Managing people remotely is different to managing a team all based in one office. The things that would happen by default in a physical office often have to be thought about and planned for when it comes to considering remote workers. Managing people remotely, when you didn’t plan it and during this Coronavirus pandemic, has different challenges again.
You didn’t expect to find yourself suddenly managing a remote team. I’m guessing your operations aren’t set up for it. You may have had to change ways of working and communicating. You’re used to seeing your team in the office and now they’re at home, you’re at home and you can’t even plan a team get together. This reality isn’t normal. Change has happened at an unbelievable rate and none of us really know what will happen next. You’re on a learning curve, maybe about the way you work as well as the way you manage others.
First, recognise that learning curve, for yourself and for others. Recognise we are in uncharted waters. Expecting 100% productivity from yourself or your teams right now is unrealistic. Even those familiar with regular homeworking are facing new challenges, having to work from home with other family members, children being at home, health worries, not being able to pop out for coffee. If those used to homeworking are finding it a challenge, of course those suddenly forced to homework will find it just as challenging, if not more so.
That said, we do need to keep our businesses running. Productivity might not be 100% but the quicker we can normalise this situation and get people settled the quicker we’ll get productivity to where we need it. In this article we examine our Crucial 5 areas of focus for your business right now when it comes to managing remote employees, with hints and tips that will help you to adapt your management style and successfully manage the new shape of your team.
The first question I get asked when discussing homeworking is “how do I know they are working?” as well as “What type of monitoring should we put in place?”. The answer requires a complete shift in mindset. Our mindset currently is based on assembly line traditions, whereby if someone is in the building standing on the line they must be working. And, of course, this works on an assembly line because if one person doesn’t do their bit the next person in the line will notice instantly. This is exactly the same reason why these kinds of roles cannot be performed at home.
Most of those now finding themselves working from home are not producing a physical item. We can’t necessarily count the number of widgets they have produced in an hour or a day. The world has moved on, not just with homeworking. Even in the office, in knowledge industries sitting in front of a machine does not necessarily mean working. However, for many we still believe this is true and still measure productivity by time spent at a desk. Unlike an assembly line, it is perfectly possible for someone to sit at their desk, look busy and not produce anything, often going unnoticed for weeks or even months. Traditional methods of monitoring do not fit this type of work, whether in the office or at home.
The answer is in theory simple, although in reality can be more challenging - certainly requiring a lot more thought. The focus must be on outputs, goals and achievement. Once you know what you expect an individual to achieve you can measure whether or not they have achieved it. In many cases that will not be minute by minute accounts of work completed but rather the hitting of a target or achievement of a goal. Where that goal is long term, perhaps it is expected that a project will take six months to complete, don’t leave it to the last minute to find out if the project has been completed. Identify milestones along the way, dates by which those milestones should be reached, this will help to identify early if someone is not performing.
Think about what it would look like if this person was performing well. What would be achieved? What behaviours would you see from the person? What would your customers or their colleagues be experiencing? Don’t just focus on the tangible, easy to count targets as these can often mask the real behaviours you want to see, such as teamwork, leadership and communication.
This does require a change of mindset and may need changes to work processes. Consider this in the current context of a pandemic with people who are suddenly being forced to work from home. Allow teams to find their way through this. Use the opportunity to refocus on the business and what you need from your people. Don’t panic and revert to inappropriate monitoring. Accept that these aren’t normal times, managing performance with empathy and contextualised understanding. Your actions now to support your teams will impact how they perform coming out of this.
Communication is essential. Breakdowns in communication are often feared when discussing possible working from home. Communication breakdowns can come in the form of not enough, too much or the wrong type. Here’s a few things to consider:
Think about what you need to communicate and then the best method for doing it. So many methods of communication are open to us these days we often forget to assess the options and use the most appropriate method. Instant message tools are great, but sometimes picking up the phone is essential!
Manage “out of hours” communication. This can be increasingly challenging, particularly when people may be working different hours from home. The benefits of instant messaging tools are that we can deliver a message at the time appropriate to us, equally this should come with a mindset of respect that the message will be responded to at a time appropriate to the receiver. This not only allows people to manage different working hours but also their productivity within those hours which can be harmed by constant interruptions. Just because messaging can be instant does not mean it should be. Identify business critical urgent communications and a method for managing those to allow people to manage their own time and communication.
Online chat alone can contribute to inappropriate workplace communications (e.g. bullying and harassment). This can be made worse by people feeling under pressure due to the current pandemic. Ensure there are appropriate channels to report inappropriate behaviour as there should always be in the workplace. Remind people of the need to remain professional. Use real names and photographs to keep the human in communication.
Make time for and encourage informal chit chat! When people are together in a workplace informal chat happens naturally. We ask people “how was your weekend?”. We chat whilst making coffee or in passing. This may be personal chat but it will also be informal work chat, finding out about others, hearing from others about their role and what they’re doing. This chat is essential, it’s good for our well-being, supports teamwork and is good for morale. When we’re working from home, we sit at our computer, start work without saying good morning to anyone. Informal chat to a certain extent needs to be formalised, find a way to ensure it happens.
3. Health and Safety
Given the current forced homeoworking situation there appears to be little doubt in people’s minds that they remain employees during this period. However, it is a common misconception that being a homeworker means someone is not an employee. Homeworkers are as much employees as someone who comes into the office. As such, your responsibilities as an employer remain the same.
