Working Remotely

The pandemic has led to more workers than ever setting up offices at home, but the trend was already on the rise. Remote work has grown nearly 10x faster than non-remote work since 2005 and will continue to grow as companies realize they no longer need large corporate offices, and that work from home is a perk many employees value highly.

While the benefits of a remote workforce are undeniable, it’s also a challenge to managers and business owners who aren’t used to not being able to interface with their workers directly. It’s a shift in culture, communication, and management strategies. So how can you ensure that you’re managing your remote workforce the best you can?

1. Assume Positive Intent

Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, has this to say:

“Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed.”

One of the biggest issues in remote work is the lack of non-verbal cues in communication; facial patterns and motions you read (without realizing it) that inform the way you’re interacting with others in a conversation. It’s difficult to tell if somebody is uncomfortable, upset, stressed, or nervous when you’re over a phone call or chatting online, but much easier when that person is right in front of you.

Frusted on a Computer

You won’t be able to solve all of these through assuming positive intent, but you can smooth over many wrinkles in communication. Remember, your employees are adjusting too. They aren’t out to slack off or take advantage of the situation. Times are tough for everyone, so assume the best out of people and you’ll get what you put in.

2. Allow for Flexibility in Schedules

One of the biggest benefits for many workers in a remote work situation is that they can work with flexible schedules. As long as they get their tasks done, they should be fine whether they’re working at 8 am or 10 pm, right? Well, not quite.

Flexibility is important for work from home success, but some roles need more rigid limitations. You can’t have your customer service or your sales teams working outside of normal business hours, after all.

Flexible Schedule

Allow flexibility for workers who can benefit from it. If necessary, change your goal structure to be less time-oriented and more task-oriented.

3. Maintain Some Structure

Perhaps the biggest challenge many remote workers face is the breakdown of structure. Time management is a very difficult skill to learn, and many people struggle with guiding their personal usage of time. While you want to allow for flexibility to deal with home-life situations, you also want to have enough structure to enforce some level of compliance with time management norms. You are, essentially, assisting with the time management for your employees.

Regular meetings to check in with your team and keep everybody up to date on company news is a common form of structure that works well. Whether this is a simple check-in on Zoom or using a more rigid structure is up to you and what works best for your team.

4. Check In Regularly

Once every few weeks, every month, quarterly, or however often feels right for your team, check in with your team members on an individual basis. Talk to them about how they’re coping with working from home. Discuss if they’re succeeding with their goals, or if they could use more flexibility, or if they’re floundering. Determine where they stand, and adjust their responsibilities and structure accordingly.

Meeting on Laptop

Some people will thrive in a work from home environment, and others will struggle. It won’t always be who you expect. Have one-on-one conversations regularly to see how your team members are doing at home and adjust your management as needed.

5. Make Time for Small Talk

One of the biggest perks of office life that many people take for granted is small talk. It’s a chore to some and a perk to others, but it’s a natural part of office social life for everyone. When the team is split up and working remotely, it’s difficult or impossible for that small talk to happen.

Camille Fournier, Rent the Runway’s CTO, says:

“Treat your peers as interesting fellow humans, and you may be surprised what it does for their motivation, dedication, and engagement”

While you can’t exactly enforce small talk amongst your team, you can make the time and take the opportunity to talk small with your team individually. Building rapport with everyone will go a long way towards boosting engagement.

6. Use Video Whenever Possible

Video chat, whether it’s on Zoom, Skype, or another platform, is indispensable. It can bring back some of the body language that you lack in text communications, and it helps remind your team that you’re all people, not just coworkers.

Virtual Meeting

There are challenges to establishing video-readiness for your team. Most notably, there’s a global webcam shortage as millions of people buy them up to work from home. You also have to deal with the fact that not everyone has a dedicated office space, so be prepared for the distractions of spouses, children, and pets. Try to think of it as endearing, not disruptive.

7. Be an Active Listener

This is one that is essential to any managers, whether remote or local:

“The most successful managers are good listeners, communicate trust and respect, inquire about workload and progress without micromanaging, and err on the side of over-communicating,” says Justin Hale, a researcher at VitalSmarts.

Active listening is a learned skill; a way to listen to a conversation partner in a way that keeps you engaged, with patience and reflection. You can learn more about it here.

8. Establish Communication Channels

Not just for yourself; your team needs dedicated channels to use to reach one another. Especially if you haven’t managed a remote team before, you and your team may be surprised at how difficult it often is to hand off information.

Communication Channels on Chat

Calling an office phone, shooting an email when you know someone is at work; it’s no longer guaranteed to reach the recipient right away. To that end, establish communication channels you can use to ensure your team is adequately prepared to share information with eachother.

9. Organize Social Engagements

The pandemic has made social interaction much more difficult, but you can still organize “office parties” over videoconferencing. Allow everyone to let their hair down and hang out, provide some manner of entertainment, even have pizza delivered to each employee’s door for the virtual party. One of the biggest challenges of remote work is the feeling of loneliness and isolation, and even something goofy like a virtual watch party with the office can be enough to alleviate some of those feelings.

