Davos Agenda

Psychologists say remote work brings 3 tensions to bosses

Managers understood that for remote working to be successful, employees need to be allowed to work from home while maintaining their personal space.

Managers understood that for remote working to be successful, employees need to be allowed to work from home while maintaining their personal space. Image: Unsplash/sigmund

Emma Charlton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • A new study reveals the impact of remote working patterns on managers.
  • The opportunity to work some or all of the time remotely is now the norm in many industries and has embedded new patterns of work.
  • Remote work creates new and uncertain environments where managers are seen to have less expertise and experience, researchers say.
  • But successful managers found ways to overcome tensions, build trust and adapt to the new normal.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Growth Summit, Jobs and Opportunity for All, is taking place 2-3 May 2023 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Are online meetings just the same as in-person ones?

Most of us would say no, and the new remote-working norms create three implications for managers, according to a study.

Many of us now have the opportunity to work remotely some or all of the time. In the US, 58% of workers surveyed by McKinsey in 2022 had the opportunity to work from home at least one day a week, while 35% were able to work from home five days a week.

Facilitating and promoting better work for all has long been a theme for the World Economic Forum. The Forum’s Growth Summit, Jobs and Opportunity for All, is taking place 2-3 May 2023 in Geneva, Switzerland, uniting leaders from across the world to advance future opportunities, debate the future of work and find solutions for current challenges.

The Forum is also due to publish its Future of Jobs Report 2023, which gives detailed insight into the jobs and skills of the future and the pace of change.

Future of remote work

Working from home has become a standard request for many employees around the world. Against that backdrop, a study by Reichman University's Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology in Israel shows the impact on managers, many of whom have had their roles reinvented by new patterns of work.

Relational processes in virtual groups.
Tensions pull in different directions when working remotely. Image: Reichman University

The study uncovers three major tensions:

1. Supervision versus trust

Perhaps the most obvious tension when employees move to a remote setting is between the need for supervision, twinned with the opposing need to show trust and make sure employees aren’t feeling over-supervised.

Choosing to tighten supervision and ignoring potential damage to trust, encountered negative reactions and disengagement on the part of employees, the researchers said.

A more effective strategy was for the manager to position themselves as a helper and to offer support, thereby fostering and preserving trust.

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2. Blurred professional boundaries

Another tension arose over professional boundaries. Unclear limits between work and home life, which arose during the pandemic, risk carrying over as such practices continue, a theme that’s been highlighted by many studies.

“Managers who failed to pay attention to the blurring of the boundaries between home and work created an undefined and draining environment,” the authors of the study wrote.

Participants expressed concern that work was intruding into their lives, the study said, while managers struggled to “create a safe space for their groups”.

Challenging working conditions like sitting inside bedroom closets for conversations with their managers or logging on with children sitting in their laps, were also described by participants.

Successful managers understood that boundaries are shifting and, for remote working to be successful, employees need to be allowed to work from home while maintaining their personal space, the study authors concluded.

3. Redefining the role of the manager

New ways of working have also reshaped traditional concepts of managers – who are seen less as knowledgeable authorities and more as people also grappling with how to work effectively.

“Managers who perceived their lack of knowledge as contrasting their authority, tended to feel powerless in their managerial role,” the report says. “Some even tried to maintain a façade of certainty in an uncertain reality, which resulted in personal burnout. Other managers, in contrast, were willing to admit to their employees that they didn't 'know it all’, were more willing to jointly learn with the employees how to handle the new reality.”

Skills and perspectives required by facilitators to promote relational processes in the virtual space.
Challenges of virtual communication and how to overcome them. Image: Reichman University

The findings showed different ways of handling these three tensions. While some managers chose to focus on one element, others found new ways to manage and resolve conflicting tensions, and adapt their roles to the new normal.

The good news is there are effective strategies managers can use to overcome the limitations of a virtual setting and the distances involved. These include fostering trust, focusing on “needs-based” working routines and showing their employees that leaders are learning too.

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