8 Ways to Manage Difficult Bosses While Working Remotely

Take proactive steps to gain control.

Posted Aug 29, 2020

If your boss is difficult in the brick-and-mortar world, it’s a challenge. When your boss is a tyrant in the new “digital normal” triggered by COVID-19, issues can magnify — unless you take proactive steps to make your work life more manageable.

Travelerpix/Shutterstock
Source: Travelerpix/Shutterstock

There are clearly many advantages of working remotely. And this trend is not going away in corporate America — although current levels are expected to decrease in the coming months and year as the pandemic hopefully subsides. The good news is you can manage a challenging boss, even in a more virtual venue.

First, let’s look at what’s contributing to this new dilemma you may face during COVID-19 when working from home:

1. Neither you nor your boss has the luxury of ongoing in-person interaction.

2. There’s a greater reliance on emails and texts (and the phone), all of which can contribute to greater misinterpretation and communications barriers. 

3. Zoom meetings further blur the line between work and home, with no escape — putting the concept of being digitally tethered to work on steroids. Having your boss and colleagues encroach on your personal space can be daunting when things don’t go well.

4. Difficult bosses may feel they have more latitude to be less civil than when no colleagues are in sight during a Zoom call. The more detached venue can embolden Zoom Bullies or bully bosses to be even less sensitive in their communications.  

5. Bad bosses may play on employee job insecurity during COVID-19, using a more authoritarian tone in digital venues. Fear can be exaggerated when there’s a heavy reliance on impersonal communication, especially during higher unemployment periods.

6. Being isolated from other coworkers limits your ability to commiserate and get consensus on your boss’s behavior — you’re in a bubble.

7. The stress caused by COVID-19 can exacerbate any difficult relationship. There are many concerns in one's personal life alone about the virus and its impact, which can spill into work.

Tips to Consider

Employers and employees alike are seeing the benefits of working remotely. But if your work life has become more of a struggle due to a tough boss in this new environment, it’s time to take action. Consider these steps:

1. Make office visits. Explore the concept of establishing regular, socially distanced meetings. Determine what works best for you, your boss, and team members. If you can’t go into the office, consider meeting at another convenient location. This interaction will also help build camaraderie and keep your motivation intact.

2. Set boundaries. Difficult bosses will often push your limits, but only as far as you let them. They may expect you to be tethered to the office — or concerned you’re slacking off when working from home. Sometimes you must say “No.” If you’re reasonable and offer workarounds, you should get understanding and cooperation.

While you don’t want to abuse your offsite working arrangement, it’s acceptable to take time off at your lunch hour and for breaks. Some of your working hours may be outside the normal 9-to-5 routine, anyway. If you’re delivering results, you should be granted more flexibility.

Your manager may try to reach you around dinnertime, which is okay on occasion, but not on a regular basis. Explain that you have other commitments, but would be happy to get back to them the next morning, for example.

3. Over-communicate. One proven way to engender trust and avoid conflict given this new work paradigm is to communicate proactively and frequently. Take the initiative in reaching out to your manager. Be the one who suggests Zoom and conference calls.

Document your activities and accomplishments regularly, to the point where the boss doesn’t feel the need to check on you. The squeaky wheel is important — as bosses are mere mortals, not mind readers, so keep them informed. For intrusive, distrustful bosses, over-communicating will typically take the wind out of their sails. Proactive communications will put you in greater control and may even lead you to love your job, pandemic or not!

4. Use appropriate communications tools. During COVID-19 especially, where there is little face-to-face contact, limit the amount of texting you do with your manager. Especially to the extent that the topic may be considered sensitive, as these messages can easily be misconstrued.

For touchy subjects, an email, if not a phone call, is a much better choice than texting or relying on a messaging app, where you have less time to be thoughtful about the content. This requires more work than sending constant texts, but if you organize your thoughts, you’ll have better overall results. They're easier to refer, to as well. Misunderstandings are often the crux of many conflicts. Make sure you’re not contributing to a bad situation.

5. Manage up. If your boss goes into a bullying or teasing mode on Zoom, this can poison your sacred home environment. Don’t fight fire with fire, as that will only encourage bad behavior. By modeling a professional demeanor, you will help indirectly project needed negative reinforcement. With this kind of manager, not getting a reaction out of you will discourage inappropriate communications, just as it would with a Terrible Two toddler.

Make sure you remain calm, and if need be, try to “jam the system” by saying you need to take care of something and will reschedule the meeting.

One benefit of working via Zoom or any other video conference tool is that people realize that working from your home means you may have unexpected issues to attend to. You can use that as an occasional escape hatch to diffuse an argument until things settle down — especially when you have a loose communications arrangement.

6. Separate your work and personal life. If you have telecommuted before or have a habit of allowing work to infiltrate your personal life, you know the value of keeping the two separate. This is not just true psychologically, but physically as well.

To tamp down the personal intensity of conflicts with your boss or colleagues, make sure your Zoom set up is out of sight from your “safety zones,” such as your bedroom or TV area. You want to avoid looking at your work set-up when you are about to get your valued sleep or relax.

Even if you have to sit outside or create a somewhat isolated corner in your family room, it’s worth disassociating the two.

7. Pay attention to timing and your set up. Before you agree to the day and time of your Zoom call, make sure it works with your other commitments. Leave extra time to prepare ... and ensure that others in your household (including your pets!) will not need supervision. Minimize all possible distractions.

Also, make sure your work set up is quiet and conducive to concentration. If the leaf blower in the neighborhood goes off by your window Tuesdays at 3 p.m., arrange your meetings accordingly.

This will mitigate any added stress or embarrassing commentary when you’re already coping with a potentially contentious interaction. 

8. Visuals matter. During Zoom calls, your boss and team members don’t have the benefit of your entire presentation. They’re seeing you basically from the waist up and your gestures may even be cut off by the screen. All the more reason to put your best foot forward. Casual dress is fine; just make sure you look neat, professional, and organized.

Lighting is important and you want to adjust the height of the camera to your line of sight, as best you can.

Also take notice of your background. There are different backdrops to choose from on Zoom, which will help separate your work and personal world … and limit intrusive comments from your colleagues.

It's important to realize that things won't always go perfectly as everyone adjusts to the new normal. Give yourself some slack.

Of course, if you’re dealing with an intolerable toxic boss, not just episodic bad behavior — you should always be mindful of the toll it’s taking on you. No job is worth ruining your life; sometimes greener job pastures are worth exploring.

As virtual meetings take center stage in our new work lives, you can proactively counter behavior you want to change — and leverage this opportunity to work for you.