Managing remote employees is hardly a new concept. In fact, the shift to working from home was well underway - and trending upward - long before anyone had even heard of COVID-19. Between 2005 and 2018, the number of "regular work-from-home" employees increased by a whopping 173 percent,1 with 15 percent of "wage and salary workers" working exclusively from home during 2017 - 2018.2 When the pandemic struck, many businesses that were able to have their employees work from home did so, and by June 2020 "42 percent of the U.S. labor force . . . [was] working from home full time."3
At first, everyone thought these arrangements would be temporary. As the weeks dragged onto months, however, it became clear that the pandemic wasn't going to end any time soon. Companies settled in for a long run of working from home. Several tech companies (such as Google and Microsoft) announced that their workers could work from home indefinitely, for example. And some companies went as far as getting rid of their centralized office spaces completely (with the plan to rent large meeting spaces for semiannual meetings, trainings, etc., when it's once again safe for large groups to congregate).
Working from home is part of the new reality of the business world. Opinions vary as to how significant it will be, but Global Workplace Analytics offers one prediction that seems pretty par for the course: "Our best estimate is that we will see 25 to 30 percent of the workforce working at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021."4
Whatever the future brings, working from home will definitely be around for a long time to come - and business leaders need to be prepared to deal with it.
TIP #1: Shore up communication channels and processes.
Communication challenges were difficult even when everyone was co-located in an office, but managing remote employees has only increased the need for immediate improvements. Twenty percent of the more than 3,500 respondents in one recent survey cited "communication and collaboration" as the most significant challenges they faced as remote workers.5 To help mitigate those issues, make team members' calendars visible to each other, require them to set their status as "away" when they aren't at their desks, and set a minimum time (such as 24 hours) to respond to e-mail.
When establishing best practices for team communications, set expectations for which channels should be used for which purposes. For example, some formats are especially well suited for certain types of interactions:
- Zoom: meetings, brainstorming sessions, one-on-one check-ins, performance reviews
- Google Docs: project-related questions, status updates, comments on documents or projects in progress
- Text: time-sensitive questions that can be quickly answered with yes/no responses
- IM: casual conversations, time-sensitive requests
- E-mail: team-wide announcements, larger project-related updates that require input from others (and are typically not very time-sensitive)
To help keep communication flowing, commit to regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with each team member and team-wide meetings, as well as "office hours" during which employees can "drop by" to ask quick questions.
TIP #2: Each week, clarify goals and roles for all employees.
It will be a while before things get back to anything close to "business as usual," so leaders must shore up their skills at managing remote employees. That uncertainty makes it harder to find information and get quick answers - difficulties that are only enhanced by the lack of a decentralized workplace as everyone works from home. Now it's more important than ever to be sure that all employees knows exactly what's on their plates and what their priorities are.
- Create a list of team projects to keep, accelerate, disband, or start - whatever is needed to meet the company's new priorities.
- When everyone's in the office together, managers can get away with being a bit "relaxed" about setting goals (assigning one while walking past an employee's desk, for example). But because remote work makes such casual, ad hoc interactions pretty much impossible, managers need to be much more deliberate when discussing roles, responsibilities, and objectives.
- When setting expectations, a conference call (rather than e-mail or other nonshared or asynchronous format) with employees makes it easier to discuss them in detail "live" and respond immediately to any questions.
- When identifying and assessing goals, use a shorter timespan than usual. Instead of monthly, quarterly, and yearly performance goals, for example, think in terms of this week, next week and this month, with long-term planning going only as far as the end of each month or maybe each quarter.
- With all that's going on right now, employees are just too distracted to think very far ahead. Help employees focus by having weekly discussions with them about their goals and management's expectations.
TIP #3: Develop employees.
As remote workers who've barely left their homes in months thanks to widespread travel restrictions and with limits on social gatherings still in place in most of the country, many employees may be feeling "stuck": physically, mentally, and professionally. Give them something to look forward to by offering a vision of a brighter future and opportunities to continue to learn and grow. Develop employees through feedback and coaching, for example. Help them find mentors. Encourage them to pursue upskilling and reskilling opportunities. Managing employees (remote or onsite) includes engaging in their future growth.
TIP #4: Emphasize teamwork.
Many of today's employees experience loneliness, with 20 percent of respondents to one survey citing it as their "biggest struggle with working remotely."6 Small wonder: it's much harder for people to connect with each other when they're separated by computer screens than when they occupy a shared, physical office space.
