In the current situation, many companies, government entities, and universities have asked their employees to work remotely. While close to a quarter of the U.S. workforce already works from home at least part of the time, the policy of working from home is leaving managers physically separated from their workforce for the first time.
Some organizations have a clear work from home policy that has matured through the years, but many are seeing this for the first time due to the pandemic. It is a major cultural change in the way work is performed. The level of preparation that was available in the past is simply not an option; most companies are having to execute work from home plans in a matter of days.
Common Challenges of Remote Work
Managers who have never had to work virtually with their employees will find it challenging to communicate effectively, otherwise high performing employees might show a decline in performance. In the absence of a clear set of guidelines, the first few days would be confusing for all. Major challenges include the following:
Lack of personal supervision: Both managers and their employees miss that personal one on one discussion that takes place routinely when they are in the office. Something as simple as showing a problem to your boss might involve a complicated set of steps including a video call. Supervisors worry that employees will not be as effective as in the office due to lack of supervision and team support (though research indicates that performance might actually improve for some types of jobs). Employees also struggle with reduced managerial support and communication when they do not have direct access to their managers.
Time-consuming communication process: Employees who have to suddenly start working from home will find communication complicated and time-consuming when they need to go through phone calls or video conferencing. Jobs that require team input would be impacted much more than others as communication with multiple individuals on a video call is very different from being in the same room. Getting answers to what seem like basic questions can feel like an obstacle to a worker who just started working from home.
A general lack of empathy is often seen when people start working from home en mass, while in the office you are able to see the struggle and frustration of the person you are working with. But when you are remote it’s easy to assume a lack of professionalism. People take offense quickly when you cannot see facial expressions as the communication gets cut and dry. Many employees working from home for the first time may not have adequate communication skills to manage conflicts remotely.
Isolation coupled with boredom: The office is a place of work but also for social interactions, fun, and general banter. Without meeting people in person a lot of the social connection goes away leading to loneliness– this is one of the most common complaints about remote work. People may not feel like a part of a team and without the daily scrum meetings or the daily touch base, the disconnection can get aggravated. This feeling of isolation has a direct negative impact on team productivity. In some cases, the employee simply does not feel he belongs and may develop a desire to leave the company.
Distractions at home: Most regular remote work employees have a formal office setup, as they work all the time from home their families know the boundaries and distractions are minimal. However, when work from home is sudden, there is really no formal area that’s designated as a work area. The home mode where children can interface with their parents freely intrudes into work time especially if children cannot attend school. The typical depiction of work from home is portrayed with a parent holding a child and typing on a laptop, often sitting on a sofa or the living-room floor. This is a terrible representation of effective virtual work. Employers encourage their remote workers to have both a dedicated workspace and adequate childcare before they can work remotely. In the case of a sudden transition to virtual work, the work environment is definitely sub-optimal. As days go by, most employees do find a balance but the first few days are challenging.
Lack of performance management: Performance management takes a back seat when work from home is abruptly enforced. The first few days are crucial for people to get accustomed to their new work reality. However, it is imperative for a clear performance management process for work from home employees. This not only evaluates deliverables but also gives a clear structure of work to the employees working from home. A lot of what the manager would communicate should become part of performance management for audits and training.
Performance management for work from home employees works differently from work from office employees. For virtual employees, one on one meetings or group meetings conducted online are often not as effective as physical meetings and it becomes very important to clarify expectations so the chances of errors are minimal. A performance management system that runs on the cloud helps you bridge this communication gap. Frequent feedback and clarity of expectations make work from home employees as productive as work from office employees.
How can you support work from home employees?
Enable multiple communication channels: Only communicating via phone is ineffective when employees work from home. Technology offers many alternatives including online video conferencing, chatting on software like Skype, and working together on virtual whiteboards. Your work from home employees should be able to reach the team effectively just as if they were sitting in the office.
Participation in events: Having work from home employees participate in work events like pizza parties or training sessions can give their productivity a major boost. A simple act of sending the pizzas home to all the employees to have a collective get together can bring the team so much closer. Technologies like Gotomeeting and Zoom enable you to have video conferences with 100s of employees together.
Establish structured daily check-ins: Many successful remote managers establish a daily call with their work from home employees. This could take the form of a series of one-on-one calls if your employees work more independently from each other, or a team call, if their work is highly collaborative. The important feature is that the calls are regular and predictable and that there is a forum in which employees know that they can consult with you and their concerns and questions will be heard.
Ensure clarity of job expectations: Sudden switch to work from home can cause anxiety in employees about employer expectations. It’s best to lay down formal expectations in terms of things to be done, targets to be achieved or behaviors that are to be promoted. This ensures confusion is limited and employees get a clear picture of what they should accomplish with their limited abilities at home.
Deliver regular feedback: Work from home employees cannot receive direct feedback from their managers, video calls are too impersonal and not everything can be discussed in a group meeting. It is imperative that managers are able to post discrete feedback regularly for their subordinates. A 360-degree feedback process becomes even more important to get clarity on team dynamics as people do not meet each other face to face. Human resources play a very important role here to bridge communication gaps between team members.
Encouragement and emotional support: As most employees are not accustomed to working from home it becomes a stressful situation. They have to struggle with space, technology, expectations, and their colleagues who may not be very understanding. At this time it’s important to offer encouragement and support to employees in any and every way possible. Companies are having counselors call employees at home to see how they are doing and if they need assistance or just a patient ear to hear about problems.
We expect most managers to be able to cope pretty quickly, after some slow days we see most companies will be able to effectively operate. Leave us notes about your own experiences and advice for others in the same situation.