The Skills Managers Need to Fix the Digital Workplace

Published: Mar 26, 2021



The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a sudden and aggressive shift to virtual work.

We all know how big these changes felt within our own organizations, but APQC’s research shows how dramatic it truly was. In a survey of more than 800 respondents, APQC found that prior to the onset of COVID-19, 57% of people interacted with co-workers primarily in person. Afterward 84% said their co-worker interactions were primarily virtual.

APQC identified two big remote work problems that managers need to fix. The first is that many employees are frustrated by a lack of guidance and ground rules on virtual collaboration. They’ve been provided with a bunch of apps and tools that are supposed to make their work easier, but they’re not always sure which ones to use when or how to use them effectively. They’re fatigued by too many long, unfocused video calls and a constant stream of chat pings that does not stop when the business day ends. Managers need to impose order on this chaos to prevent employee burnout and productivity losses.

The second challenge is larger and more nuanced. As organizations went virtual during the pandemic, most employees and managers simply moved their in-office habits and relationships online. People used virtual collaboration tools to talk to their former cube mates. Meetings moved to a virtual format with the same agendas and attendees as before. In other words, people are working virtually, but they’re still relying on the professional networks and workways they built in the office. Few are capitalizing on the capabilities of virtual work tools to seek diverse perspectives, build new relationships, or manage work in a more efficient and transparent manner.

The current state of virtual work is a Wild West in dire need of capable sheriffs. Management must act now to bring order to chaos and guide employees toward a healthier, more sustainable digital culture. As some organizations go all-virtual and others embrace more remote employees and hybrid schedules, teams will increasingly include colleagues who don’t know each other from the pre-pandemic office and rarely, if ever, collaborate in person. Managers will have more and more reports that they know only virtually. To lead in this new normal, managers will need to leverage their deep knowledge of the business as well as their consultation, communication, and emotional intelligence skills.


The first imperative is to better regulate the digital workplace through clear and consistent standards. Micromanagement is undesirable, but so is anarchy.

Get comfortable. One of the biggest barriers to effective virtual management is a lack of familiarity with virtual work tools. If you don’t use these tools, you won’t know what problems are brewing, what norms are needed, and what guidelines to provide. Seek training if necessary, then spend some time in the digital workplace using the tools your employees use. Gather employee feedback and make observations about what is and isn’t working, then use that context to help establish guidelines and role-model behaviors you want to encourage.

Take responsibility for your team’s virtual work environment. APQC found that in most organizations, IT is the primary owner of the virtual collaboration strategy. While it is up to IT to ensure that virtual collaboration tools work on a technical level, management should take responsibility for setting the norms around their use. Managers will need to triangulate:

  • The demands of the business strategy and goals (what people need to get done)
  • The capabilities of the tools and platforms
  • The needs and preferences of employees (pain points identified through conversations and observations)

Managers need to ask themselves, “What work needs to be done that is difficult with current platforms and work processes?” and “What problems or roadblocks are preventing employees from being as productive as they could be?” In so doing, consider not just the needs of your employees and your team, but also key stakeholders such as other department leads, executives, and customers.

Create guidelines for which tools to use and what happens where. Half of APQC’s survey respondents said that their organizations have no guidelines for virtual collaboration or that norms emerge ad hoc as teams work together. When APQC asked about specific guidelines, none was in place among more than 50% of organizations. We’re living in a new normal, but the norms are yet to be established.

APQC identified the top seven critical gaps in virtual collaboration, as seen in the chart above. Our survey respondents said that adding or strengthening these seven guidelines would make virtual collaboration more effective. Ultimately, though, managers need to be active listeners and good internal consultants to identify the best-fit guidelines for their company and team cultures.

It’s relatively easy to set business rules such as “Don’t set a virtual meeting without an agenda” or “You must turn on video for this type of interaction,” but managers— especially line managers—must consistently role-model and communicate to ensure they hold. APQC found that senior leaders are twice as likely as others to say that team guidelines are established, but employees further down the hierarchy tend to say there are no norms. There’s often a gap between what leadership expects and what’s really happening on the ground, and that’s a gap management needs to fill.

Communicate guidelines. The good news is that, when norms and guidelines for virtual collaboration are in place, employees are relatively consistent about following them. Seven out of 10 employees say colleagues usually or almost always follow rules once they are understood.

The bad news is that many managers aren’t doing their part. APQC found that most communication about virtual collaboration rules and guidelines is reactive. That is, employees only find out that rules exist when someone breaks one. The research also suggests that, for the most part, employees are taking it upon themselves to self-police the virtual environment. Currently, only 26% of managers proactively monitor and reinforce norms and guidelines. More managers need to start communicating expectations and role-modeling desired behaviors now, before employees grow weary of making up the rules as they go.

