From technological barriers to leadership focus: lessons from managing teams remotely both pre- and post-pandemic

By on 17/05/2022 | Updated on 17/05/2022
A woman in a suit jacket talks to a colleague on her laptop screen

Former civil servant Andy Smith shares his experiences of working and managing teams remotely – in both the public and private sector – from the early 90s to start of the coronavirus pandemic, and what he’s learnt about telework from a technological, cultural, and management perspective

Over the last two years we have seen a dramatic change in working practices. Driven by the coronavirus pandemic, organisations were forced, almost overnight, to abandon conventional offices for remote working. For some organisations, the transition was easy. For others, including many government organisations, it amounted to a dramatic change in working practices and a real culture shock.

With the worst effects of the pandemic now behind us, many organisations are moving to a hybrid method of working with staff dividing their time between home and office. This article looks at some of the main challenges of managing staff in a remote working environment – technological, cultural, and management – and shares my experiences of managing teams remotely in both the public and private sector.

I have spent my career working either in or with government organisations both in the UK and elsewhere. I worked for 18 years in UK central government – in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) with spells on secondment to the European Commission and the Cabinet Office. For much of the 1990s I was managing teams remotely, with teams of up to 350 people geographically spread across the UK. Having left the civil service, I worked internationally for global IT companies – Oracle and SAS – dealing extensively with government organisations across the globe. Here again I had plenty of experience of both remote working and of managing teams based abroad. I experienced first-hand the very real differences in working practices, none starker than exchanging the heavily office-based routine of the UK civil service to the much more flexible working of a US west coast software company.

My own experience has taught me that there are three main challenges to successful remote working and to managing teams remotely. These are technology, culture, and management. I will now look at my experiences of all three and the challenges and opportunities they present.

Technological barriers broken down

I’ll start with technology. Back in the early 90s there was limited technology available to support remote working in government. Yes, we had mobiles (though not by any means for all grades). We could also hold remote meetings by conference and/or video link – a glorified telephone with poor quality pictures. But even by the end of the decade, my only remote access to email was on a laptop via dial-up connection. Critically, I had no access to any other internal government systems – finance, HR etc. And any line management approvals had to wait until I was in the relevant location, so things like expense claims went unapproved. When I moved to Oracle in 2001, the main technology change was my ability to access all Oracle internal systems from any location. It no longer mattered whether I was in the office or using a secure VPN connection from home, hotel, or any other offsite location.

By the time the pandemic struck, there were no real technology constraints to hamper remote working. There were government organisations that had continued to restrict remote access to internal systems for security and privacy reasons. But, faced with the need to close offices, most in government accepted that there were no real technological reasons for blocking remote working – provided, of course, all the relevant and necessary safeguards were put in place – and we quickly saw the exponential growth in the use of Teams, Zoom and other platforms for meetings and to facilitate collaborative working.

Culture clash: public vs private sector  

Turning to culture, this is perhaps where I saw the starkest difference. The culture in government was that people were expected to be in the office. As a senior manager with teams in multiple locations, it was expected that I would be constantly on the move. But the majority of managers tended to have teams in single locations and were co-located with them, travelling only where necessary for meetings with ministers or senior executives and for management meetings. By contrast, in Oracle the expectation was the reverse. Oracle wanted you to be out working with, selling to, and supporting customers. There was also a prevailing culture of cutting costs. Given that office space represents a major overhead for a company, Oracle encouraged its employees to work remotely. As it went on an acquisition spree from 2005-2010 it took on the staff, but rarely the offices, of the companies it acquired. There were only ever desks for a fraction of the staff so hot desking was the norm.

When the pandemic struck I, and large numbers of my SAS colleagues, were set up for homeworking, albeit not on a daily basis. Companies across the private sector closed their offices overnight, comfortable in the knowledge that their businesses could continue to operate. For many government organisations the transition had to be equally quick but it came as more of a culture shock to a management and workforce that were not geared up for this way of working. It is interesting to observe that civil servants appear to have accepted the change more readily than some politicians and some sections of the media. For, whilst government organisations, like other businesses, are openly debating the merits of hybrid working, not everyone is happy. There are critics outside the civil service who are obsessed with presenteeism – the idea that you cannot work effectively unless you are in the office day after day.

Management focus

The third issue is management. It is important to recognise that managing staff remotely is different. It is tempting – and easy – to fall into the trap of spending a disproportionate amount of time with the staff you are co-located with. Without wishing to inflate my travel costs unnecessarily, I would seek frequent opportunities to spend time at other sites. In my private sector roles, the location challenges were magnified. It was no longer a case of managing teams in different parts of the country. Instead, I was managing teams in different locations across Europe, many of whom I would meet only once or twice a year.

Good managers will always focus on outputs rather than inputs. Outcomes matter far more than activities – and this is even more apparent when managing teams remotely. This can be harder to measure in government, particularly in policy branches. Remember also that not all staff feel comfortable with, or perform as well, working remotely. Good managers will always want to create an environment where staff feel valued and that they belong. Team meetings are good. But team meetings with the majority of attendees physically present and the rest connecting remotely are not a recipe for creating any sense of inclusion. Nor is anything that gives the impression (rightly or wrongly) that you are more interested in the staff you see physically on a daily basis. Keep asking yourself what you would want and expect from a remote manager – and be ready to adjust your behaviour accordingly.

Despite the clamours of some, I believe the pandemic has fundamentally changed forever the way we work. For governments, as for other organisations, the challenge now is to harness the technology, embrace the culture change, and equip managers with the skills they need in this environment to deliver the business of government in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

Andy Smith delivers training courses for Global Government Forum on Effective Policy Communications and Monitoring and Evaluation.

About Andy Smith

Andy has spent his career working either in, or with, government organisations in the UK, Europe and globally. He has extensive experience of operating successfully in both the public and private sector.

He worked for 18 years as a civil servant in UK central government – mainly in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), with spells on secondment to the European Commission and the Cabinet Office. He held a range of senior policy, operational and IT management roles including in welfare reform implementation; benefits agency computerisation; corporate services; and as a deputy commercial director.

Since leaving the civil service, Andy has worked internationally for global IT companies Oracle and SAS dealing extensively with government organisations including the European Commission and governments across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Andy has also worked as an interim director for Hitachi Consulting’s UK government business; and as a consultant with the OECD, assessing the state of readiness of EU pre-accession countries in the Balkans.

Recently, Andy has trained UK civil servants on a range of issues including advising and briefing ministers, policy development, negotiations, and the workings of the EU, and he has also trained senior Caribbean civil servants as part of a major capacity building programme.

About Andy Smith

Andy has spent his career working either in, or with, government organisations in the UK, Europe and globally. He has extensive experience of operating successfully in both the public and private sector. He worked for 18 years as a civil servant in UK central government – mainly in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), with spells on secondment to the European Commission and the Cabinet Office. He held a range of senior policy, operational and IT management roles including in welfare reform implementation; benefits agency computerisation; corporate services; and as a deputy commercial director. Since leaving the civil service, Andy has worked internationally for global IT companies Oracle and SAS dealing extensively with government organisations including the European Commission and governments across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Recently, Andy has trained UK civil servants on a range of issues including advising and briefing ministers, policy development, negotiations, and the workings of the EU, and he has also trained senior Caribbean civil servants as part of a major capacity building programme.

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