Coping with a Manager Who Struggles with Remote Work

Given the nation’s rapid pivot to a remote work model, it’s not surprising that any manager who was accustomed to working in-house may now be struggling to lead a team of widely dispersed tech professionals. For team members, that could lead to frustrations that you must confront if you want to continue delivering projects on time and on budget.

Don’t suffer in silence. Here are some warning signs that your boss is bad at managing a remote team, along with some ways to not only survive but thrive in your less-than-desirable predicament.

Things are Falling Through the Cracks

Your once-productive team is now frustrated and missing deadlines because your boss keeps you waiting for important decisions or the direction needed to execute key elements of the project. Worse, several of your teammates are falling further behind and your boss doesn’t even notice.

If your boss seems disorganized or uncomfortable during online meetings, give them reminders, or offer to create a standardized process for tracking the creation and completion of action items, suggested Lynn Taylor, a workplace expert and author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant.

Volunteering to provide the additional structure, or even just a quick summary after each meeting, might be just what your manager and teammates need to stay focused and productive.

Unrealistic Work Expectations

If you’re working harder than ever and still can’t meet your boss’s increasing demands, you’re not alone. Research shows that IT workloads have increased 37 percent since everyone went remote earlier this year. 

Many tech managers were out-of-touch with day-to-day operations before the pandemic, and being geographically separated has only made things worse, acknowledged Dana Brownlee, PMP, president of training company Professionalism Matters, and author of: “The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches.”

If your boss is asking for the impossible, “pause and hit the reset button,” Brownlee advised. How? Explain the impact of their demands and offer trade-offs by applying the triple constraint theory (often referred to as the ‘project management triangle’). This theory says that every project operates within the boundaries of scope, time and cost. If you change one factor (such as adding more features to the project scope or slashing the budget), explain how it will affect the other two. 

Manager Communication Breakdowns

Focusing initially on tactical issues, activities and outputs may have helped the team make a smooth transition to remote work. But now weeks have turned into months, and you feel out of touch with your boss and the company’s strategic priorities. You may even fear that your career is stagnating.

Essentially, it’s a manager’s job to ensure that their remote employees are neither out of sight nor out of mind, explained Sharon Koifman, president of remote placement agency DistantJob. However, some managers have no idea how to effectively communicate with remote employees.

“Alas, managers with low emotional intelligence may not know how to compensate for their communication shortcomings in a remote work environment,” Brownlee added.

If this happens to you, switch roles with your boss and push back a little. “Educate your boss on the skills he needs and the kind of communication you’re looking for,” Koifman said.

Take the initiative to over-communicate by picking up the phone or scheduling a socially distant in-person meeting to discuss your future. Or suggest that they begin each meeting by giving attendees the chance to share how they’re doing, provide pertinent updates, and ask questions about the long-term strategic direction of the company.

In a perfect world, your boss should be asking how you prefer to receive information and how to meet your needs. But in the current environment, encouraging your boss to embrace different communication styles and mediums may be the best way to show them what works and what doesn’t.

Mood Swings and Over-the-Top Reactions

According to a survey, 56 percent of American workers claimed their boss was mildly or highly toxic… and things have only gotten worse since the lockdown.

Exhibiting moodiness or criticizing you or your teammates during online meetings is a sign that your boss may be feeling overwhelmed or insecure about maintaining control and trust (in their defense, it can be hard to judge people’s reactions when you can’t meet face-to-face).

Nevertheless, if reassuring your boss and plying them with examples of the team’s success doesn’t change their mood or behaviors, you need to set boundaries and “CALM” them down using Taylor’s four-step process:

CALM:

Communicate: Don’t let issues fester; remember to document your work and communications, just in case. 

Anticipate: Tackle problems before they worsen and know the right time to bring them up.

Levity: Humor may help diffuse tension, assuming your boss has episodic bouts of difficult behavior that are tamable (and is not an untenable bully).

Manage Up: Set boundaries on unreasonable and toxic behavior by being the voice of reason, while practicing diplomacy and emotional intelligence.