Management in virtual working: four changes to be prepared for

By Pauline Fatien

Pauline Fatien shares her four insights into the changing world of management and which skills leaders will need for the future.

The COVID pandemic forced millions around the world to work from home and there is a debate on whether this trend will continue as people are able to return to offices. Last year’s Gartner CFO Survey revealed that 74% intend to shift some employees to remote work permanently. More recently Google announced that it wants workers to return to office ahead of schedule.  Most likely, we are going to see hybrid models splitting physical and virtual working.


All of this has numerous implications for organisations and the role of a manager in virtual settings. The article presents four main changes in managers’ roles, each of which has HR  implications for how people are developed, incentivised and managed. 


Change 1 – The essence of management is challenged with online working

For a long time, the essence of “management”, has been control, operationalised through direct physical supervision. The word “management” originally comes from the Latin “manus” (hand) and the Italian word “maneggiare” (handle). Therefore, originally, management was about control and direction  through a direct contact.

Online working, by making this constant physical control impossible, has deprived managers from their primary context of operation. With this void, the fundamental meaning and usefulness of management is acutely posed. What does it mean to be a manager in online working? HR can help managers expand their understanding of their repertoire of roles. It is important that managers can develop “situational awareness”, meaning an  understanding that their role very much depends on the context. This requires greater cognitive flexibility and the ability to broaden the understanding of what it means to be a manager. 

Change 2 – We do not need less management, we need different management in online working

With a  vanishing of traditional management it does not mean that we need less management. Instead we need something different. Online working has seen an increase in the responsibility and autonomy of employees. Overnight, the image of the traditional passive employee “managed” from the top has been replaced by the self-driven entrepreneurial employee. “New” online employees are portrayed as autonomous, juggling responsibilities. Therefore online working requires a certain amount of empowerment that managers need to grant to their colleagues. This is far from easy. It means managers need to give up part of the so-called privileges associated to the managerial status, especially the ability to make decisions and orient other people’s lives. HR has a key role to play in helping managers let go of their traditional power attributes so that employees can be empowered to work in different ways.

Change 3 – Less “hard” management as we used to know it; more “soft” management in online working

While some traditional management has been associated with hard administrative skills such as planning, control and evaluation - online working requires more attention to the psychological and social needs of employees. With the blurring of personal and professional environments, employees increasingly look to managers to help them manage the porosity of this blurring to maintain good mental health. Additionally, the isolation generated by physical distancing emphasises the relational dimension of work as never before. HR can help by developing initiatives such as team-building and coaching, making sure that these practices are properly designed for online and offline contexts.

Change 4 – With the increased diversity in employees situations, we need managers who are able to switch hats in online working

While some employees flourish in a laissez faire environment where they feel empowered, others experience this freedom as a void that generates anxiety. More than ever, managers need to pay attention to the specificity of each employee’s situation. The
standardisation in management is over. Online working requires benevolent situation-sensitive managers who not only recognise the necessity to switch hats to best accommodate needs but are able to do so. Beyond flexible mindsets, managers need to build and practice agility in their behaviours. That’s why HR has a real opportunity to take a leadership position in how organisations develop post COVID to build managers’ skills to transition to their new roles. HR, more than ever, needs to plays a key role in helping managers adjust to a vastly changed ways of working.

Pauline Fatien is associate professor at Grenoble Ecole de Management. Her research explores the ethical and political dimensions within organisations.


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