A quick survey of various organizational leaders suggests that remote work is here for the long term, and not just until COVID-19 finally moves on. Larger corporations are in awe with the potential for large real estate cost savings while smaller organizations are surprised that remote work is actually working so well. And, with the many spinoff benefits such as fewer sick days, longer tenure and higher productivity, it’s no wonder that many organizations are planning to restructure their entire organizations to make room for the long-term remote worker.
While remote work requires strong technological systems support, there are also many human resource challenges that will arise and which must be addressed. These include important areas such as a whole emphasis on orienting new remote employees so that they quickly feel comfortable and connected to their new workplace. Then, efforts must be spent fostering this teamwork so that morale and productivity amongst both on-site and remote workers remain high. These two new work realities in turn require a new leadership style which incorporates the ability to supervise from a distance. It also includes potential changes that may have to be made to the established employee performance review process. Some of the issues managers will face and some sample strategies are shared below.
Robust orientation — I recently heard of a remote worker who was six months into a new job and who had still not been introduced to their teammates. This is certainly inappropriate because extra effort has to be taken to orient that person and make them feel comfortable. Giving them a laptop and a phone are simply not enough. Steps need to be taken to introduce a new employee to all elements of the workplace. This can include virtual meetings with the new supervisor, the HR professional and the team members the individual will be working with.
As with on-site orientation, assign a buddy team member to keep in close touch and help the new employee navigate through the complexities of the organization. There is no reason why the employer couldn’t provide a video and give the new employee a virtual tour of their new workplace. As well, demonstrate how to connect with the internal help desk services.
Foster teamwork — It is well known that remote workers can experience isolation and loneliness, so one of a manager’s key goals for teamwork must comprise inclusion, collaboration and building trust. This can include a weekly virtual team call that focuses on the social and emotional elements of work rather than just focusing on project completion. Efforts should be made to bring humour to the conversations with a fun activity to start. Take time to celebrate special events, such as birthdays. Finally, additional project meetings can be held to discuss work tasks and new assignments.
Prioritize connection — In order to ensure a continued connection with the organization, supervisors need to consider frequent and consistent check-ins. No matter whether this is daily, biweekly or weekly, schedule a consistent time for a standing meeting. Be sure to also schedule one-to-one conversations so that as a supervisor, you can become more familiar with the personal side of the remote worker and allow the employee to raise any personal issues. Work collaboratively with the employee to resolve issues quickly and keep an eye on an employee’s potential anxieties and concerns.
Also be sure to inform the remote worker of any administrative changes that will impact them as there is nothing more annoying than learning a key change to work processes after the fact. Feeling left out will disrupt any connection efforts that you have made. Then, use check-in time to ask about their personal life, families and hobbies without being intrusive. Allow team meeting time for virtual "water cooler" conversations that allow the entire team to create personal connections and strengthen relationships.
Adjust supervision — Many supervisors still apply the philosophy that if you can’t see the employee you can’t supervise. This doesn’t work with remote workers and so the whole concept of supervision needs to be modified. This requires more attention to setting expectations both for work and for reporting. Supervisors need to "let go" and trust their employees more explicitly. They need to recruit highly skilled new employees who don’t require close supervision and they need to develop the capacity of current staff.
Communication skills — In between the standing meetings, much of employee communication will be through email and voice mail. Supervisors need to be conscious of how their message will be interpreted as tactics such as capital letters and bold print might distort the intended tone of your message. Pay special attention to how questions are phrased. Take a learner perspective and ask questions with the word "what" versus "why" which might be perceived as accusatory. Pay close attention to your listening skills and focus on solutions rather than making judgments. Remember, it’s not what you say but what people hear that matters.
Performance management — Supervisors also need to change some of the elements of the regular performance appraisal tool so that it is more focused and can be quantified with concrete evidence. Ratings should include evidence of team and collaboration efforts, project and task completion such as sales quotas or the number of calls or interviews per day, the management of projects and personal time management.
Be available — Supervisors are incredibly busy but must make every effort to respond quickly to issues by being more available. Remote employees need to know they can count on their management. Take time to build a culture of caring that lets remote workers know they are key stakeholders in organizational success.
Remote work is here to stay and in fact, it will be a growing phenomenon. This will require extra effort, new ways of communicating and new ways of supervising with an emphasis on collaborative teamwork from a distance.