Working from home can be an adjustment, especially since many companies had to transition to the arrangement virtually overnight. Unfortunately, not everyone is transitioning successfully. A survey by VitalSmarts found that one in five leaders are either very unprepared or unprepared to manage remote teams.
“Managing remotely requires different skillsets, sensibilities, and perspective,” says Mary Abbajay, president of organization and leadership consultants Careerstone Group and author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss. “You have to learn how to manage based on results and output and not activity. A lot of managers look at work ethic or manage based on how many hours they see an employee’s butt in the office seat. That approach is not going to work today.”
If you’re the employee, having a boss who can’t lead from afar could impact your own results and mental well-being. But there are several things you can do to manage up and help your situation:
1. Be proactive about communication
Although it’s not harder to manage up virtually, it will look different, says Abbajay. Figure out how your boss likes to work virtually by identifying their preferences, priorities, and pet peeves, she says. Then adapt.
“If your boss is not communicative then be proactive and get on their schedule,” she says. “Schedule calls with your boss to keep them informed of what you’re doing. Send daily emails saying, ‘Here are my priorities. Am I missing anything?’ Then encourage your boss to do meetings and regular check-ins with the other members of your team. You can lead from below.”
2. Volunteer to take on tasks
If you see your boss struggling in a certain area, volunteer to help out, suggests Dana Brownlee, founder of the corporate training company Professionalism Matters and author of The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches.
“You can say, ‘I know you’re swamped, wrapping your arms around clients and making sure things aren’t falling through cracks. I don’t mind if you want me to take the lead on researching platforms we can use to communicate,'” she says.
If you know where your boss is weak, you create a win/win by helping them out and solving the problem. “Most bosses will love that because you’re taking something off their plate, making their job easier,” says Brownlee.
3. Be the team glue
Unless your boss is power-hungry and paranoid, Abbajay says this is a great time to help bring your team together.
“Reach out and ask your team how they can come together to best support your boss and each other during this time,” she says. “Brainstorm ideas for staying connected and productive. Talk about how to remain positive to keep morale up.”
4. Recommend best practices
With so much information available about working virtually, Abbajay suggests that employees find best practices and recommend them. “This can be a great time to develop ideas and strategies and experiment,” she says. “Not everything is going to work perfectly. You could recommend daily video calls and try new things to see what works best.”
Brownlee says it can help to broach topics if you’re bringing them up like suggestions. “You can say, ‘Hey, things might be a little bit different now. I found this to be helpful on a previous team I was on.’ Or ‘I read this great article and you might find it helpful too,'” she says.
But don’t be afraid to be more explicit about recommendations if you feel that your boss isn’t aware of a problem, adds Brownlee.
“One part of managing up is looking at the situation from a hierarchical perspective,” she says. “The further up you are, the further you’re away from the day-to-day work. Your boss may need someone to give them a heads up about what’s not working because they may not have a clue. You’re not being a rat; you’re helping them by giving them information that may not be front of mind for them. It could help them from being blindsided by a situation later.”
5. Set expectations about your availability
Working from home may have added challenges of juggling family life. Abbajay says you may need to negotiate a little on the hours you’re available.
“You can tell your boss that you’re committed to being a productive worker, you’re committed to reaching your goals and the organization’s goals and getting work done, and you need to request some flexibility,” she says.
Brownlee suggests developing ground rules. “Before, you may have had morning meetings, but now you’ve got kids at home and need to help them with their schoolwork,” she says. “Instead of assuming everything is the same but now we’re working from home, acknowledge that everyone’s lives are probably turned upside down and talk through that.”
Share your situation, and make your request, says Abbajay. “You have to be clear what you are going to get done and how you will meet your deadlines,” she says. “You can always propose to pilot the schedule for a week to see if it works. If your boss has no leeway with being flexible, then that’s a good indicator that you’re working for the wrong boss and you may want to look for something else.”
And address responsiveness, adds Brownlee. “In your old environment, your boss could expect an answer within a couple of hours,” she says. “What does responsiveness look like now? Teams have to get granular.”
For example, if things are urgent, request that it’s put in the subject line of an email. “If you don’t take time to get the details down up front, you’ll hit land mines throughout the process,” says Brownlee.
6. And try to be patient
Just because someone has the title of manager doesn’t mean that’s their strength, says Brownlee. “Having good leadership skills in a distributed environment can make their weakness even worse,” she says. “Look at it as an opportunity to step up and volunteer to help define processes and team infrastructure. Once you lose day-to-day and face-to-face contact, it is 10 times harder to lead.”
Remember, not only is your manager learning new skills; they’re learning them under duress and stress, adds Abbajay. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to stay positive,” she says.