A manager must lead team members not only when they are fulfilling their work duties also when they are human beings struggling to get through this difficult time. Effective leadership includes reminding employees that everyone is in this together by coming up with creative ways - such as virtual lunch dates, exercise time, or Friday happy hours (BYOB, of course!) - to help them build connections with each other (and with management). Create the virtual equivalent of a casual conversation by the water cooler by keeping meetings open for ten minutes after the "official" part ends to give people time to chitchat and socialize a bit. Encourage team members to learn a new skill together - something work-related, perhaps, or even a new hobby.
TIP #5: Watch for employee burnout.
Many companies long opposed allowing widespread remote work because they assumed that "while the cat's away, the mice will play." When the pandemic forced them to send their employees home, though, organizations found an almost negligible decrease in production.7 (That's especially impressive given the many non - work-related stressors employees have also had to deal with during this crisis: fear of exposure to the coronavirus, having young children at home because the schools and daycares closed, being unable to see friends and family, etc.)
Even when they aren't in the middle of a pandemic, though, remote workers tend to have higher levels of work-related anxiety than office-based workers.8 Rather than let "out of sight, out of mind" shape their interactions with team members, managers should check in with employees regularly to see how they're managing while unable to connect with colleagues in the office. Set realistic expectations, based on where employees are in their personal lives, for when projects need to be completed or for how many hours each work day they need to be online. Encourage employees to take short breaks and real lunch breaks (not "working lunches"), to step away from their work during evenings and weekends, and to use their paid time off when they need to (even if they can't travel to anywhere at the moment).
TIP #6: Take care of the mangers, too.
Unwell leaders will struggle to be good bosses to their employees. Managers need to remember that they, too, are remote workers, and that they and their employees are likely facing similar challenges. Encourage managers to cultivate practices that help them combat the negative effects of remote work in general (such as isolation from colleagues) and the negative effects of remote work during this pandemic (such as isolation from nearly everything and everyone). For example, good sleep, good exercise, and healthy diets can provide great benefits to both physical and mental health, as does connecting regularly with friends and family. Managers should support their teams, but also set boundaries for their interactions with them. (After all, at the end of the day the manager is still the boss.)
No one knows when (or even if) the business world will be able to resurrect the pre-pandemic workplace. One thing is very clear, though: working from home isn't a sprint that will end as soon as the pandemic subsides but a marathon (possibly even an ultramarathon!). Managers need to be prepared to lead their remote employees in this new, decentralized, virtual workspace.
1 Global Workplace Analytics. 2020. "Latest Work-At-Home/Telecommuting/Mobile Work/Remote Work Statistics." March 13, globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics.
2 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2019. "Job Flexibilities and Work Schedules News Release." September 24, www.bls.gov/news.release/flex2.htm.
3 Nicholas Bloom. 2020. "How Working from Home Works Out." Stanford University Institute for Economic Policy Research website, June, siepr.stanford.edu/research/publications/how-working-home-works-out.
4 4 Global Workplace Analytics. 2020. "Work-At-Home After Covid-19 - Our Forecast." globalworkplaceanalytics.com/work-at-home-after-covid-19-our-forecast.
5 5 Buffer. 2020. "The 2020 State of Remote Work." lp.buffer.com/state-of-remote-work-2020.
7 Vala Afshar. 2020. "Working from Home: Average Productivity Loss of Remote Work Is 1%." ZDNet, May 11, www.zdnet.com/article/the-average-productivity-loss-of-remote-work-is-1.
8 Paige Smith. 2020. "Working From Home Might Take A Toll On Your Mental Health." Huffington Post, March 10, www.huffpost.com/entry/working-from-home-mental-health_n_5afd88e2e4b0a59b4e014602.
Valerie M. Grubb of Val Grubb & Associates Ltd. (www.valgrubbandassociates.com) is an innovative and visionary operations leader with an exceptional ability to zero in on the systems, processes, and personnel issues that can hamper a company's growth. Grubb regularly consults for mid-range companies wishing to expand and larger companies seeking efficiencies in back-office operations. She is the author of Planes, Canes, and Automobiles: Connecting with Your Aging Parents through Travel (Greenleaf, 2015) and Clash of the Generations: Managing the New Workplace Reality (Wiley, 2016). She can be reached at email@example.com.