A Look at Managing Up and Communication in the Virtual Office
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
When businesses closed their doors in spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was unclear how long these workspaces would remain shuttered. We are now beginning to see the answer. For some employees, physical offices will remain closed indefinitely. Other companies are adopting hybrid work models that combine remote and on-site work.
This new normal applies to a diverse set of industries beyond technology, where remote work was common even before the pandemic. Managers in the finance and business sectors have also begun adjusting to the demands of employees interested in working from home by implementing full or partial work-from-home provisions.
With this host of changes, it is necessary to consider the ways employees can make the most out of their relationships with superiors by “managing up” in this new world of virtual work.
Empowering employees empowers management, too
The idea of “managing up” changes the traditional view of workplaces as managerial hierarchies. Managing up is about recognizing the crucial role that employees can play in setting expectations for their work, corporate goals, and other interests. In 2015, the Harvard Business Review defined the concept in simple terms as “being the best employee you can be.”
Managing up benefits both employees and managers because, at its core, it is the recognition that clear communication and feedback between employees and managers empowers everyone in the workplace to do their best work. Information for decision-making is conveyed up and down the chain of command, which means that corporate culture, goals, and values can be more effectively disseminated among those teams who successfully manage up.
Getting used to the virtual office
When work is remote, however, clear communication is more important than ever—and also more difficult. Some employers have cited communication challenges and difficulties managing employees as reasons for changing virtual work policies or requiring employees to return to offices. These concerns underscore the need to develop new management techniques or guidelines at all levels of the organization.
Setting some ground rules
Establishing communication guidelines with managers can help remote employees manage up.
The goal of these rules should be to develop trust between the employee and their manager as well as among teams. Useable rules will take into account the unique ways that each team member works while also respecting team or company needs. These might be rules around boundaries, check-ins, methods of communication, or anything else pertinent to the job at hand. The best way to develop these rules is for employees and managers to clearly set out their preferences and then make suggestions based on feedback and managers’ individual management styles.
For example, a manager who doesn’t like communicating via email and instead prefers video calls can offer to create regular one-on-one meetings throughout the week. Virtual workplaces can make it difficult for managers to stay apprised of what their teams are doing. The easier both employees and their managers can make this process for themselves, the more latitude employees will have to manage up successfully. Another useful discussion point is what topics disproportionally benefit from in-person discussion. Similarly, large projects can be broken down into smaller sections that highlight key moments of in-person engagement between longer periods of remote work.
The necessity of trust
With a firm base of communication established, it’s still important for employees to cultivate managers’ trust in order for them to continue managing up successfully. Managers need to recognize their employees’ talents and contributions, and empower them to work independently to some degree. But to manage up effectively, employees should try to set goals aligned with their manager’s needs. In this way, they will be adding measurable value that helps build trust.
This can take the form of an employee asking a boss about a particularly difficult problem or task that hasn’t been resolved yet and volunteering to take it on. Alternatively, it might involve looking for opportunities to improve a process and then taking the lead on finding and evaluating new solutions.
Of course, there are times when it’s not appropriate for an employee to offer solutions to a problem—for example, if the employee is not in a position to know all the relevant information and decision-making priorities in a situation. If it’s not appropriate to offer advice in this way, employees can still manage up by always keeping their manager up-to-date on new developments, risks, and progress in their own projects. This way, the employee makes him or herself valuable by providing data for better decision-making.
Becoming virtual change agents
Doing all this in a virtual workplace might seem daunting to both employees and their managers, but it all starts out with high-quality, two-way communication.
The freedom and flexibility offered by remote work can lead to the sorts of creative approaches that most good managers are looking for from their employees. And the successful methodologies one employee works out can turn into a force multiplier. Their managing-up techniques can lead to positive new work habits and increased trust, engagement, and recognition throughout the team.
Successfully managing up in a remote work environment involves more than long Zoom meetings or composing hundreds of emails a day. It’s all about adjustment, respect, and creating value at every level of an organization.