The coronavirus pandemic has made working from home the new normal for millions of Americans but the rapid transition has some associated growing pains. Not surprisingly, 91 percent of employees who are working remotely right now have reported feeling moderate to extreme stress, according to a recent survey conducted by mental health app Ginger.
This may be especially true for many corporate leaders who have been abruptly thrust into managing their staff from afar — often without a roadmap. If you’re feeling a bit lost about how to rally your dispersed team, here is some expert advice for managing remote workers.
CLEARLY COMMUNICATE YOUR EXPECTATIONS
Establishing a firm structure is essential for getting your team ready to work from home effectively, says Susan Vroman, a lecturer of management at Bentley University who specializes in flexible work. But defining what exactly that means for you comes down to your expectations.
She suggests you begin by asking yourself these questions:
- What are your standard operating procedures?
- What is your code of conduct?
- What are the things you expect from every employee?
It’s important to offer your team a clear vision of how you expect working from home to look and feel. This includes communicating what the performance metrics are going to be.
“If you just say that you want everybody to do their best work, that can take a lot of different forms and you don’t want to risk that,” Vroman says. “In my research, I’ve found that when folks have something to measure up against, they feel more secure in their jobs.”
Vroman says that when workers feel less secure, they may try to overperform — and that can lead to burnout. For example, you may tell your team that if you send an email, you expect a response within a certain timeframe. Or, if you manage a call center, you may say you expect each worker to complete 50 calls per week. Establishing baselines can help alleviate stress caused by uncertainty about the workload.
BE FLEXIBLE ABOUT HOW THE WORK GETS DONE
It’s fair to say that everybody’s normal routines have been completely disrupted by COVID-19, especially as many households are now having to accommodate not only office spaces but also home schools.
“Managers need to understand that they might not have their employees’ exclusive attention at all times,” Vroman says. “It may mean workers saying, ‘I will get the work done for you, but I cannot be available for this two-hour call for all two hours.’”
This can be especially difficult for some managers because it requires trusting that their team won’t see these flexible arrangements as a way to shirk responsibilities.
Vroman advises focusing more on overall output and less on what time of day the work actually gets done. Some parents may be super productive for a few early-morning hours and then need to go off the grid to help their kids follow their lesson plans before jumping back in until dinnertime. Others may have to mix up their work hours because they’re sharing a small home office with their spouse. The key is to be empathetic. Chances are you’re struggling with the same issues.
CREATE FREQUENT OPPORTUNITIES TO CONNECT
Being unable to interact with your team face-to-face throughout the workday is a major challenge. Luckily, technology can help bridge this gap. The sooner you can set up recurring video meetings, the better. This goes for whole-team check-ins, small-group collaboration sessions and one-on-one meetings.
Ongoing connection is particularly important for employees who live alone. Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley addressed the problem of social isolation in a recent podcast and directs managers to look out for any of their remote employees who seem to be pulling away from the team, withdrawing from group conversations or clamming up on email. If you do notice any troublesome signs, reach out directly or, if possible, suggest employee resource groups that could be helpful.
TAKE THE TIME TO SHOW YOU CARE
Though it may be extra challenging to achieve from a distance, keeping your team’s morale up is essential for productivity. A recent Gallup poll found that in light of the COVID-19 crisis, only 45 percent of employees strongly agree that their company cares about their overall well-being.
Vroman suggests taking a moment to jot down the things you know about your employees. Instead of talking to them straight away about work, begin by asking them something personal. You may find that they’re struggling right now or that a more flexible work arrangement is in order.
“Research shows that if you see that your boss is supportive of your family situation, whatever that might be, you’re going to try and do well for that person,” Vroman says. “If you know that your top performer has a wife who’s a nurse in one of the hospitals that’s dealing with this pandemic, it will mean a lot when you ask him how she’s doing. It’s about being a compassionate boss.”