A Guide to Manage Your New Remote Workers
In response to Covid-19’s uncertainties, many companies and universities have asked their employees to work remotely. While nearly a quarter of the US workforce already works from home at least some of the time, the new guidelines leave many employees — and their managers — working outside the office and separately for the first time.
While it is always better to establish clear remote work policies and training in advance, in times of crisis or other rapidly changing circumstances, this level of preparation may not be feasible. Fortunately, there are specific, research-based steps managers can take, without much effort, to improve the engagement and productivity of remote workers, even when there is little time to prepare.
Common challenges of remote work
First, managers need to understand the factors that can make remote work particularly challenging. Otherwise, high-performing employees may experience a decline in job performance and engagement when they start working remotely, especially if there is no preparation and training. Challenges associated with remote working include.
Lack of personal attention: both supervisors and their employees often express concerns about the lack of personal contact. Supervisors worry that employees will not work as hard or efficiently (although research shows the opposite, at least for some types of jobs). In turn, many employees struggle with limited access to support and communication from supervisors. In some cases, employees feel that remote managers are not responsive to their needs and thus are neither supportive nor helpful in getting their work done.
Lack of access to information: New remote employees are often surprised by the extra time and effort required to get information from colleagues. Even answering seemingly simple questions can feel like a major obstacle for an employee working at home.
This phenomenon extends not only to task-related work, but also to the interpersonal challenges that can arise among remote workers. Research has found that a lack of “mutual knowledge” among remote workers leads to a reduced willingness to give colleagues the benefit of the doubt in difficult situations. For example, if you know your office colleague is having a tough day, you will view a brusque email from them as a natural product of their stress. However, if you receive this email from a distant co-worker whose current situation you do not know, you will be more likely to be offended or at least think poorly of your co-worker’s professionalism.
Social isolation: Loneliness is one of the most common complaints about remote working, as employees miss the informal social interaction of an office environment. Extraverts are thought to suffer more from isolation in the short term, especially if they don’t have opportunities to connect with others in their remote work environment. However, over a longer period of time, isolation can make an employee feel less ‘belonging’ to their company and may even lead to an increased intention to leave.
Distractions at home: we often see photos depicting remote work with a parent holding a child and typing on a laptop, often sitting on a sofa or the living room floor. In fact, this is a terrible representation of effective virtual work. Normally, we encourage employers to ensure that their remote workers have both a dedicated workspace and adequate childcare before allowing them to work remotely. However, in a sudden transition to virtual work, employees are much more likely to be faced with sub-optimal workplaces and (in the case of school and daycare closures) unexpected parental responsibilities. Even under normal circumstances, family and domestic demands can impact on remote working; managers should expect these distractions to be greater in this unplanned transition to working from home.
How managers can support remote workers
As much as remote work can be fraught with challenges, there are also relatively quick and inexpensive things managers can do to ease the transition.
Actions you can take today include:
Establish structured daily check-ins: many successful remote managers establish a daily conversation with their remote workers. This can take the form of a series of one-on-one calls if your employees tend to work independently, or team calls if their work is highly collaborative. It is important that the calls are regular and predictable, and that they provide a forum where staff know they can consult with you and that their concerns and questions will be heard.
Provide several different communication technologies: Email alone is not enough. Remote workers benefit from ‘richer’ technology, such as video conferencing, which gives participants many of the visual cues they would have if they were sitting face-to-face. Video conferencing has many advantages, especially for smaller groups: Visual cues allow staff to “get to know each other” better and help reduce feelings of isolation within the team. Video is also particularly useful for complex or sensitive conversations, as it feels more personal than written or audio-only communication.
There are other circumstances where quick collaboration is more important than visual detail. For these situations, provide mobile-enabled custom messaging (such as Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.) that can be used for simpler, less formal conversations as well as time-sensitive communications.
If your organisation does not have technology tools already in place, there are cost-effective ways to get simple versions of these tools for your team as a short-term solution. Consult your company’s IT department to ensure that there is an appropriate level of data security before using any of these tools.
And then set ‘rules of engagement’: remote working becomes more efficient and satisfying when managers set expectations for the frequency, means and ideal timing of communication for their teams. For example, “We use video conferencing for daily check-in meetings, but we use IM when something is urgent.” If possible, you should also let your staff know how and when they can best reach you during the workday (for example, “I tend to be available late in the day for ad hoc phone or video calls, but if there’s an emergency, text me earlier in the day.”) Finally, keep track of communication between team members (as appropriate) to ensure they share information as needed.
We recommend that managers establish these “rules of engagement” with staff as early as possible, ideally during the first online check-in meeting. While some decisions about specific expectations are better than others, the most important factor is that all employees have the same expectations for communication.
Provide opportunities for remote social interaction: One of the most important steps a manager can take is to provide opportunities for employees to interact socially (i.e. have informal conversations about non-work related topics) while working remotely. This applies to all remote employees, but especially to employees who have been abruptly removed from the office.
The easiest way to establish basic social interaction is to set aside some time at the beginning of team calls for non-work related topics (e.g.: “We will spend the first few minutes catching up. How was your weekend?”). Other options include virtual pizza parties (where a pizza is delivered to all team members at the time of a video conference) or virtual office parties (where party “care packages” can be sent in advance to be opened and enjoyed at the same time). Although these types of events may sound artificial or forced, experienced managers of remote employees (and employees themselves) report that virtual events help reduce feelings of isolation and foster a sense of belonging.
Offer encouragement and emotional support: Especially in the context of an abrupt transition to telecommuting, it is important for managers to acknowledge the stress, listen to employees’ fears and concerns, and empathise with their struggles. If a new remote worker is obviously struggling but doesn’t communicate stress or anxiety, ask them how they are doing. Even a general question like “How is the work situation working for you so far?” can elicit important information you might not otherwise hear. Once you have asked the question, listen carefully to the answer and briefly repeat it back to the employee to make sure you have understood it correctly. Make the employee’s stress or concerns (and not your own) the focus of this conversation.
Research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion shows that employees look to their managers for cues on how to respond to sudden changes or crisis situations. When a manager communicates stress and helplessness, it has what Daniel Goleman calls a “trickle-down” effect on employees. Effective leaders take a two-pronged approach, on the one hand acknowledging the stress and anxiety employees feel in difficult situations, but on the other hand affirming their confidence in their teams by using phrases like “we can do this” or “this is hard, but I know we can do this” or “let’s look for ways to use our strengths at this time”. With this support, staff are more likely to approach the challenge with a sense of purpose and focus.
We add our own encouragement for managers facing remote work for the first time: You can do it. Let us know your own tips for managing your remote workers in the comments.
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