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The New Normal: How to Manage a Remote Workforce

The New Normal: How to Manage a Remote Workforce
Posted on Thursday, March 19, 2020 by Marcy Klipfel
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Across the country, people leaders are being asked to brave new territory and manage a remote workforce, something they—and their teams—may never have done before.

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Prior to the pandemic and the associated state of emergency, employees across the country worked remotely with some frequency. According to Owl Labs, 54% of US employees were working remotely at least once a month, with 48% working remotely at least once a week.

However, full-time remote work hasn’t been as common. While more companies have embraced 100% telecommuting by their employees over the last decade, it’s certainly not been the norm. As a result, working remotely and leading remotely may not be in the experience and skill set of many people leaders.

Businessolver relies on a significant remote workforce and many of those employees have years of experience both working and managing outside a physical location. We asked some of them for their perspective on leading remotely. Here’s some of what they shared.

  1. Technology is great, but old-school works too. Having videoconferencing capabilities, instant messaging and online collaboration tools can certainly help you lead a virtual team, but they aren’t an absolute necessity. If you don’t have these tools, don’t fret.

    When people are working from home the organic, spur-of-the-moment interactions that arise in a physical location don’t exist. So, what you need to do is recreate them—using whatever technology you have, even if what’s available to you is only conference calls and email.

    The first order of business is to determine what interactions—both business and social—you need to solve for. Did you have formal weekly team status or project meetings? Was most of your interaction with your team members done spur of the moment? Did you have an open-door policy where people would just drop by?

    All of these types of interactions can be completed virtually, but they will probably feel different. For formal meetings you can use conference calls, Webex or video-conferencing. However, if you just need to talk to someone, pick up the phone or simply schedule a quick meeting. Although scheduling software defaults to 30-minute meetings, there’s nothing wrong—and it can be a time-management best practice—to schedule for less than that. It’s even okay to just put a five-minute meeting on the calendar.

  2. Focus on output, not activity. In a physical location you can see people working, which likely serves as a proof point on their productivity. When employees are remote, you can’t evaluate them on what they’re doing, only what they are accomplishing. So, it’s important to focus your attention as a leader on employees’ output and (gasp) less on their work habits.

Know that people’s productivity may improve considerably over time. It’s also possible some employees may be much more productive right off the bat; others may be less. It takes people a little time to adjust to working remotely, including setting up an appropriate workspace and mitigating distractions.

Remember: This is not like remote work as we knew it. In this pandemic-induced reality, employees can have challenges at home that were easily addressed or non-existent when they telecommuted before. This includes kids home from school for extended periods with no childcare available, a spouse, partner or roommate also vying for the same work-from-home space and even noisy pets to manage with limited places to keep them quiet.

In this environment employees’ work-from-home experience may fall somewhat short of elegant. Try not to judge people on things like occasional background noise or time away from their computer or phone. Instead, lean in on deliverables and any roadblocks to productivity that you can help with.

  1. Be flexible. Again, this isn’t your normal telework. This is something no one was really prepared for, including experienced remote employees. For them it may seem more business-as-usual but with some extraordinary additional challenges.

    That’s why now is the time to be as flexible as possible. Employees’ day-to-day lives have been disrupted with schools on furlough which may make it challenging for them to be productive during the traditional 9 to 5. Some people with kids at home might work best from 6 am to 9 am and then need to be offline for a few hours. It will likely vary by employee and some may need to do the lion’s share of work in the evening.

    If there is the opportunity for flexibility, grant it. Set parameters and expectations by working with each employee to create a plan around when they will be working. Communicate this to everyone so each team member knows when others are available for collaboration. If you have them, use online tools like Teams, Messenger or Slack so people can indicate their status real-time and provide details around accessibility.

  2. Be creative. Experienced managers of remote teams will tell you it’s sometimes difficult to promote culture and engagement virtually. It’s very easy to focus on business and forget fun. But culture is exactly what you need to solve for when everyone is remote.

    Starting the day with a team get-together for even a few minutes can help replace some of the organic interaction that will be lacking when everyone is working from home. Just make sure it isn’t all business and that everyone participates in some way. Encourage people to interact with each other during the day, again tools like Teams or Slack are great for this but good old email also works.

    Another idea is virtual lunches or work sessions. One leader of a totally remote team shared that in a previous life she and her team had a weekly hour when everyone was invited to just be online together, sort of like a virtual open office. People could bring questions for others, eat their lunch or just work in the virtual company of their colleagues. It was a little awkward at first but then it became a staple of everyone’s week.

  3. Enfranchise employees. When employees are remote, their interactions with you and their colleagues are very limited. That’s why it’s vital that your time with your team isn’t just a one-way street where you do lots of telling and no listening.

    In these times of stress and uncertainty it can be easy to focus simply on what you need to say or know about the person’s work. However, make sure to leave space for the employee to contribute to a true dialog. For example, if you do one on one meetings, let the employee lead the conversation around their projects and status. And, make sure you leave a few minutes to ask how the employee is doing and reinforce that you want to do what you can to make sure they are as productive as possible.

As popular as telework has been, until now relatively few employees had been working exclusively from home. As a result, the number of employers fully prepared to support a significant remote workforce has been limited. Managers are generally used to leading in person and may not have peers or mentors to guide them in what has quickly become the new normal.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak created this temporary remote workforce, Businessolver had a high percentage of full-time remote workers and people leaders who successfully kept them engaged and productive. Managing remote employees is different than overseeing people in a physical location, but if you follow some of the tips and insights from our experienced people leaders we hope it may prove less challenging.

If you’re interested in learning more about how ICHRAs can support a changing workforce check out our white paper below. 

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