You are responsible for the health and safety of your workforce, even when they are working in their homes. You are responsible for ensuring they have the right equipment to work safely, which may include providing a desk and chair. Ideally people should not be working for many hours on a laptop without a keyboard, mouse and monitor that can be adjusted to create a healthy and safe operating position (see HSE Guidance for more details).
At the same time, if you want people to be productive and perform you must provide the tools for them to be able to work. This may seem obvious but there are many examples we’ve come across of homeworkers not being provided with the right tools or being expected to provide equipment or apps themselves. If it is an employers responsibility to provide hardware and software in the office then the same applies at home.
One of the many advantages of homeworking to both employers and employees is flexibility. The degree to which flexibility is available and how it can work will depend on the individual job role. Someone working from home whilst operating a telephone helpline that is open to customers within set times must do that job within those times. At the other end of the spectrum a very isolated role may be able to be worked completely flexibly to suit the job holder. It’s likely for many there will be a mix of the two, with some tasks needing to be done in collaboration with others or time pressured, while other tasks can be carried out more freely.
In the current pandemic situation, there are additional reasons for employees to need flexibility in their hours of work. Many of your teams will have their children at home and be homeschooling. Some will be caring for older relatives. There may be more than one homeworker in the household trying to work at the same time, which may cause problems for internet connectivity as well as the ability for them to concentrate if everyone needs to be on telephone or video calls at the same time.
Homeworking can also allow for people to work when they are most productive. Instead of continuing to enforce a 9 to 5 with everyone, a “morning person” could start work earlier whilst others sleep in and benefit from being more productive later in the day.
Flexible working goes hand-in-hand with monitoring discussed earlier. Flexibility can benefit everyone. Work with people, discuss their needs alongside the business needs and come to a suitable arrangement. For some this will be a temporary arrangement, for example because they are currently managing children and work. For others, this could be a more permanent arrangement that ends up working for everyone. It’s important to recognise the difference as they will need to be managed differently.
5. Well-being and Mental Health
Working from home, if not managed well, can leave people feeling lonely and isolated. It can leave employees feeling vulnerable, particularly if they suddenly lose feedback, are unable to bounce things off colleagues or are seeing lots of changes. This would still be the case without a Coronavirus pandemic in the mix! So, adding in the COVID-19 health crisis, people are worried about their own health and that of friends and family. We’re also facing a financial crisis, even if your employees are still in employment other family members may not be. Families are suddenly forced to spend all their time together at the same time as not spending time with their friends or wider family. People may even be concerned about getting food. These are not normal times. Huge pressures are being put onto people.
In addition to those pressures, working from home can be a steep learning curve, particularly if it is new to everyone in the team. Managing people from home can be challenging. Even this guide asks you to change your mindset, all at a time when every part of daily life is changing. It’s important to recognise this challenge and the anxiety it may be causing people. It’s important to ease the pressure on ourselves and others. This will not last forever. Equally, how you treat your teams now through a particularly tough time will stay in their memories long after the lockdown is over.
Practical steps you can take to support your teams include encouraging people to take breaks and whilst it’s still ok to do so, to go out for a daily walk. Fresh air, exercise and breaks all aid productivity. Being ever present in front of a computer will result in presenteeism, where someone may appear to be there but isn’t being productive. Support informal chat and work to ensure that it happens. Pick up the phone to each of your team members, ask how they are, ask after their family, invite them to speak about their personal situation so that you understand their context. It’s equally important to allow them to discuss concerns they have at work. We’re all learning at the moment so allow employees to give feedback and make suggestions.
A culture of appropriate monitoring, recognising the need for flexibility and supporting people will all help to maintain a healthy working environment. It is often thought we need initiatives to support good mental health, whilst these can often be beneficial they need to sit on a healthy workplace culture.
Avoiding communication overwhelm and allowing people to switch off are also important. It can be tempting to use the benefits of online messaging to provide everyone with information on everything but while transparency is a good thing, it needs to be accomplished without overwhelming people. This comes back to the communication section above and using the correct method for communication as well as communicating the right thing. At the moment people will be concerned about their jobs, they will have heard of others losing their jobs, there may be people in their team who have lost their job or been placed under the government furlough scheme. Communicate about this with your team, tell them how the business is doing and describe the challenges it is facing. This information might not always be positive but real information is better than guesses and rumours. If there is negative information to convey then tell your teams what you are doing about it.
Crucial 5: Wrap Up
Whether or not homeworking is new to you, amid the Coronavirus pandemic this is different. This situation isn’t the normality most of us are used to. There is a steep learning curve for society as a whole so recognise that and judge yourself and others in that context. It’s important to build a new sense of normality and that will help us all get through this. When we’re building something new it’s important to listen and learn. Take feedback and open your mind. Focus on what is important and urgent at this time, those things that are business critical, and then start building for the other side of this pandemic as it will be over at some point.
Being forced to think differently is great for the mind. There are many people who once couldn’t see homeworking being possible previously but are now realising that the possibilities are endless. We’re experiencing new technologies and trying different ways of working. Over the coming weeks, as thoughts turn to business after the COVID-19 pandemic, consider how we can learn from this experience and use that knowledge going forward. Balance that with a recognition that this isn’t normal circumstances. Working from home with children around isn’t going to remain part of that normal. Take the bits that work, find the bits that don’t and use this time to try and fix them. Understand that some things will just fix themselves (the children will go back to school) so use this time to build and strengthen your business and your team for when the Coronavirus pandemic is over and the economy begins to pick up again.
Article last updated: 2 April 2020
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