Many companies and universities have asked their employees to work remotely in response to the uncertainties presented by Covid-19. While nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce already works from home at least part of the time, the new policies force many employees — and their managers — to work away from the office for the first time.
Although it is always preferable to establish clear remote-work policies and training in advance, this level of preparation may not be possible in times of crisis or other rapidly changing circumstances. Fortunately, there are specific, research-based steps that managers can take without much effort to improve remote employee engagement and productivity, even when there is little time to prepare.
Common Difficulties of Remote Work
To begin, managers must understand the factors that can make remote work especially difficult. Otherwise, high-performing employees may see a drop in job performance and engagement when they begin working remotely, especially if no preparation or training is provided. The following are some of the difficulties associated with remote work:
Inadequate face-to-face supervision
Managers and employees alike frequently express concern about the lack of face-to-face interaction. Supervisors are concerned that their employees will not work as hard or as efficiently (though research indicates otherwise, at least for some types of jobs). Many employees, on the other hand, face difficulties due to limited access to managerial support and communication. Employees may believe that remote managers are out of touch with their needs and, as a result, are neither supportive nor helpful in getting their work done.
Lack of information
Newly remote workers are frequently surprised by the additional time and effort required to locate information from coworkers. Even getting answers to seemingly simple questions can feel like a major challenge for a worker based at home.
This phenomenon extends beyond task-related work to interpersonal conflicts that can arise between remote coworkers. According to research, a lack of “mutual knowledge” among remote workers leads to a lower willingness to give coworkers the benefit of the doubt in difficult situations. For example, if you know your coworker is having a bad day, you will interpret a brusque email from them as a natural result of their stress. However, if you receive this email from a remote coworker and have no understanding of their current circumstances, you are more likely to take offense, or at the very least to question your coworker’s professionalism.
One of the most common complaints about remote work is loneliness, with employees missing out on the informal social interaction of an office setting. Extraverts are thought to suffer from isolation more in the short term, especially if they do not have opportunities to connect with others in their remote-work environment. Isolation, on the other hand, can cause any employee to feel less “belonging” to their organization over time, and can even result in an increased intention to leave the company.
Distractions at home
We frequently see photos of remote work that depict a parent holding a child and typing on a laptop, often while sitting on a sofa or the living-room floor. In fact, this is a poor depiction of effective virtual work. Before allowing remote workers to work, we typically advise employers to ensure that they have a dedicated workspace as well as adequate childcare. However, in the case of a sudden shift to virtual work, employees are much more likely to be dealing with suboptimal workspaces and (in the case of school and daycare closures) unexpected parenting responsibilities. Even under normal circumstances, family and home demands can interfere with remote work; managers should anticipate that these distractions will be greater during this unplanned work-from-home transition.
How Managers Can Help Remote Workers
As difficult as remote work can be, there are some relatively simple and inexpensive things that managers can do to ease the transition. Actions you can take right now include:
Establish regular daily check-ins: Many successful remote managers schedule a daily conference call with their remote employees. If your employees work independently from one another, this could take the form of a series of one-on-one calls, or team calls if their work is highly collaborative. The important aspect is that the calls are consistent and predictable and that they serve as a forum in which employees know they can consult with you and that their concerns and questions will be addressed.
Provide a variety of communication technology options
Email is insufficient on its own. Remote workers benefit from “richer” technology, such as video conferencing, which provides participants with many of the visual cues they would have if they were face-to-face. Video conferencing has numerous advantages, particularly for small groups: Visual cues allow for greater “mutual knowledge” about coworkers and also aid in reducing team isolation. Video is also more personal than written or audio-only communication, making it ideal for complex or sensitive conversations.
There are times when the speed of collaboration is more important than visual detail. Provide mobile-enabled individual messaging functionality (such as Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.) for these situations, which can be used for simpler, less formal conversations as well as time-sensitive communication.
If your company does not already have technology tools in place, there are low-cost ways to obtain simple versions of these tools for your team as a temporary fix. Before using any of these tools, check with your organization’s IT department to ensure adequate data security.
Then establish “rules of engagement”
Remote work becomes more efficient and satisfying when managers set expectations for their teams’ communication frequency, means, and optimal timing. “We use videoconferencing for daily check-in meetings, but we use instant messaging when something is urgent,” for example. Also, if possible, let your employees know the best way and time to reach you during the workday (e.g., “I’m more available late in the day for ad hoc phone or video conversations, but if there’s an emergency earlier in the day, send me a text.” Finally, keep an eye on team member communication (to the extent appropriate) to ensure that they are sharing information as needed.
Managers should establish these “rules of engagement” with employees as soon as possible, ideally during the first online check-in meeting. While some choices regarding specific expectations may be preferable to others, the most important factor is that all employees share the same set of communication expectations.
Allow for remote social interaction
One of the most important steps a manager can take is to structure ways for employees to interact socially (that is, have informal conversations about non-work topics) while working remotely. This is true for all remote workers, but especially for those who have been abruptly removed from the office.
The simplest way to establish some basic social interaction is to set aside some time at the start of team calls for non-work items (e.g., “We’re going to spend the first few minutes just catching up with each other. “How did your weekend go?”). Other options include virtual pizza parties (in which pizza is delivered to all team members during a videoconference) and virtual office parties (in which party “care packages” can be sent ahead of time to be opened and enjoyed concurrently). While these types of events may appear artificial or forced, experienced managers of remote workers (as well as the workers themselves) report that they help reduce feelings of isolation and promote a sense of belonging.
Encouragement and emotional support
It is critical for managers to acknowledge stress, listen to employees’ anxieties and concerns, and empathize with their struggles, especially in the context of a sudden shift to remote work. Ask a new remote employee how they’re doing if they’re clearly struggling but aren’t expressing stress or anxiety. Even a broad question like, “How is this remote work situation working out for you so far?” can elicit important information that you might not have heard otherwise. Once you’ve asked the question, be sure to carefully listen to the employee’s response and briefly restate it back to them to ensure you’ve understood correctly. Allow the employee’s stress or concerns (rather than your own) to be the focal point of this discussion.
Employees look to their managers for cues on how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations, according to research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion. When a manager communicates stress and helplessness, it has a “trickle-down” effect on employees, according to Daniel Goleman. Effective leaders take a two-pronged approach, acknowledging the stress and anxiety that employees may experience in difficult circumstances while also affirming their confidence in their teams with phrases like “we’ve got this,” “this is tough, but I know we can handle it,” or “let’s look for ways to use our strengths during this time.” Employees are more likely to take on the challenge with a sense of purpose and focus if they receive this support.
We’ll add our own words of encouragement to managers who are embarking on their first foray into remote work: you’ve got this. Let us know in the comments if you have any tips for managing remote employees.