Corine Tan is co-founder of Kona, the wellness platform for remote teams. Her Slack app has helped teams at Asana, Medium, HelpScout, Coffee Meets Bagel, Happy Money, and more improve their emotional health and build trust. The Kona team has interviewed over 550 remote managers since January 2020 and compiled their findings in their annual Remote Manager Report.
The State of Remote Training in 2020
When my team at Kona first started interviewing remote managers in January 2020, we had no idea how soon the world would dramatically change. In a span of two months, we witnessed a worldwide remote experiment unfold as entire countries fell into lockdown. We scrambled to record the immediate experiences of managers and documented our findings in our 2020 Remote Manager Report. Three major takeaways emerged from our data:
- New and experienced remote managers struggled disproportionately with relationship building (46.7%) and miscommunication (30.2%).
- Emotional intelligence was the top skill needed to tackle these remote hurdles.
- Manager training was necessary yet inaccessible due to the sudden transition to remote work and stress of team responsibilities.
These takeaways were reflected in other reports. Workplaceless’s 2020 Remote Work Training Report states, “[HR and L&D] interviewees from companies that were not fully remote before COVID-19 noted that because of the sudden and drastic shift in business needs, their time was diverted away from regular responsibilities to source and develop resources for remote training.” The global pandemic had caught HR departments off-guard. The transition suddenly required an army of wellness resources and overnight shifts to virtual. Business-critical operations naturally took priority.
Unfortunately, many remote managers were left unprepared and unsure how to navigate their newly remote environment. Only 10% of the 764 remote professionals interviewed in Workplaceless’s Report received an L&D stipend for remote training. Left to learn on their own, many dedicated a few hours per month outside of work to teach themselves critical communication and change management skills. The Remote Work Training Report shows that over half of managers who had very little to no training felt unprepared for remote work.
Today’s Remote Manager Training Crisis
Our team at Kona held out hope that this was simply a matter of growing pains. We anticipated companies would adjust to their remote environment and plan for the future, especially as COVID-19 dragged past its one-year anniversary and tech giants announced indefinite work from home plans. Pandemic productivity had marked the viability of the world’s remote experiment. For long-term remote success, we figured companies would have to close the gap in remote manager preparedness.
In May 2021, our team compiled half a year’s worth of manager interviews into our latest Remote Manager Report. Shockingly, our findings showed the opposite of what we expected. Here are our three key takeaways:
1. Thirty-Seven percent% of managers had no manager experience before the sudden shift to work from home.
In our Remote Manager Report, over a third of the 200 remote managers we interviewed had been promoted to their first leadership position during the pandemic. A significant portion of managers had worked for their current company for less than six months!
If this were a normal year, we might assume that these managers would have the time and energy to build their skills over time. However, COVID-era managers have had a lot of external pressures: a global pandemic, long-term homeschooling, social unrest, industry layoffs, and economic decline, to name a few. Workplaceless’s 2020 Report shared a familiar frustration as remote managers “[had] to learn about remote work themselves while simultaneously trying to create learning programs to support their newly remote teams.” Learning on the fly is neither sustainable nor healthy when entire teams are at stake.
The need for manager training places strain on both Learning and Development (L&D) departments and the teams they manage. Training and programs have to fight for a manager’s attention without overwhelming them with yet another to do. Meanwhile, individual contributors have to deal with the possible conflict from a lack of proper leadership. Workplaceless’s Remote Work Training Report showed that individual contributors often felt more prepared for remote work than their managers. This unpreparedness can have negative effects, with over 74% of senior leadership that Workplaceless surveyed agreeing that unpreparedness negatively affects employee satisfaction and team productivity.
2. The average team size nearly doubled since last year’s report.
Managers reported an average of 7.23 direct reports per team, a number that rose to 10 reports for Engineering and Sales teams. This was nearly double the 2020 average of 4.87 direct reports. Not only are managers less prepared, but their teams are scaling rapidly. Our report found that 72% of companies increased their hiring in the last year creating more frequent change.
This creates a variety of problems, especially for less experienced managers. According to the Remote Work Training Report, only 30% of remote workers received remote-specific onboarding training. This can easily lead to isolation, miscommunication, and siloes as teams lack touch points and have a harder time building trust. In addition, larger teams require more split attention from managers, drawing them away from supporting their teammates. Many newly promoted managers from result-oriented roles struggle with the transition to support-oriented management, and this struggle is increased in Engineering and Sales roles that see the highest team growth.
