How to Manage People…. Remotely
The COVID-19 crisis is forcing many companies into an experiment with work from home (WFH) options for their staff. Figures from the US (Gallop) indicate that before this crisis, 43% of employees work from home, but on average just 2 days per month. Just 3.8% work from home at least half the work week, a figure that has tripled since 2006.
The experience companies have with this crisis-driven WFH experiment will probably help or hinder the cause of those who want such flexibility more often in the future. One of the keys to making work from home options work well for companies is how managers manage their remote employees.
Out of sight does mean out of mind
Some employees say they are more productive from home because they must give regular signals that they are working more often during a day. Whereas just being at work sitting at a desk indicates to old school managers that an employee is working. Such ‘working’ can involve hiding unproductively, which can often be done more easily in plain sight in the workplace than at home.
Managers and small business owners fear the loss of control that comes when an employee is not present in the workplace. WFH requires greater trust between employee and manager. That trust can be facilitated by clear work agreements, daily check-ins, regular communication and using a workflow management tool like Asana or Trello to help everyone know when work is likely to be completed. WFH requires everyone to be a bit more organised at least about the work expected this week, and the priorities for each day.
Remote team management issues:
WFH requires managers and employees to focus on outcomes rather than process. The important thing is that the work is done well by the deadline that is in place. It is not so important if the employee worked from 9:00am to 5:00pm. In fact if the work is done, and the employee was able to take extra time to look after their sick family member, or to run to the shops before the end of day rush, or to pick up children from school, it works much better for integrating work with other important roles in life. The important thing is that expectations for work deadlines, and billable hours must be clear and shared.
The best way to make sure this all works is to have purposeful daily check-ins between manager and employee. This enables clear shared expectations.
Regular team meetings via video conference call once or twice a week helps everyone feel included. Extroverts usually struggle more with WFH isolation. It is important that they have the connection and some of the benefits of the face2face team environment. Managers need to learn to run these video team meetings well to ensure inclusion. They need to make sure they include quieter members and give everyone a chance to speak and state their concerns and present their viewpoints.
Conference calls are often an issue due to technology issues and background noise from children, pets or a partner working at home in the same space. Some are concerned how they look online because they may not be as well dressed or have their hair done at home.
Making team meetings fun is important. If some people are online and others present in person, it takes a bit of ingenuity to make this work. One company made everyone wear a hat at their online meetings to cover bad hair, but also as an opportunity to express personality. Everyone won.
Next level leadership in uncertain times
Sarah Liu, Founder and MD of The Dream Collective was quoted in HRDaily.com.au (19/3/20), “In periods of uncertainty, like those we are currently witnessing, employees will look to employers for leadership, certainty, empathy and compassion”. In virtual meetings of remote workers, for example, it is up to leaders to set the tone of inclusivity.
“When leading a meeting on a virtual call, employers must remember to acknowledge everyone who is in attendance and lay the new ground rules for these calls moving forward,” Liu says. “Ongoing, employers need to encourage inclusion by inviting dissent – asking ‘who doesn’t agree?’ during calls, waiting 10 seconds for people to respond after asking a question, and consciously engaging more quiet or reserved people by asking them for input in meetings.”
Meanwhile leaders shouldn’t assume that if new working arrangements are not an issue for them, that it’s the same for their reports or colleagues, and “they must role model empathy, certainty, decisiveness and unity”, Liu says.
“In light of this, leaders must check in frequently with their team and ask whether this situation is affecting them,” Liu says. “Does your business provide the in-person support and infrastructure they may need to do their job well?
In 6 months
This ‘experiment’ with WFH appears that it will probably extend long enough for companies to have to iron out the kinks in the systems they introduce. Eventually this crisis will be over, and people will go back to offices. Probably, remote work will then be a tool in the toolbox that companies are less afraid to use.
A lot of things are going to change over the next 3 – 6 months. Many are going to be forced upon us. Companies that positively learn how to make working remotely work well are more likely to come through this crisis with their business and team intact.