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Empathetic leaders will provide team members with vision and clarity © Getty

The problem with the expression “the new normal”, says Amy Edmondson, leadership professor at Harvard Business School, is that it has the word “normal” in it.

The first phase of the coronavirus pandemic, when many of the world’s workers were locked down, often at home, was distinctly abnormal. At first, it was billed as a mass test of flexible working. But as seasoned remote-workers pointed out, it was the reverse of flexible.

Once the first wave of crisis passed, it was, however, relatively easy to manage, because almost everybody who could work remotely did. Whole teams were online, honing their new skills of video-calling and remote communication. Leaders were obliged to operate at a distance, which, as research has shown, encourages a hands-off approach and reduces the risks of micromanagement.

Emerging from this phase will pose more challenges for leaders. Prof Edmondson says it will be experimental and “full of mis-steps”. She adds: “We’re going to get things wrong as often as we’re going to get it right.”

What is highly likely is that leaders will find themselves managing more team members at a distance than they did before Covid-19 appeared. Many polls suggest that a large chunk of staff want to work at least part of the time out of the office.

For instance, Colliers International, the property services group, found that 82 per cent of respondents now want to spend at least one day a week working from home. Its survey also found that people missed the office as a place to connect with colleagues. With offices reopening only cautiously, most teams will have to operate with a combination of in-person and online interaction.

Managing at a distance raises challenges of communication, trust, and mental and physical health.

In the early phase of the crisis, leaders concentrated on frequency of communication. Hans Vestberg, chief executive of Verizon, the US telecoms group, took part in a live webcast every day — now reduced to two a week — reaching up to 90,000 employees. “All of us are surprised how smooth the transition went to using technology and having so many employees working from home without interruption,” he told the EmTech Next virtual conference in June.

Studies show, though, that the most productive workplaces are those that give staff the choice of where to work. And, according to consultant Andrew Mawson, director of the Advanced Workplace Institute, an information-sharing body for companies, there is a risk of “availability bias . . . in the direction of the people who are in the physical office”. Prof Edmondson also warns of the “in-group, out-group” dynamic and says leaders will face the challenge of ensuring fair and equitable access to information for everyone, whether present in person or working from home.

The AWI and the Center for Evidence-Based Management looked at past peer-reviewed academic research on virtual working. One conclusion of the report on their findings was that distanced leaders needed to behave much more as “supporters and coaches”, providing vision and clarity, and trusting team members to do their best work autonomously.

Team members also have a responsibility to repay that trust. Often, the two points are confused, Mr Mawson says: “If you’re saying, ‘You can’t work away [from the office] because you’re not competent’, let’s have that discussion” and provide the necessary training. “If they can’t be trusted: that’s a bigger performance issue.”

Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp, which develops remote project management tools, is an evangelist for the hands-off leadership style. “We ask people to do their best work for eight hours a day and work with the small team to do their best work — and that’s that,” he said at the FT Global Boardroom conference recently. “Monitoring what people are doing every moment: that’s immature . . . and it speaks to a lack of confidence in the people you hire and in your managers.”

The use of virtual tools does open the way for more cross-functional work, Mr Mawson believes. It should ultimately encourage greater collaboration. The recognition of the challenges faced by team members working from home — parents forced to homeschool, younger employees working from tiny shared flats — might even help soften up old-fashioned command-and-control leaders.

The question is whether such empathetic and arms-length management lasts, as leaders and team members enter a new era, in which working at a distance from the boss is no longer a temporary novelty, but a hard-to-manage, long-term reality.

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