Managing remote employees is hardly a new concept. In fact, the shift to working from home was well underway—and trending upward—long before anyone had even heard of COVID-19. Between 2005 and 2018, the number of “regular work-from-home” employees increased by a whopping 173 percent, with 15 percent of “wage and salary workers” working exclusively from home during 2017–2018. When the pandemic struck, many businesses that were able to have their employees work from home did so, and by June 2020 “42 percent of the U.S. labor force . . . [was] working from home full time.”
At first, everyone thought these arrangements would be temporary. As the weeks dragged onto months, however, it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going to end any time soon. Companies settled in for a long run of working from home. Several tech companies (such as Google and Microsoft) announced that their workers could work from home indefinitely, for example. And some companies went as far as getting rid of their centralized office spaces completely (with the plan to rent large meeting spaces for semiannual meetings, trainings, etc., when it’s once again safe for large groups to congregate).
Working from home is part of the new reality of the business world. Opinions vary as to how significant it will be, but Global Workplace Analytics offers one prediction that seems pretty par for the course: “Our best estimate is that we will see 25 to 30 percent of the workforce working at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021.”
Whatever the future brings, working from home will definitely be around for a long time to come—and managers need to be prepared to deal with it.
TIP #1: Shore up your communication channels and processes.
On the simplest level, telecommuting makes it harder for people to have the kinds of informal interactions that are crucial to the way knowledge moves through an organization.
Communication challenges were difficult even when co-located in an office, but managing remote employees has only amped up the need for immediate improvements. Twenty percent of the more than 3,500 respondents to Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work Report cited “communication and collaboration” as the most significant challenge they faced as remote workers. To help mitigate those issues, make team members’ calendars visible to each other, require them to set their status as “away” when they aren’t at their desks, and set a minimum time (such as 24 hours) to respond to e-mail.
As you establish best practices for your team communications, set expectations for which channels should be used for which purposes. For example, some formats are especially well suited for certain types of interactions:
- Zoom: meetings, brainstorming sessions, one-on-one check-ins, performance reviews
- Google Docs: project-related questions, status updates, comments on documents or projects in progress
- Text: time-sensitive questions that can be quickly answered with yes/no responses
- IM: casual conversations, time-sensitive requests
- E-mail: team-wide announcements, larger project-related updates that require input from others (and are typically not very time-sensitive)
To help keep communication flowing, commit to regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with each team member and team-wide meetings, as well as “office hours” during which employees can “drop by” to ask quick questions.
TIP #2: Each week, clarify goals and roles for all employees.
Basically, managing is about influencing action.
It’s going to be a while before we get back to anything close to “business as usual,” so shoring up your skills at managing remote employees is critical to your success as a leader. That uncertainty makes it harder to find information and get quick answers—difficulties that are only enhanced by the lack of a decentralized workplace as everyone works from home. So now it’s more important than ever to be sure that all employees knows exactly what’s on their plates and what their priorities are.
- Create a list of team projects to keep, accelerate, disband, or start—whatever is needed to meet the company’s new priorities.
- When everyone’s in the office together, managers can get away with being a bit “relaxed” about setting goals (assigning one while walking past an employee’s desk, for example). But because remote work makes such casual, ad hoc interactions pretty much impossible, managers need to be much more deliberate when discussing roles, responsibilities, and objectives.
- When setting expectations, have a conversation with your employees via conference call (rather than via e-mail or other nonshared or asynchronous format) so you can discuss it in detail “live” and respond immediately to your employees’ questions.
- When identifying and assessing goals, keep your view to a shorter timespan than you’re used to. (When I was colocated with my team, I established monthly, quarterly, and yearly performance goals as well as targets for what “hitting it out of the park” looked like. Under today’s conditions, I’ve dialed back that approach and now discuss goals in terms of this week, next week and this month, with long-term planning usually going only as far as the end of each month or maybe quarterly.)
- With all that’s going on right now, employees are just too distracted to think very far ahead. Help your employees focus by having weekly discussions with them about their goals and your expectations.
TIP #3: Develop your employees.