Set boundaries. Managers need the emotional intelligence to understand how virtual collaboration affects different employees’ well-being and establish boundaries accordingly. APQC found that many employees—particularly women, younger workers, and those in more junior positions—want boundaries around when virtual collaboration will and will not occur. It’s up to managers to set expectations for responding to messages (especially those sent outside normal business hours) and give employees permission to set aside time for uninterrupted work.

On the other hand, some employees are tempted to push boundaries in the virtual workplace. Whether they’re watching TV during virtual meetings or sneaking off to run errands during the workday, it’s all easier to do when no one’s watching. That’s why managers must find new ways to make themselves visible. “Managers need to be very present with their employees in a virtual environment, and that can be challenging for managers who are accustomed to being very hands-on people in an in-office environment,” says Ashley White, executive director of human resources at APQC. “You need to keep up your individual and team check- ins, and maybe even schedule them more frequently than you did before. Lead with empathy, but follow that up with accountability and expectation management.”


There are a lot of upsides to remote work, and it’s clear that many employees and executives want to keep working this way at least some of the time. However, APQC found that some of the benefits of virtual collaboration are a double-edged sword. Two of the top five benefits cited by survey respondents were “I get things done faster” and “It’s easier to multitask.” It’s sometimes OK to work quickly and across tasks, but it’s also a good way to make a huge mistake. APQC’s survey also identified some remote work challenges that are tricker to solve than the current lack of guidance and guardrails. To figure all of this out and set the course for long-term success, managers cannot just apply past experience. They need to be agile thinkers and strategic problem solvers.

Replace the watercooler. APQC found that the biggest challenge with virtual collaboration is that it’s hard to have unstructured, serendipitous exchanges. In a physical office, organizations don’t need to do much to facilitate these discussions—they happen every day in the breakroom, across cubicles, and just about everywhere else. When the pandemic hit, organizations tried to replicate these spaces with off-topic chat groups and virtual happy hours. But the best thing about the watercooler was that you often overheard something useful (such as a colleague who’s working on a similar project), and those discussions don’t crop up in “forced fun” chats and events.

Virtual communities of practice and topic-based enterprise social networking groups are more effective replacements for the watercooler. These are fluid networks of people who come together to share, discuss, and learn from one another around a common discipline or topic of interest. They’re a great place for employees to build their networks and participate in unstructured yet focused discussions around work-related topics. They also facilitate the deeper, more complex forms of collaboration required for problem solving and innovation, which APQC identified as a major current-state challenge.

Such groups should be employee-led, but it’s up to management to encourage their creation and provide the resources and structure that allow them to thrive. Managers must make the case to executives that these groups are worth employees’ time, help guide employees in these groups to set business-relevant objectives, and work with other stakeholders (typically, IT) to create space for them in the virtual workplace.

Don’t take shortcuts with performance management. Traditionally, many managers used “time in chair”—visual observation of employees—as a key input to performance management. When this crutch was taken away during the pandemic, some people micromanaged employees with a bunch of meetings to make sure they were working, while others undermanaged and put off performance evaluation to the last possible moment. Both approaches are lazy and unfair, and management must do better.

APQC recommends holding frequent check-in meetings to reiterate goals, discuss progress, collect performance feedback, and work through challenges. These meetings should be scheduled with individuals, not the entire team, to allow adequate time for employees to open up and for managers to build trust. “Managers should not short-cycle the performance evaluation process. In a virtual setting, feedback is even more important,” says White. “In 2020, for example, a lot of employees missed their goals due to circumstances beyond their control. But that doesn’t mean managers should just ignore those goals and move on. Instead, talk through how you might hedge against it next time. Employees still want to be held accountable, they still want to advance their careers, and they still want to grow. Don’t take the easy way out.”


A lot of managers are hiding under a rock and hoping today’s virtual workplace challenges just go away. This is especially true of certain long-tenured managers who rely on in-person rapport. But the reality is, virtual work is not going away. Employees who have worked from home productively for a year or more are unlikely to accept a mandate to return to the office five days a week. Companies are looking to minimize costs by reducing their physical footprint and hiring in lower- cost markets for key roles.

Managers must adjust to having at least some of their employees remote some of the time. They must adapt how they oversee, support, and evaluate their teams to suit the digital environment. Virtual guidelines are a good place to start, but it’s equally critical to embrace the potential of collaboration platforms. Successfully replicating the creative, complex, and free-form conversations that employees miss from the office will be the difference between merely surviving and thriving in a more digital organization.


Lauren Trees is principal research lead, Knowledge Management, and develops and executes APQC’s knowledge management (KM) research agenda. She identifies trends in enterprise knowledge sharing and collaboration, researches cutting-edge ways to improve knowledge flow, and shares the findings with APQC’s members and the knowledge management community at large.

Elissa Tucker, principal research lead, Human Capital Management, develops and executes APQC’s human capital management (HCM) research agenda. She has completed numerous research studies and reports on such topics as leadership, talent optimization, human resources trends, recruiting and hiring, training and development, performance management, and talent management.