Managing Your New Remote Workforce

The good news is that a quarter of the workforce is already working from home—at least part of the time—so there is a body of experience and research to draw on.

April 7, 2020

All of the sudden, your employees are working from home—how do you manage them? The Harvard Business Review published a timely series of articles meant to help us all navigate the virtual workspace. Here are the highlights.

The good news is that a quarter of the workforce is already working from home—at least part of the time—so there is a body of experience and research to draw on.

Here are some common challenges and solutions provided by Larson et al in A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers:

Challenge No. 1: Absence of face-to-face communication—Managers fear that employees will not be as productive without in-person supervision; and employees worry that they will not have adequate access to leadership support.

Solution: Daily structured check-ins—Schedule daily one-on-ones or group calls. The operative characteristics of these calls are that they are regular and ensure that employees concerns will be heard.

Challenge No. 2: Access to information: Newly remote workers are often surprised by the effort it takes to get information from co-workers. The lack of mutual knowledge among remote workers has a detrimental effect on a remote worker’s willingness to give a co-worker the benefit of the doubt in, for instance, a case of an abrupt email or text.

Solution: Provide a variety of communication options—Email alone will not suffice. Video conferencing is a good option for small groups, particularly with sensitive issues; mobile-enabled messaging is good when quick collaboration is required.  Check with IT to ensure the appropriate level of data security.

Establish rules of engagement to ensure so that your team understands, for instance, that text is best for urgent matters. Keep an eye on team communication to ensure that they are sharing information as needed.

Challenge No. 3: Social isolation—Some people experience a greater sense of isolation than others, but there is the very real risk over time that remote workers feel less of a sense of belonging and are more likely to leave the company.

Solution: Create opportunities for remote social interaction—one of the most essential steps a manager should take is to find ways for team members to interact socially while working remotely—particularly workers who have been suddenly transitioned to working at home. Virtual pizza parties (in which pizza is delivered simultaneously to the homes of each worker) or social hours in which everyone opens a “care package” previously sent to the home are believed by experienced managers to be very helpful.

Challenge No. 4: Home-based distractions: Children at home—particularly with all of the school closures—will be an even greater distraction during unplanned work-at-home episodes.

Solution: Check in with employees, especially those who seem to be struggling with remote work. Ask how they are handling the challenge, listen, and repeat back to them what you heard. Emotional contagion in crisis situations is real, and employees look to managers for cues. If managers provide affirmation of their team’s ability to handle a difficult situation, employees are more likely to take up the challenge.

Great Virtual Meetings

Chances are, you’ll be holding more virtual meetings than usual.  Rather than providing an opportunity to multi-task, take these steps to elevate your virtual meeting outlined in a different HBR article:

  1. Turn on the video. Everyone would rather not, but it helps with engagement.
  2. Provide an audio dial-in. Dial-in audio is insurance to maintain internet connection—not all connections will be robust.
  3. Test technology in advance (15 minutes prior).  Important for teams new to remote work.
  4. Stick to basics. Have an agenda, take breaks, outline next steps.
  5. Minimize presentation length—background information should be provided in advance.
  6. Use an icebreaker to reinforce interpersonal relations.  In the current environment, a virus check-in would be appropriate so that you are aware of anyone with a family member or friend who is directly affected.
  7. Assign a facilitator. Everyone should have an opportunity to weigh in—call on attendees—and capture real-time feedback, either informally or using a web-poll tool.
  8. Don’t avoid the tough issues. Don't wait until you are in person—a delicate or controversial issue can turn into a problem.

Creating a Communication Team

Communicate early and often with your key constituents—including employees, customers, shareholders, and communities—in a crisis: That is the advice of Paul Argenti, author of “Communicating Through the Coronavirus Crisis,” in HBR, advice that has been reinforced by health-care teams on the front lines of the pandemic. Argenti recommends creating Communications Crisis Team of 5 to 7 persons to:

  • Meet regularly and monitor the situation as it evolves.
  • Be the main source of communication about the crisis.
  • Be as transparent as possible by explaining what you know, what you don’t, and share your sources.
  • Be succinct.

Remember that employees are your most important constituents and will serve as your ambassadors to the community. Demystify the situation as much as possible, Argenti advises, put minds at ease, and provide hope for the future.

Communicate regularly with your customers and focus on what is important. Provide relief where possible, and focus on empathy rather than selling.

Reassure your shareholders and use the opportunity to focus on long-term fundamentals and what you are doing to solve the problem.

Finally, Argenti emphasizes that what happens in organizations around the coronavirus affects communities. Take any opportunity to provide information to the local press to help calm the community while enhancing your credibility. Provide transparency about what is happening within your organization.

Acknowledging that in the current crisis leaders will be communicating without complete information, he recommended communicating from a place of empathy rather than the fear of doing the wrong thing. Share as much sensitive information as possible, and correct mistakes as needed.

You can access the articles summarized here as well as articles on many other aspects of managing during the current crisis in a special section on the HBR web site. 


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