Are Work From Home Managers Unicorns?

Remote work: many love it, a few are suspicious of it and companies are split on it, yet it’s a rapidly growing and recession-resistant portion of the professional workforce.

Startups and small businesses often embrace work from home arrangements wholeheartedly, but long-established and larger companies approach it so cautiously that you’d think they were being force fed a poison pill.

How can there be such a large divide in the business world on something with such incredible benefits? Allowing people to work from home is either good for business or it’s not, right?

Turns out that a major gotcha for many companies is management itself and probably not in the way you’d think.

Executives, corporate captains and business owners of the world focus their energies on finance and strategy, relying on a very traditional corporate animal, the middle manager, to make everything run smoothly. Without them, chaos would take over the office parks and towers of the corporate world.

So what’s the big problem? Just send the middle manager to work from home like everyone else.

Let’s quickly run through that scenario.

I run a giant insurance firm. I have 20,000 employees and I want to reap the benefits of a remote workforce, so this year I am freeing 10,000 of them to work from home. I am a realist however, and I expect some hiccups. After all, not everyone can or wants to work remotely. I am willing to accept that around 20% of my non-management workforce will stagnate at home and be let go in the first six months or will find another office position.

Let’s apply that 20% to the middle managers right off the top because, contrary to the opinion of many assistants, analysts, and specialists, middle managers are human as well. So of the 80% remaining, how many of them do you think are flexible enough to quickly learn how to manage a multi-level distributed workforce?

Before you guess, keep in mind that managing a remote team won’t work with traditional tactics that rely heavily on constant personal interactions, strategically dropping in on meetings or standing behind someone as they work.

In these early days of large-scale remote workforce conversions there are no real numbers, but I can tell you from over a decade of working from home as a manager, executive and entrepreneur that the failure rate is phenomenally large. When I include the experiences of other executives and managers I have spoken with, I have no hesitation in pegging the range between 60 and 80%.

Now imagine what happens to the previously organized workflow of each department converting to a remote structure. Replacing the assistants and specialists is simple. There are plenty of experienced remote workers in all industry sectors who will thrive where others couldn’t. Many work just as well or better from a beach in Thailand or ranch in Patagonia. But move up a couple of levels to the people who were supposed to keep it all running smoothly and we find trouble at the mill. Because we expect middle managers to not only be talented remote employees but also amazing, intuitive leaders who know how to balance oversight with trust, the bar is set so high that replacing them is like going on a unicorn hunt.

Because of this, Scott Berkun, who worked as a remote team manager for and wrote The Year Without Pants: and The Future of Work, noted that, “organizations that see middle-management as the most important talent in the organization often struggle to see how remote work can function well at all.”

So what’s the solution?

Startups and established office-based companies that want to move some or all of their workforce away from the office, need to take a few pages out of the playbook of successful remote companies.

First, flatter is better. Forget the traditional reporting structure your parents and grandparents imagined when they told you inspirational bedtime stories about climbing the corporate ladder. In most companies with a distributed workforce, the distance between the c-suite and the talent is minimal.

This works because of the second important remote playbook rule, hire smart. In this case “smart” is seeking out independently-minded, resourceful individuals who are organized and driven. These are people who don’t need the moral support of their co-workers in nearby cubicles or the indirect pressure of a supervisor peering over their shoulder. These individuals understand that a team works best when everyone is contributing to the group’s direction and goals and not just passively lining up behind the team leader.

And make no mistake, successful distributed workforces still need leaders below the strategic planners up on deck. First level managers, team leaders and supervisors are even more critical in this bright new world. Along with their traditional roles, they take over many of the responsibilities previously handled by conventional middle managers with upper management doing the same from the top-down. All this merging and flattening encourages communication channels to grow wide and full-duplex, allowing well-architected virtual companies to adapt quickly to rapidly changing modern marketplaces even when their teams are literally spread between Alaska and Zimbabwe.

So if talented work from home middle managers are as rare as unicorns, you may ask where those new hybrid replacements come from. Aren’t they just as rare?

A few are adaptable middle managers who have seen the light of burning home fires from their office windows and stumbled for the exit. Their new titles may not hold the same prestige but they see the benefits of a work from home lifestyle and accept any trade-offs. But, the majority grow out of the fertile, cohesive groups of remote developers, analysts and specialists who inhabit this brave new business world. Already adapted to the challenges of distributed workforces, they feel the pull of a leadership vacuum within their current virtual company or easily find management positions with companies who know how to spot remote talent.

The most adaptable companies that allow employees to work from home establish an organizational culture that encourages resourcefulness and responsibility at all levels. Positive remote company culture doesn’t just happen, but those that get the mix right see solutions to the management problem emerge organically. They have learned that staying ahead of the competition means not waiting around for unicorns.

Author bio: Gregory Sherrow is a VP at a successful virtual company with a 100% internationally distributed workforce, author and advisor to work from home individuals, remote managers, executives and entrepreneurs. You can read more from Gregory and other Work From Home experts at