In touch or disconnected? Managing homeworkers well

In this episode of the Acas Podcast, Acas deputy chief conciliator Marina Glasgow shares her techniques for holding effective and successful remote conversations.

If you're a manager wondering how you can prevent isolation, demotivation and disconnection, this is the episode for you.

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Sarah Guthrie: Welcome to the Acas Podcast. I'm Sarah Guthrie and today I'm joined by Marina Glasgow who is deputy chief conciliator at Acas.

We're asking today how managers can keep in touch with their staff, when they and their teams are working from home, which might seem like a simple question – just keeping in touch. But if you've been working or managing from home during the coronavirus pandemic, it's highly likely that you've come up against some challenges.

For example, in a recent survey of 1,000 employees by the organisation and platform Totem, around half of employees felt it's been harder to work as a team, they feel less motivated, and it's harder to reach out for help from teammates. Even though around 60% thought that generally working from home has had a positive impact on their workplace culture, they highlighted these problems. So even if it's been generally positive, that doesn't mean that everything has been positive. So Marina, it's great to have you to talk to us today about what managers can be doing in this context.

So let's start off with a question about connection. What do you think are the biggest things that managers can be doing at the moment to help their staff feel connected at the moment, to prevent that sense of isolation – not really knowing who to talk to or how to get to them?

Marina Glasgow: I think it's really important that we don't try to overcomplicate this. Everyone's needs are different. So it isn't about giving people everything they want, but it really is about listening to what they really need, and then helping them to achieve that. Or, perhaps more importantly, being totally clear as to why that might not be possible. And to do this, a manager needs to listen.

Now that sounds like you know, one of those age old phrases that's really easy to do. But actually, it's much more than just what your ears pick up on. Listening really involves asking questions, clarifying things, helping the person you're talking to also really understand what it is they need. Because through that process, you might be able to work out together what the right solution is both for the individual and the business as a whole.

And that's actually very much what Acas does across all of our dispute resolution services. We really listen to both sides when they have an issue. And then we help them to find the best outcome for them. My job normally would involve me sitting down in the same room with people, or even groups of people. And it's fair to say that where we're having a similar conversation, it's not exactly the same when you're doing it via a screen, but it can be done.

Sarah: Okay, so listening is really significant, finding out what people need, and whether you can deliver that – and if not, communicating why not, if possible. Do you have any tips around how to do these kinds of conversations online?

Marina: Yeah, I have given this an awful lot of thought over the last few months. And I think my first tip would really be to make people aware that screens magnify your facial expressions. Having a conversation via a screen also gives us a chance to see our own face when we're having that conversation. And that's actually quite a bit weird.

If you're speaking to someone and they appear to be frowning or distracted, it may be they've just been distracted by pop up notifications on the screen. So don't always assume that they're becoming disengaged from your conversation, or they've stopped listening.

And I think you also need to know if people are reluctant to have the camera on. That might be because they want to have some privacy of their surroundings, especially if they're trying to do that difficult balancing act at the moment of keeping work and home separate. But it could also be that sort of initial warning signal that something's not quite right.

Having lots of people in a virtual meeting might make it difficult for some people to feel that they've been heard. And as I said before, employee voice is fundamental to engagement. So if they're the kind of person who would normally just, you know, wander along the corridor, or knock on a door, speak to a colleague or a manager on that one to one basis, they might not actually feel comfortable speaking out in such a public forum as everyone involved in a Teams conversation.

So I really think to keep people engaged, managers need to have a conversation with their people, agreeing how they're going to work through this together. And it's important in that that they talk about what the business needs, but that should be balanced with what the person needs to enable them to support the business. And it's really vital that there's a clear communication channel available that works across a range of needs.

At Acas, we've heard some great examples of weekly catch up sessions and virtual coffee breaks, or even greater levels of contact with representative bodies. And each of these gives that opportunity for that employee voice to be heard. And that's so important at the moment.

A few years ago, when I was conciliating in a particularly challenging case involving roster changes in a big industrial setting, I asked the group of people central to the dispute what they were hoping to achieve with the process. And it was really interesting what they said to me. They said, "we just want them to hear us. And we want them to acknowledge the difficulties these changes will mean for us. We have options that we could put to them. But we haven't done so because they aren't listening."

Sarah: That is difficult. So to summarise what you've just said there: being aware of the differences between online communication and in-person communication is really important. Things like you might misread facial expressions, some people might find large meetings hard to engage in. So asking the people that you're managing, explicitly about that, is a really good thing to do.

And you also mentioned using a variety of communication channels, so there's not just one way to share your view. And that helps to signal that you are listening, and to make it easier for people to come to you with their views, or just to catch up with people as well, those informal interactions.

I'm curious – for you, Marina, it feels like one of the hardest things to do often with these conversations is to open them. And I was wondering for you personally, how do you go about that? Say, someone's been in a big meeting, you've noticed they haven't engaged in the discussion about whatever workplace change is happening. And you're wondering what's behind that? Is it negative? Is it disagreement? Is it positive? Are they just tired that day? Are they distracted? Is it something you need to worry about? You don't really know. So how would you go about approaching that situation at the moment?

Marina: I think one thing that's become clear to me over the years, and all the work I've done on behalf of Acas, is we're always very good at talking about facts, figures, physical things. The one thing we're not that great at is dealing with people's emotions. But human beings do come with all the emotional baggage that any human has. And I think the best way to start that conversation is to actually simply acknowledge that this is awkward and uncomfortable, both for the person who's starting the conversation and for the person who's going to be on the receiving end of the conversation.

I think once we can acknowledge that it's not easy for either side, it brings them into a sort of common space where they can actually start to unpack what the issues are and look at them together. I think when we don't acknowledge people's emotional response, again, it comes back to that point about them not being heard, because as I said, hearing isn't just about the stuff that goes in your ears, it's all the other aspects around it. And if someone feels they're not really being listened to, the complete package, then they will disengage from it. So from my own experience, having been a manager myself, just saying to someone, "I understand that this will be uncomfortable. It's not easy for me to say it, that starts that – let's level the playing field here. And let's look at this together."

Sarah: So almost acknowledging that discomfort can help smooth the way for the conversation and open it up for you and the other person. If you had to give one piece of advice to managers listening to this, what would it be?

Marina: I think it would be, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This stuff never gets easier. But it's the most effective way to keep people engaged and keep the conversation flowing. So even if it does make you uncomfortable, get comfortable with that fact.

Sarah: Thank you, Marina. That tip is really relevant to so much that we've talked about on the podcast, not just this topic, and it's a great note to end on. Thanks for joining us today.

You've been listening to the Acas Podcast. We've just released new guidance on working from home on our website at And we also offer tailored support for workplaces. So if you're facing particular challenges around this, then you can get in touch with one of our advisers for a free call and to find out how we can help. I've put the links for that and to the website in the session notes for this episode.

If you're interested in employee voice, which came up a little bit today, then we've also got another podcast on this which goes into a lot more depth, which I've put in the session notes for this episode too. Otherwise, like, subscribe, share, review, and thank you for listening.