—Harvey S. Firestone
As remote workers who’ve barely left their homes in months thanks to widespread travel restrictions (“Vacation? What vacation?”) and with limits on social gatherings still in place in most of the country, your employees may be feeling “stuck”: physically, mentally, and professionally. Give them something to look forward to by offering a vision of a brighter future and opportunities to continue to learn and grow. Develop your employees through feedback and coaching, for example. Help them find mentors. Encourage them to pursue upskilling and reskilling opportunities. Managing remote employees (heck, managing all employees), requires you to be engaged in their future growth. If you don’t, your employees will look for a company that will help them.
TIP #4: Managing Remote Employees requires teamwork.
The element of teamwork is perhaps underappreciated.
Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work Report also highlighted the loneliness that many of today’s workers feel, with 20 percent of survey respondents citing it as their “biggest struggle with working remotely.” Small wonder: it’s much harder for people to connect with each other when they’re separated by computer screens than when they occupy a shared, physical office space.
As a manager, not only do you lead your team members when they are fulfilling their work duties, but you also lead them when they are human beings struggling to get through this difficult time. Remind them that we are, indeed, all in this together by coming up with creative ways to help them build connections with each other (and with you). Virtual lunch dates, exercise time, or Friday night happy hours (BYOB, of course!) are some ways to bring people together. Consider keeping meetings open for ten minutes after the “official” part ends to give people time to chitchat and socialize a bit (think of it as the virtual equivalent of a casual conversation by the water cooler). Encourage team members to learn a new skill together—something work-related, perhaps, or even a new hobby.
TIP #5: Watch for burnout in your employees.
That’s the great irony of allowing passionate people to work from home. A manager’s natural instinct is to worry that her workers aren’t getting enough work done. But the real threat is that they will wind up working too hard. And because the manager isn’t sitting across from her worker anymore, she can’t look in the person’s eyes and see burnout.
Many companies long opposed allowing widespread remote work because they assumed that “while the cat’s away, the mice will play.” When the pandemic forced them to send their employees home, though, organizations found an almost negligible decrease in production, which is especially impressive given the many non–work-related stressors employees have also had to deal with during this crisis: fear of being exposed to the coronavirus, having young children at home because the schools and daycares closed, being unable to see friends and family, etc.
Even when they aren’t in the middle of a pandemic, though, remote workers tend to have higher levels of work-related anxiety than office-based workers. As a manager, you shouldn’t let “out of sight, out of mind” shape your interactions with your team members: check in with them regularly to see how they are managing while they’re unable to connect with colleagues in the office. Set realistic expectations, based on where your employees are in their personal lives, for when projects need to be completed or for how many hours each work day they need to be online. Encourage employees to take short breaks and real lunch breaks (not “working lunches”), to step away from their work during evenings and weekends, and to use their paid time off when they need to (even if they can’t travel to anywhere at the moment).
TIP #6: Take care of yourself.
Self-care equals success. You’re going to be more successful if you take care of yourself and you’re healthy.
If you are unwell, you’ll have a hard time being a good boss to your employees. As companies navigate the many uncertainties of the pandemic and work-from-home arrangements, managers need to do all they can to keep themselves in tip-top form so they can be effective leaders.
Cultivate practices that help you combat the negative effects of remote work in general (such as isolation from colleagues) and the negative effects of remote work during this pandemic (such as isolation from nearly everything and everyone)—and encourage your team members to do so, too. For example, good sleep, good exercise, and healthy diets can provide great benefits to both physical and mental health. Be sure to connect with friends and family regularly. Support your team, but also set boundaries for your interactions with them. (After all, you can be empathetic and supportive of them as fellow human beings, but at the end of the day you are still their boss.)
Remember: you’re a remote worker too. Many of the challenges that your remote employees face are ones that you yourself might be facing as well. So pay attention to how your own needs and challenges evolve as the remote manager of remote employees.
Final Thoughts on Managing Remote Employees
No one knows when (or even if) the business world will be able to resurrect the pre-pandemic workplace. On the one hand, it may be some time before it’s safe for people to gather in groups again (and even then, if some form of social distancing is still needed for a while, providing expanded workspaces for each employee may be cost-prohibitive for most companies). On the other hand, more employees have now grown accustomed to working from home—and may be reluctant to surrender that ability—so if organizations try to bring everyone back into the office, they may lose some of their workers. One thing is very clear, though: working from home isn’t a sprint that will end as soon as the pandemic subsides but a marathon (possibly even an ultramarathon!). Managers need to be prepared to lead their remote employees in this new, decentralized, virtual workspace.