Office spaces are shuttering amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and that's placed many managers in an unfamiliar position. They're being asked to manage a remote workforce—maybe for the first time in their careers.
Working remotely can be challenging if you aren't used to it, and that's especially true for managers. How can supervisors ensure that work gets done and deadlines get met? And how can they keep employees engaged and accountable while also being flexible and sympathetic to their needs? How should they communicate with their subordinates to maintain a sense of camaraderie? These are some of the many challenges that managing a remote workforce entails.
Here are five simple strategies to help managers lead a remote workforce effectively and productively while offices are closed.
1. Set clear expectations.
When you can meet with employees face to face in an office, it's easy to communicate and to keep track of their progress on assignments. You can walk by their desk and touch base, check in when you see them in the hallway, or meet in a conference room.
When everyone works from home, it's a different story. You'll need to establish clear expectations for how—and how often—they should communicate with you and provide status updates to you and their other team members. You might ask employees to update you by email on what they accomplished that day before logging off for the evening. Or perhaps you'd like them to record their progress in a shared online spreadsheet. Or maybe you'll hold regular team meetings via Skype, Zoom, or another web conferencing platform. It doesn't matter what the protocol is as long as everyone understands what you expect from them.
2. Check in regularly (but not too often).
Keeping regular communication with employees about their progress on tasks and assignments is good; engaging with them on a personal level to ask how they're doing and make sure they feel supported is better. Check in with each employee once a day—or at least once every few days—through an email, a text, a phone call, or a video chat.
This is a sound management strategy for any work scenario. But when employees are working remotely, you must carve out time for this communication. It won't happen as organically as it might in an office setting.
Some managers might be inclined to over-communicate because they're worried that employees won't be as productive working from home. In fact, there's evidence to suggest that the opposite might be true: Many employees actually get more done working from home because they don't have to commute and because they spend less time in meetings or otherwise distracted by colleagues, Inc. writes. So don't check in too frequently; you don't want your employees to think that you're micromanaging. The key is to find the right balance—supportive but not overbearing.
3. Insist that employees unplug.
Setting a minimum standard for how often employees should communicate when they're working from home is a good idea, but you should also set limits on communicating after business hours. According to the annual State of Remote Work report from Buffer, unplugging after work is the top challenge for the remote workforce. Drawing boundaries between work and home can be hard when there's no office to travel to.
While some employees might like working outside of normal business hours because they find it easier to focus or because it's more convenient for them, you should make it clear that you don't expect any responses after 5 p.m. unless it's an urgent matter or the nature of the job requires it.
4. Provide opportunities for social engagement.
Loneliness is the second biggest challenge that employees face when working remotely, according to the State of Remote Work report. Introducing ways for employees to interact virtually can help combat the feelings of isolation they feel when working at home.
Use the same technologies your company uses to support remote collaboration to build a sense of community. Leverage tools like Zoom or Skype to create opportunities for face-to-face interaction, and establish virtual spaces (such as separate instant messaging channels or online forums) where employees can build relationships by discussing topics that aren't related to work during breaks.
For example, you might encourage employees to upload photos of their pets and then create a March Madness-style bracket where everyone can vote for the pet they think is cutest in head-to-head matchups, culminating in a champion at the end. You might set up an online game of two truths and a lie. You might have everyone share their top five movies, books, or concert experiences.
These kinds of team-building interactions, which are great for boosting morale, often happen naturally in an office environment, but you have to make them happen when your workforce is remote.
5. Offer plenty of encouragement and support.
This is a particularly stressful time. Your subordinates might be concerned about their health or the well-being of their friends and family. They might be worried about losing their job because of the economic downturn that's accompanied the coronavirus pandemic. Help them deal with their anxiety by sharing strategies for coping, such as mental health hotlines, meditation videos, or other mindfulness resources.
In this turbulent time, the workforce is quickly pivoting en masse to remote work, and employees are being asked to adapt just as quickly. Setting clear expectations, communicating frequently, focusing on online team building, using familiar technology, and offering plenty of support can help everyone succeed.