June 2023 | 

Managing Remote Work for the Future

Managing Remote Work, 2023 Version

Remote work, once a niche option for some workers, became common practice virtually overnight in 2020. By October of that year, 71 percent of those whose jobs could be done from home were working remotely all or almost all of the time, according to the Pew Research Center. It was a dramatic transformation both for those workers and for their managers, who had to adapt to a radically changed environment with little or no guidance or precedent.

As “back to the office” policies were mandated, delayed, and rescheduled in 2021 and 2022, hybrid work models became the norm for many firms, although as Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell notes, “it’s unclear how many people actually showed up — and are still showing up — at the workplace, regardless of their employers’ policies.” Today, post-pandemic, managers are still grappling with leading, motivating, and evaluating their teams. With best practices still in their infancy, it’s often a hit-or-miss balancing act between the needs and desires of workers and those of the organization.

Bidwell, who serves as a faculty director of the Wharton People Analytics Initiative, says the need for new research and dialogue about what is working and what isn’t is peaking. “Remote work has brought up a whole set of benefits around flexibility and working from home that employees never knew they could get. Pre-pandemic, most of us just took for granted that work was about showing up to the office. And after discovering that we could do work at home, a lot of people started wondering, ‘Why bother? Why commute if I don’t have to?’"

On the employer side, he says many of the benefits of coming into the office are “invisible and intangible. I don't think companies are crazy to want people back in the office. We often collaborate and learn from one another better in person. Those benefits in turn are good for innovation and other work outcomes. But the problem is that they are hard to see and hard to measure, particularly compared to the very tangible costs that employees experience from their commutes.”

Overcoming Common Challenges

Bidwell will be weighing the pros and cons of remote work — and, critically, their implications for managers — in October, when the new Leading Today’s Talent: Management Strategies for an Evolving Workforce program launches. “Managers are being asked to enforce company policies and extol the benefits of being in the office even though those policies and benefits are often unclear. Managers also have to lead teams of people who are being asked to give up something that many of them enjoyed. When they’re required to be in the office, employees may feel that they get the same amount of work done as they do at home, but they have to commute and give up a lot of flexibility. Mandating office time can feel like a big penalty for them, and employees can end up concluding that you’re being unreasonable. It also makes them mad.”

To combat the downside, Bidwell says managers need to be intentional about creating a positive work experience and maximizing performance for people working in a fully remote or hybrid model. It’s a formidable challenge for those who may have mastered managing fully remote teams and who are now pivoting to a mix of work-from-home, hybrid, and full-time in-the-office workers.

“It’s so important for managers to be deliberate in communicating what will be done on the days everyone is in the office versus what is expected on the days people are at home,” says Bidwell. “They need to strongly emphasize to their employees the value of being together. It's a different mindset from what we're used to asking managers to do, because they have to think about time and space in very different ways. It requires being much more active and developing a different set of skills. If I'm a manager, I want to do my best to maximize whatever work configurations I have. You can’t just bring people in for three days a week so that they can do exactly the same thing they did when they're at home.”

Leadership and Performance Management Solutions

One of those necessary new skills involves being more deliberate about providing guidance and information to team members, especially if they’re new to the organization. “Managers have become more pivotal in a remote world,” says Bidwell. “When people are in the workplace, they can pick up on what’s going on and what they’re supposed to be doing from many channels of information. It’s like learning from osmosis, and that just doesn't happen when you're working from home. So managers need to be much more aware of what people need to know to do their work effectively and how they can learn that information. They have to be really effective in onboarding new people, and then keep in touch with them, sharing information, putting them in touch with the right people. That all has to be a lot more careful, deliberate, and thought through.”

Managers must also reconsider their approach to performance management. Recent headlines about people taking on multiple full-time remote jobs highlight an alarming worst-case scenario. “I've always believed that this was largely a myth,” says Bidwell, “but I've spoken to a number of people who said it has happened in their organization. It speaks to the broader issue of how to manage workers who slack off. When they’re slacking off in the office, at least they’re giving us their presence. When they're slacking at home, they’re giving us nothing.”

One way to approach performance management and deal more effectively with slackers in and out of the office is to manage people on outputs, not inputs. Rather than focusing on face time, focus on what people actually achieve. Bidwell says this change “requires us to have a good understanding of how long work should take and how good it should be. And often we don't have very good sense of what obstacles people face if they're not getting their work done. Is it because they're slackers or is it just that we're asking them to do hard things? Managers need to become more performance-oriented, and be prepared to take action on under-performance. It’s a necessary shift we're still wrestling with.”