How to Overcome Obstacles When Managing a Remote Workforce

Alex Margolin November 19, 2020
hand holding globe

Many companies have been forced to shift their workforce to remote work in response to the Covid crisis. Some were unprepared for the change and did not have the internal infrastructure in place to effectively manage, communicate, and evaluate their employees, most of whom also need guidance and support to perform at a high level in a new setting.

Prior to the pandemic, about 3.4% of American companies had already moved to remote work or a hybrid model (splitting time between office and home). By the middle of 2020, the percentage of companies was up to 33%, including many companies that previously resisted the idea out of concern that productivity would drop if people were left unsupervised.

Statistics indicate that working from home has had a positive effect on productivity in most fields, at least in the short term. At the same time, companies are realizing that the shift is not temporary, and some level of remote work will remain after the crisis passes. Future-minded companies are exploring new management ideas with the remote worker in mind to overcome the obstacles they encountered over the past year.

Obstacle 1: Providing On-Going Managerial Support

With no face-to-face interaction between employees and managers, many employees could feel that they are not receiving the guidance and support they need to perform. On the flip side managers may feel that employees won’t produce with the same level of efficiency as they would if the manager were more engaged in the process.

Research shows that managers have significant influence over how employees respond internally to instability and change. Managers can overcome the lack of direct contact with employees by implementing a two-tier communications system.

The first tier would consist of a daily video chat, preferably in the early part of the day to align on tasks and priorities and to answer general questions. Depending on the size of the team, it could be a group chat for everyone to touch base with everyone else, or it can be a series of short individual video conferences. The important thing is to ensure that all employees have the direction they need to feel confident moving forward.

The second tier is to open an instant message line for quick questions and encourage people to use it when they have any doubts about what to do. It’s the remote equivalent of an “open door policy.” The manager might have to proactively engage members of the team through the IM to build confidence in the channel. That way, the employees feel that there is managerial support, even if it’s not on they level they experienced before the shift to remote. Again, the important thing is to give each employee the tools they need to maintain high performance.

Obstacle 2: Building a Remote Work Culture

A company culture is the set of shared values, goals, and practices that unify the organization and bring people together for a common purpose. Traditionally, the culture develops over time through employee interactions and the direction set by the top leaders. A remote work culture is the same, except that it requires more direct effort to build because there is far less employee interaction involved. For that same reason, a remote work culture may be even more important that a regular work culture.

The values that reflect the higher beliefs of the company are the same values that will bring together a dispersed workforce. A company vision and a set of shared values, however, is not enough to build a feeling of connection between all of the employees, especially with no direct, in person interaction between them. Values are the first part. Common experience is the second.

Holding regular “all hands” meetings where everyone hears the same message from the senior leadership, including company updates, financial reports, and welcomes to new hires goes a long way to building a feeling of connection.

Other ways of building remote work culture include newsletters that highlight not only the strategic direction of the company but also focus on values and the people who exemplify them, and creating a virtual “water cooler” by designating one of the group chats as a line for people to talk without a business reason for it.

The idea, in essence, is to replace as much of the company culture that would be built through natural interaction of the employees in a physical setting. Building a remote culture takes time and effort, but it goes a long way to helping employees feel less isolated during a period of closures and social distancing and more committed to the company’s vision.

Obstacle 3: Encouraging Employee Collaboration

In an office environment, small instances of collaboration are natural to the interaction people have. When someone is sitting near you, it’s natural to pick their brains on ideas or to get their perspectives. Those casual conversations rarely take place on email, online chat, or even a telephone. They are usually too small to justify making a call or sending an IM. At the same time, some of the best ideas are cultivated in casual, organic collaboration.

So how do managers get people to collaborate?

The answer is by creating times for team members to chat with each other. Just as it’s vital for managers to touch base with the members of the team, it’s equally vital for the team members to be in touch with each other, know what other team members are doing, and see how it all fits together.

When team members are aware of each other’s projects, there is a chance they might come across some tools or ideas that could be helpful. It also creates a basis for people to ask each other questions. It is easier to seek input from someone who already understands the project than from someone completely on the outside.

Obstacle 4: Evaluating Employee Performance Remotely

When it comes to evaluating employee performance, it is essential to have specific KPIs that are clear to both the employee and the manager in charge of the evaluation. This is even more important in a remote environment where the manager doesn’t have direct observation of his/her team member to influence the evaluation.

The goals should be broken down into weekly, monthly, and quarterly targets. That gives the employee a sense of how the various pieces fit together.

All of the tracking of tasks can be done through a shared program such as Trello, Monday, or Asana. This creates an easy way to stay connected and increase transparency.

Obstacle 5: Concern that Employees are Abusing the System

Employers new to remote work often fear that if they can’t see their employees then the chances are high that they will slack off at some point from their work. That feeling, no matter how well hidden, usually makes its way to the employees as well. The result is a toxic work environment that will never bring out the best in the workforce or produce the results the company needs.

When it comes to supervising employees at home, there are two important concepts. The first concept is trust. If a manager does not trust the people who report  to him or her, why are the employees still at the company? If the manager does trust them, he or she should give them the benefit of the doubt about when an instant message isn’t immediately returned immediately or when they appear to be up from their desks for extended times.

In this period of COVID-19 disruption, schools and daycare centers have also undergone dramatic shifts, many of which place inordinate amounts of pressure on parents. The last thing they need is pressure from their managers as well. In the end, it comes down to trust. Employees need to know that they have it.

The second, related concept is results. It may be harder for some employees to put in the hours in linear time the way they did in the office. But if they are producing the results that are expected from them, they are not abusing the privilege of working from home. They are actually using it as it was designed.

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