Foto Joachim Rode

How does home working change managerial duties?

Monday 11 Jan 21


Christine Ipsen
Associate Professor, Head of Section
DTU Management
+45 45 25 60 14

About the research

  • Associate Professor Christine Ipsen is head of the Implementation and Performance Management section at DTU Management.
  • The section’s research focuses on how new technologies are implemented and how management and organization can be rethought in this context.
  • During the lockdown in spring 2020, the section was among the first in the world to send out a questionnaire on working from home.
  • There have been approximately 8,000 respondents—both employees and managers—from 28 countries worldwide.
  • The first analyses of the material are found in the report 'Experiences of working from home in times of covid-19’, which can be accessed by searching in DTU Orbit.

Associate Professor Christine Ipsen was among the first to study the reactions to the increased home working during the corona crisis. Here she answers some questions about challenges and possibilities for distance management.

What characterizes distance management?

An obvious characteristic feature is the distance between manager and employee. The distance may be both geographical and temporal, i.e. working at different times of the day or in different time zones. Distance management is already being used in many industries, for example in the transport sector, in home care, and in international companies with departments and branches worldwide, where employees and managers may be located in different countries. The new aspect under the COVID-19 crisis is that suddenly many more managers had to become distance managers, even thought this was not the managerial task they were used to.

Can all managers exercise distance management?

We can see that the type of managers who build their management on relations are more challenged by the distance to the employees, as it is difficult to maintain relations at a distance. It can be done, but it makes great demands on the manager’s social, empathetic, and communicative skills. It is currently being discussed whether, in the long term, we will see brand-new manager types as a result of more people working from home.

Are there downsides to distance management?

Distance management entails a form of loss of control. As manager, you lose a lot of information when you do not naturally meet your employees in everyday working life. You cannot simply walk through the office landscape and sense the atmosphere or get a short briefing at the coffee machine.

The manager must therefore systematize his contact with the employees, and the brief greeting in the office landscape must suddenly be entered as a meeting in the calendar. Distance management therefore takes more time. In addition, the contact becomes more formal, and it is harder to create nearness.

It may also be a challenge to ensure that the tasks are performed with a certain uniformity or standard if required, for example when it comes to citizen contact.

So distance management takes time, and the manager risks having a very long working day in which he or she has to be available from early morning to late evening.

What is the manager’s biggest challenge?

Trust is the foundation of good distance management. Whether you are a new or experienced distance manager, trust is a challenge when you cannot meet each other. Managers are concerned with how they can show employees trust in their ability to perform their tasks on their own. And they are concerned with how to follow up on those tasks without being controlling. For some managers, trust is also about believing that the employees are getting something done at all when they work from home.

Are there any advantages?

Studies do not indicate any particular advantages for the managers themselves. But they are pleased that their employees thrive with distance working, that they appreciate the greater flexibility and freedom, and not having to spend time commuting.

What has been surprising in the global study?

We were surprised that the employees have been so positive about working from home, while it has been more challenging for the managers. We also note that Danish managers have found it harder being distance managers than German managers. The study shows, among other findings, that Danish managers have a greater need to see their employees than German managers have.

One explanation may be that Danish managers exercise leadership through social relations, and it is precisely these relations that can be difficult to create and maintain when there is a distance between managers and employees. We do not know for certain why this is the case, and we will examine these issues and look further into national differences.

What would you call this period?

These are exciting times, a period of upheaval, with a new look at the manager’s tasks, and maybe we will see a new type of manager emerge. We will see other ways of arranging how we work, which will be a hybrid between being present at and away from the workplace. Therefore, the future role of the office is already being discussed. Perhaps we will also be discussing the right to an office space.

New technologies like Zoom and Teams have already shown their value, and the next step may be the use of mobile robots which managers and employees can use, for example for meetings, and to reestablish some of the nearness that distance prevents. These are all tasks for which the universities can help develop knowledge, methods, and solutions.