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  • Jennifer Duckworth

People management for virtual teams: 6 core principles

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

How can they help you manage your teams remotely?

With the current easing of lockdown in the UK, many organisations are now figuring out how to return their employees to their office space in some capacity. However, social distancing constraints, together with ongoing concerns about commuting on public transport, mean that home-working will still be a key part of our “new normal” for the foreseeable future.

How line managers can play a vital role.

I’m hearing, from clients and friends, that it’s a particularly challenging time for line managers right now - trying to look after their staff whilst they’re all based in different places, whilst juggling other personal responsibilities, and keeping the business on track.

You might be thinking that the advice seems overwhelming, and changing so quickly, that there isn’t much you can do yourself. But the good news is, there are plenty of small actions you can take to support your staff and make a real difference.

Line managers play a really key role in keeping staff connected, motivated and satisfied. There is a wealth of psychological research that tells us that good line management is one of the key elements of promoting staff wellbeing – which in turn leads more engaged and more productive workforces.

How frameworks can give us some much-needed structure.

As the business landscape now is so new and uncertain, I’ve found myself looking at long-established frameworks, to bring some welcome structure and grounding to the advice that I’m offering to leaders and line managers through my consultancy work.

This blog focuses on the 6 core principles for good management, which form the basis of the Health & Safety Executive Management Standards. This framework has been tested and validated many times through research, and the evidence shows that these 6 areas are really important for our health and our productivity. (They are also the main sources of stress in the workplace if not managed well.)

I will shine a Covid-19 contextual spotlight on each of the 6 areas in turn:

1. Job Demands

2. Control

3. Support

4. Relationships

5. Role Clarity

6. Change

1 - Job Demands

Demands are inherent in any job. They can include workload, work patterns and various demands within the work environment, currently including juggling home life around work, and the desperate search for decent, quiet desk space!

Research shows that the biggest complaint from remote workers is about managers not respecting normal working hours. There is also evidence to suggest that people actually work longer hours from home, ‘over-using’ technology and failing to take regular breaks. There’s a risk that the combination of these conditions and behaviours could result in burnout, so managers have a key role to play in managing job demands and helping their teams cope.

2 - Control

Control is very important in our jobs and in our lives generally. In this context, it’s all about how much say a person has in when, how and where they do their jobs. The research tells us that the more control we have, the better we can manage the demands in our worlds.

Normally, choosing to work from home gives us a strong sense of control, but at the moment, it’s a mandatory thing, so some people may not be feeling the same benefits. And if a team member has been furloughed, that, too, will have probably been out of their control.

One good thing about the pandemic that many organisations are highlighting is the fact that managers who were previously reluctant to allow home working, are now able to see that it can actually work! This is a great opportunity to build trust within your teams, because you can judge your team members’ performance based on what they deliver, and they can enjoy some extra autonomy in how they deliver. And trust is absolutely essential for managing your people through uncertain times.

3 - Support

Support is a key resource for all of us, and there’s lots of evidence to show that good support can actually ‘buffer’ (protect) us from the negative impact of job demands. It can be provided by line managers, or by colleagues and friends, and can be ‘instructional’ support (i.e. information or help you need to get a job done) or ‘emotional’ support (i.e. working through feelings and worries).

We know that the pandemic has created new anxieties and worries for many of us, and research is telling us that many people are experiencing mental health challenges for the first time. As a line manager, it can be particularly challenging to offer support right now, because you don’t have any informal face-to-face time with your staff, as you would in the office. This makes it harder for your team to get immediate advice when needed, and harder for you to understand their issues and aspirations.

4 - Relationships

The fourth pillar of good management concerns relationships with others, and this includes promoting positive working and resolving any conflict in your team. Again, the challenge with remote working is that people have fewer chances to enjoy and strengthen their colleague relationships, and the psychological bonds and sense of team spirit that comes from sharing informal social connections at work are difficult to recreate over Zoom or MS Teams.

Returning to the office space, even in a gradual fashion, should present great opportunities here. Some experts believe that office space will become particularly important as a face-to-face meeting place, to help your organisations strengthen relationships between people; build and maintain a sense of community and re-affirm your company culture and values.

5 - Role Clarity

Role clarity is all about whether people understand their role within the organisation. We are all working in a highly dynamic environment at the moment, and the chances are that many of you will have shifted the focus of your role over the last few months, and asked your teams to do the same.

Working remotely can be confusing and ambiguous, and the nuances of communication and the social cues that we see in face-to-face interaction can be lost over email, phone and video. Agreeing goals, setting expectations and checking understanding may seem harder than normal, and you may need to commit extra time to training and mentoring team members in new ways of working.

6 - Change

This final pillar of our framework is perhaps the most familiar of all in the current climate, as we are experiencing pace and complexity of change like never before. As you’ll likely be aware, line managers play a critical role in how change is managed and communicated in the organisation.

Clarity, timeliness and transparency of communication will be key, as well as staff participation in decisions around change wherever possible. Your team members may each need different things from you to motivate them, depending on their individual personality type. And as processes, systems and models of operation alter within your organisation, you may also need your staff to start displaying new types of behaviours at work.

With so much going on in the world, we may start to experience change fatigue, and our resilience (or ‘bounce back’ reaction to adversity and change) is likely to be challenged. The good news about resilience, however, is that it can be developed and improved – so you can support your staff in increasing their resilience and help them to weather the changes still to come.

Did you find this blog post useful? Or would you like to discuss how any of these ideas might be applied in your organisation?

I’d be really interested to know what you think. You can email me directly on or send me a message on LinkedIn.

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