10. Set Defined Goals

Up above, we mentioned a transition from time focused work to task-oriented work. It’s important enough to expound upon. Research indicates that 39% of work from home employees complete their tasks faster than when they’re in the office.

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Productive Illustration

Setting defined goals and tracking metrics in the process of reaching them is critical in understanding work from home productivity.

11. Balance Inconveniences

While an office that starts local and ended up remote due to the pandemic will have most people in the same area, fully remote offices – which will be more and more popular when the whole thing is over – will often have people in a variety of different time zones. As such, it’s often an inconvenience for some team members to participate in meetings.

Try to avoid the situation where one employee is constantly the one inconvenienced by meetings and tasks. Try to rotate and share the burden amongst the team, so no one feels especially put out.

12. Include Families

Many of your remote workers have families at home, and sometimes those families feel ignored because their spouse/parent is home but “ignoring” them. Small children especially can feel this way. Thus, if you do something for your employees, you should consider their families as well.

Including Family on Video Chat

Whether this is allowing families into the digital pizza party, sending “swag bags” to the whole family, or whatever else, comes down to your management and your team. Simply make sure families feel included, not slighted, by the necessity of work.

13. Don’t Cancel, Adapt

A lot of traditional recognition, downtime, and leisure activities are canceled due to the pandemic. Even some simple things like employee recognition boards, annual awards at a company retreat, and other sorts of employee-focused activities are canceled when you’re not in the office and you’re not attending those retreats.

Rather than keep it all canceled, though, figure out a way to adapt. For example, Actualize Consulting has produced employee recognition videos instead of recognition at the annual company retreat, which was canceled. Rather than ignore that recognition, the company has adapted it to a new format.

14. Don’t Fear New Tools

Zoom is the flagship example of a new tool that many businesses are picking up to facilitate remote work.

Collaboration App

There are dozens of others out there, such as:

  • Mural for collaborative brainstorming.
  • Miro for digital whiteboarding.
  • Parabol for retrospectives.

And, of course, Google apps always work for simple, low-budget collaborative tools.

15. Approve a Budget for a Home Office

While people who frequently work from home may already have their setup, well, set up, those who are forced to work from home due to the pandemic don’t have that luxury. Many are making do with a company laptop, a couch, and some household rules.

Home Office Desk

Do what you can to get a budget approved to allow your employees to purchase what they need, with a few recommendations. An ergonomic desk and chair setup are both valuable to have at home. A company phone they can use at home is also beneficial, if they don’t already have one, especially for maintaining a good work/life balance and avoiding after-hour business calls. Even something like noise-canceling headphones can be valuable for many remote workers.

16. Go Heavy on (Genuine) Praise

Times are tough, and it can be very difficult to motivate work from home employees. Where a single sentence of praise in person could do the job, that same line seems meaningless or pithy over email or IM. Learn what helps motivate your employees, and develop systems of praise to keep them going.

As Richard Branson says:

“As a leader of people you have to be a great listener and you have to be a great motivator. You have to be very good at praising and looking for the best in people. People are no different from flowers. If you water flowers they flourish, if you praise people they flourish. And that is a critical attribute of a leader.”

Many managers are quick to spot the cracks in their organization, but they can forget to give an equal amount of praise and encouragement. This can be something that you can discuss in your individual meetings, or a short message that you can send whenever a positive employee action stands out to you.

17. Keep Your Doors Open

An open office policy, where your office door is always open and you’re always available for someone to step in and chat, is a great way to foster personal connections in the office. In remote work, you can’t do that. You need to be available on digital communications platforms or on a phone, or however else an employee might want to reach you.

Digital Meeting on Video Chat

Make sure you’re available and emphasize that you’re there for anything.

18. Empower Remote Workers

Every employee wants to feel like their voice is heard and their opinion matters. Empowering your remote workers is the way to do it. Allow them to communicate, organize, and implement ideas that can benefit the overall company and workflow, but do it the right way. Empowered employees are engaged at much higher rates than those who feel like drones in a machine.

19. Keep a Water Cooler Chat Open

When you want to foster engagement with your employees, a great way to do it is to encourage socialization at the water cooler, or break room, or whatever your company’s equivalent open space happens to be.

Group Chat Water Cooler

Remote workers don’t get that benefit, but you can set up one yourself by maintaining an “off-topic” non-work-related chat room available for any and all who want to discuss something outside of the realm of their duties.

20. Be Careful with Meeting Etiquette

Virtual meetings make it easy for someone to slip under the radar, whether they intended to or not. It’s equally easy for a manager to destroy a friendly environment and suppress opinions through small actions. Here are some things you should never do:

  • Never sound impatient.
  • Never raise your voice.
  • Never dismiss someone without giving them due consideration.
  • Never demean an opinion.
  • Never cut people off (unless truly necessary).
  • Never lie.

Any and all of those can kill a meeting, wreck a good mood, and ruin morale.

It’s difficult enough managing a remote team when there isn’t a global crisis happening. These days, it’s your role to provide support and a framework that allows your remote workers to succeed.

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