In response to the global pandemic of the Covid-19 virus and all the uncertainties and risk of exposure that group gatherings present, many companies have asked their employees to work remotely. These new policies have presented different kinds of barriers for both employees and their managers. Being separated for the first time and joining close to a quarter of the U.S. workforce that already works from home, it’s an understatement claiming that adaptation is more crucial now than ever. In these times of crisis and rapidly changing circumstances, it is not always attainable to establish a high level of preparation and training. Fortunately, managers can rely on different studies and take research-based steps to improve the engagement and productivity of their employees working from home, even when there is little time to prepare.
Usual Challenges of Remote Work
In the absence of preparation and proper training, many factors can make managing remote employees especially demanding. Even high-performing employees may experience a decline in performance and lack of engagement. The Challenges most commonly associated with remote work are:
Lack of face-to-face supervision. The absence of face-to-face interaction is a common concern for both managers and their employees. Although research shows the opposite, supervisors often worry that employees will not be as efficient or work as hard from their homes. On the other hand, employees may struggle with reduced access to material support and communication. They may find remote managers out of touch with their needs. In this case, many employees feel a lack of support and a deficit in help for getting the job done.
Difficult access to information. Newly remote workers are often surprised by how much time and effort they need to invest in locating information from coworkers. Even getting answers to what seem like simple questions can feel like an impossible task. This often extends beyond work-related challenges and reaches the sphere of interpersonal relationships. Research shows that a lack of “mutual knowledge” among remote workers can make them unwilling to give the benefit of the doubt to their colleagues. For example, if you know that your colleague is going through some stressful times and is having a bad day, you will see their lack of productivity as a natural product of their stress. However, when it comes to a remote worker, with no understanding of their current circumstances, you may see it as a lack of professionalism, giving way to misguided perceptions about the root causes behind any newly arising issues.
Social isolation. Over a more extended period, the lack of informal social interaction in an office setting can make employees feel lonely, experiencing less belonging to their company, even more so if they do not have opportunities to connect with others in their remote-work environment. Extroverts suffer the most, which in the long run can also result in an increased desire to leave the company.
Distractions at home. Even in normal circumstances, family and home demands can take a toll on remote work. This is why employees must have a dedicated workspace and adequate childcare when starting to work remotely. A parent holding a child and typing on a laptop is not a good representation of practical virtual work. However, in the case of a sudden transition to home-based work, there is a much higher chance that employees will be bound to a suboptimal work environment and unexpected parenting responsibilities.
How To Support Your Remote Employees
As we have already stated, remote work can be filled with many different challenges. This is why it is essential to provide your employees with constant support to ease the transition as much as possible.
Establish structured daily check-ins. Many successful remote managers conduct regular calls with their employees as we do in our Chicago web design agency. Whether it’s a series of one-on-one calls with employees working independently or a team call with those whose work is highly collaborative, the most important thing is that these calls are regular and predictable. They should serve as a way for your employees to consult you and know that their questions and concerns will be heard.
Provide different technology communication options. Email alone can often feel insufficient. Video calls can provide a substitute for face-to-face interaction. This kind of communication gives participants many visual cues that allow for increased mutual knowledge about coworkers and reduces the sense of isolation among teams. Video conferencing feels more personal than written or audio communication and is very useful for complex or sensitive conversations.
In other circumstances, when quick collaboration is more important than visual detail, you can provide mobile-enabled proper messaging functionality, such as Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc. This kind of communication can be used for more straightforward, less formal, or time-sensitive conversations.
Before using any of these tools, you should consult your IT department to make sure there is an appropriate level of data security.
Establish “rules of engagement.” To make remote work more efficient and satisfying, managers need to set expectations for the frequency, means, and ideal timing of communication for their teams. Your employees need to know the best way and time to reach you during the workday. You also need to ensure that your employees are sharing information as required, so keep a moderate eye on communication among team members.
All employees should share the same set of expectations for communication, so we recommend establishing these “rules of engagement” as soon as possible, ideally, during the first online check-in meeting.
Provide opportunities for remote employees to interact socially. This is particularly important for workers who have been suddenly transitioned out of the office. You can leave some time at the beginning of the team calls for your workers to chat about non-work related subjects and simply catch up with each other. You can also show your creativity and organize a virtual pizza party (in which pizza is delivered to all team members at the time of a video conference), or virtual office party. Although these events may sound artificial, they reduce feelings of isolation and promote a sense of belonging.
Offer encouragement and emotional support. A sudden shift from office to remote work can be very stressful. Every good manager should acknowledge that and listen to employees’ anxieties and struggles. A simple “How are you doing today?” type of question can go a long way with an employee who is struggling but withdrawing from communication. Ask them if they are feeling comfortable working from home, and let them know that you are there to help with any concerns that they may have. Let the employee’s stress be the focus of the conversation.
Emotional intelligence and emotional contagion research tell us that employees look to their managers for cues on how to react in case of a sudden change or crisis. According to Daniel Goleman, if a manager shows stress and helplessness, this will create a “trickle-down” effect on employees. Effective leaders should both acknowledge the stress and anxiety that their employees may feel but also show confidence in their teams, using phrases such as “we’ve got this,” “this is tough, but I know we can handle it.” If shown support, employees are more likely to take up the challenge with a sense of purpose and focus.