The traditional office setting has been undergoing a sea change, as digital technology and connectivity become embedded in almost every corner of work life. Even by 2019, almost one-quarter of the workforce in the United States was working remotely at least some of the time.
Managing team productivity in a shifting environment is a challenge in normal times that gained in urgency in 2020, as the sudden transition to a remote work environment, in response to COVID-19, brought into sharp relief the issues that arise when employees work in isolation.
The abruptness of the shift to remote working may have found your company unprepared to manage the special situation that remote employees face, when working at home. Now is the time to put remote employees front and center in the thoughts and actions of your company. Set a course that keeps your remote team engaged and productive during difficult times, and they will be ready to take on the bright future ahead.
Ensure Remote Employees Feel Seen
Keep in touch.
A keystone of an effective strategy for managing remote employees is communication. When you can’t see employees every day, it takes a special, sustained effort to keep them from feeling overlooked. Routine check-ins help to maintain that essential connection that binds employees to the company; they are especially important when remote working is new to management and the staff.
Leaders are gravitating towards video conferencing for meeting with employees, due to the advantages it offers for the visual cues that are so important in conversation. Texts and emails are notoriously ineffectual and even obstructive for conveying nuance. Being able to see the person you are talking to fosters a more relaxed, open discussion, which can be an invaluable aid for staying on top of issues. That applies to group meetings, as well, when team members can gain more context and a deeper understanding about issues from their colleagues, than they can from other formats.
Go beyond Zoom.
Make the most of the array of tools available to develop a communications strategy that is responsive to the variety of tasks that face the remote employee. Some situations, such as time-sensitive or collaborative projects, call for more individual or streamlined communication, where video conferencing is less nimble to coordinate. As early as you can, establish guidelines for the team about which technology will be used when, so that all employees are on common ground when it comes to expectations around communications.
The guidelines should also offer reliable information on how and when management can be reached during the day or in an emergency. Make sure that employees are aware that keeping information flowing between themselves is a priority, even while working remotely.
Remote working isn’t for everyone. Extroverts may feel the isolation most acutely at first, but it affects most people’s sense of well-being to some degree, when the isolation extends over time. Research shows that emotions are contagious, and as manager, you have an important role to play in helping employees regulate their stress levels before they take root as part of the work culture for the organization.
Start by asking each employee how they are doing and really listen to the answer. You will gain information about their individual circumstances that you may be able to furnish a solution for, while employees may find that being able to productively express their frustrations provides a valuable outlet.
Employees pick up cues from managers for the appropriate emotional response to a setback or crisis. Communicating both empathy and confidence that each employee and the team will prevail over shared struggles is a tonic for discouraged employees. “You’ve got this” can be magic words when energy is flagging. When you reinforce a positive message with a supportive structure, a vital sense of purpose and optimism may be restored for your employees.
Celebrate good work.
Experts say that employees crave recognition for their contribution to the company more in periods of disruption. Yet the achievements of remote employees will remain invisible, unless managers intentionally track the output and performance of workers to find something to celebrate. Use your virtual meetings or simple survey tools to identify employees or teams that merit recognition. Don’t exclude the CEO or top brass from the search, when you scour the company for signal achievements. Nobody is immune from the need for validation of their value to the company, and it reminds employees that everyone is pulling together.
Recognizing those achievements doesn’t require a huge gesture. It can take the form of a shout-out, a small token of appreciation, development opportunities, or low-cost rewards. The effort to select and honor good work sends a strong message of affirmation to both the recipient and the rest of the company.
Make time for social interactions.
The value of nurturing opportunities for social interactions that don’t revolve around work shouldn’t be underestimated. Spontaneous moments and shared jokes help bond employees to each other and the company in remote environments, just as they do at the office.
Set aside a little time during scheduled meetings to allow for non-work-related chat or a shared virtual coffee break to help recreate the less intense moments of office life that employees are missing. Occasionally, a special event may be called for, such as a happy hour, pizza party, or even an office party, where management and employees can “mingle”. Though they may seem contrived and artificial in concept, long-time remote managers and employees report that shared virtual events keep feelings of isolation at bay, while increasing the sense of belonging to a compatible group.
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