With technology advancing, there are fewer practical restrictions to act as a barrier to increased uptake of virtual working. So what is holding organizations back from broader adoption of the practice? Perhaps, in part, middle managers and their lack of training. That’s what Paul Miller, CEO of the Intranet Benchmarking Forum, suggested when we spoke with him about a book he’s writing on the digital workplace:
In the book I talk about one of the major oil companies. They equipped people with new, more portable devices and new smartphones and then the next day, 25 percent of people disappeared. So you’re a middle manager. You’re used to seeing people coming into the office and all of a sudden they vanish, and I think one of the key issues is middle managers learning how to manage when you see people far less than you ever used to. How often should you meet them? How do you keep an eye on them? Obviously, it brings up this whole issue of judging people on results and outputs rather than inputs.
Companies are starting to realize people are unused to this way of managing people. What they’re finding is that the biggest block to digital working is that middle managers aren’t skilled to do it. Organizations have learned that you actually do need to train managers in how to manage people in a virtual environment.
Miller went on to cite companies such as BT and Microsoft in the Netherlands, which have had improved success with virtual working after training their middle managers, so he’s certainly correct in his basic point that the training makes a difference, but is this news?
Five years ago, articles were already noting that when it comes to any sort of telecommuting, “the real impediment is the resistance of middle managers” and arguing that “more managers should be trained.” Back then Chuck Wilsker, president of the Telework Coalition, estimated that no more than 15 percent of firms were training managers for remote work. Based on Miller’s account, more companies have jumped on board, but certainly not as many as would be expected to have gotten with the program over half a decade. Perhaps the real story is how little progress has been made.
Why aren’t more companies training middle managers for the realities of the digital workplace despite repeated calls to send them to web work boot camp?