Managing from a distance

100 plus days into COVID-19 restrictions and I can confirm I still don’t like working from home. I have no desire of returning to the pre-March status quo – instead I dream of an workspace like the Campaign Monitors space I have lusted over for a decade or even that of Fog Creek from even earlier. One with private offices and large collaboration spaces. Socially isolated together.

This isn’t going to happen. My best bet is still going to be a garden office of some kind!

Anyway this isn’t about all of that. This is about what I see as the biggest issue on the horizon for this switch to mass distributed working.


I just don’t think many managers – at least not in the circles I operate – are ready for this massive change in how they will have to operate. Just as worrying I don’t think there is an appropriate support system available yet to help them adapt.

Too much management in recent years has been reinforced by ‘walking the floor’ thanks to the prevalence of open plan offices. It is management by presence and performance management by presenteeism. Showing up is perceived as more important than shipping outcomes. It becomes a weird mix of off the cuff and process driven but removes the responsibility of managers to ‘lead’ or communicate objectives clearly. As long as their teams see them and engage with them at the assigned times and in the approved manner then they are seen as a success whether or not that team actually understands how they fit in with the wider vision of the organisations – never mind whether they successfully contribute to it.

In an office environment all of this is balanced somewhat by the osmosis effect. Teams with better managers share insights with those who don’t, walls are adorned with posters and Kanban boards, conversations are overheard in kitchens and in corridors. The institutional organism finds a way to survive.

Moving to a distributed model breaks all of that…and the longer we are in it the more broken it gets – teams went into lockdown with existing relationships and rhythms and managers continued to oversee whatever objectives was on their slate at the time…or they went into COVID crisis mode…soon that will change. New teams will spin up, new faces will join, new priorities will emerge and it will be the job of the managers to get shit done without the crutches they leaned on before.

Don’t get me wrong some will just try and replicate things – there is a reason the sales of staff surveillance software is going through the roof (uuurrgghhh!) but many are going to have to make like Clint in Heartbreak Ridge. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

Thanks to Holly I came across a really management technique that provides a great foundation for these new challenges.

Devised by Peter ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ Drucker ‘Management by Objectives’ (though I’d prefer ‘Management by Outcomes’ for my take) is a very modern, almost agile, approach given Drucker started popularising it in the 1950s!

At its core MBO believes that if management clearly articulates the required ‘outcomes’ (this is my version after all) then the team members will work out the best way to get it done.

This means that the outcomes and success criteria have to be clear and well communicated – putting the pressure on the managers to get this right from the start. This will be a big change for a lot of people – it isn’t about cascading messages from above but translating and unpicking them to provide ‘local’, actionable, goals for their teams. 

From then though it is a case of managers having to trust their teams and in fact supporting rather than supervising them (servant leadership is definitely a factor here). This doesn’t mean washing your hands of it all though – it just means you delegate, observe and assist where required.

Another plus is it is an approach that favours more of an asynchronous style of working – which is going to become increasingly important if we are to succeed in this new distributed environment.

I think this MBO is my natural style of management but I definitely need to work harder on setting clearer goals with better definitions of success. It is a way of working at the heart of product management – which is probably why it appeals to me so much – but for managers from other disciplines it is going to require some new tools I suspect – especially around things like providing outcomes, designing and communicating visions, providing success criteria that can be tested…whether you can learn to trust is another thing altogether.

My next blogpost will explore some of those tools and how I approach them – and how I wish I did and maybe some thoughts on building trust one video call at a time.

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