can stop imagining it, because that time is already here. Cost to coast, north, south, east, and west no longer matter if an office is no longer necessary to complete the day’s necessary work. 

Besides, What Choice Do We Have?

Certainly, not every business can fully function in a remote fashion. But, for many businesses, at least parts of their structure could be converted to the remote model. 

And here’s the final point. Right now, we are all scared. Scared of what COVID-19 is doing to our economy. Scared for our own safety and that of our loved ones. Scared of change. But if we channel that fear into innovation and opportunity, we can not only flatten the coronavirus curve and begin to return to a semblance of normalcy. We can find ourselves on the other side of this in a more flexible, efficient, and healthier world. Besides, what choice do we have?

This article is part of a series called Remote Work.