Companies need to have programs in place for their growing teams. Workplaceless sums it up best in their 2020 report, “The challenges that came to light in the interviews indicated that if a workplace does not have the remote-specific tools, processes, and rituals that foster organic, fluid communication and authentic, spontaneous connections, it leads to decreased collaboration and productivity and a lack of engagement, visibility, and access to information.”
3. Over 70% of remote managers surveyed suffered from burnout or mental health issues during the pandemic.
This last takeaway, though unfortunate, is not surprising given the first two. A staggering number of remote managers suffered from burnout. Stripped of social outlets and vacations away from home, many remote managers suffered from the intense pressures placed on them.
Employees who suffer from high levels of burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room. We’ve written extensively about burnout and mental health at Kona, and we can’t emphasize enough the importance of company support for employee wellness. Training and preparedness go beyond performance. In this sense, it’s about setting leaders up for success and resiliency.
Last year’s Remote Work Training Report mentioned a key reason for the disconnect between remote leaders and People Ops: their priorities and concerns often do not align. Remote workers mentioned their biggest issues were Distractions (55%) and Overworking (50%). In contrast, L&D leaders and HR decision-makers mentioned change visibility, team bonding, and historical knowledge. As mentioned in the Workplaceless report, intervention and change cannot occur without bridging this disconnect.
The Future of Remote Leadership: What You Can Do Today
It can seem nothing short of overwhelming to address industry-wide issues like manager unpreparedness, rapid team scale, and unprecedented burnout in a year like this. However, there’s a lot remote organizations can do to make a change and set their teams up for success.
If you take anything away from this article, let it be this: culture leaders must embrace a learning mindset to support teams where they need to be supported. That means turning to both the teams themselves and to remote experts to find the best, holistic path forward. It starts with asking questions and iterating.
Who should you focus on? What do they need?
The Who: The Importance of Middle Managers for Company-Wide Change
When it comes to scaling change across an organization, HR leaders cannot simply rely on CXOs and top-down processes to trickle down to every teammate. That’s why we’re advocates for middle managers and bottom-up change.
Middle managers sit at the frontlines of team culture. They’re involved with every teammate and have the most dire need for leadership training. Without access to executive coaches or large L&D stipends, middle managers need learning solutions that fit their work styles. According to Workplaceless’s report, managers preferred learning solutions are remote-specific skill courses, tools, and mentorships. Culture leaders need to stop providing resource guides that are never fully utilized as the sole source of learning opportunities.
Workplaceless said it best in their Remote Work Training Report, “…the more companies supported their team managers with remote-specific training the more positive results they experienced in terms of overall company performance.”
The What: The Skills Needed for the Future of Work
A majority of remote professionals surveyed in Workplaceless’s 2020 Remote Training Report believe that additional remote-specific training would improve their inclusion in decision-making, communication, collaboration, productivity, and growth opportunities regardless of location.
In particular, there are a few key areas to focus remote-specific training:
- Conflict Management and Change Management Training. There’s no need to underscore the way the pandemic has completely transformed our lives. These changes easily lead to uncomfortable conversations and triggering behaviors in remote teams. In order to navigate this environment, remote managers need to learn conflict and change management.
- Culture and Connections in Distributed Hybrid Teams. Our 2021 Remote Manager Report showed that relationship building was the top struggle for remote managers for the second year in a row. As teams go remote for the long term, creating a culture beyond mantras is the difference between retaining top talent and losing it. It’s up to remote managers to put company values and vision into action. This requires training and self-awareness.
- Burnout and Isolation Prevention Training. Most importantly, remote managers need training for resilience and team building. Beyond our report’s results, a 2020 study by Flexjobs showed that 37% of remote workers worked longer hours. The ability to manage one’s time under extreme pressures, set clear boundaries between work and life, and detect burnout early are all essential skills. By equipping leaders with these skills, companies stand up for them and their needs.
A year of forced work from home continued many of the concerning remote training trends we witnessed in 2020. A significant number of first-time managers are facing 2021 pressures, larger teams, and historic levels of burnout. In order to support these managers, culture leaders need to approach problems with curiosity and provide resources that fit their needs. This includes courses, tools, and mentorships that help them build skills for the future of work.
We recommend pursuing a combination of foundational training with an experienced remote work training company, like Workplaceless, and instituting rituals to gather ongoing feedback on how teams are feeling with our Kona EQ platform.