At a time when remote work is the norm for many employees, how do managers effectively lead their teams from a distance? Managers must lead and ensure that company guidelines are provided that encourage employee productivity while reinforcing employee satisfaction and morale. They must develop a whole new skill set, but the biggest leap may be to develop the mindset essential to managing employees you can’t see each day in the office.
The Rapid Rise of Remote Work
Employees are participating in remote work in unprecedented numbers. According to data analytics firm Gallup, the average number of workdays telecommuters are working from home has more than doubled, from 5.8 days per month in October 2019 to 11.9 days as of September 2020. Among all U.S. workers, the average number of telecommuting days has also more than doubled, from 2.4 per month to 5.8.
Additionally, Gallup finds that 26% of U.S. workers currently say that they have worked entirely from home recently, “while 51% are working entirely from a location outside their home, with one in five reporting a mix of on-site and remote work.” Not unexpectedly, college graduates have been more likely to work from home (38%).
Challenges and Advantages of Remote Work for Employers
Employers will experience the pitfalls and advantages of this unprecedented remote work from home situation. A virtual workforce requires stronger leadership skills than ever before when it comes to coordinating projects and bringing the team together as a cohesive unit.
In a Talent Development Leadership Forum, these leadership skills were found more essential when managing a remote team:
- Establish and meet metrics for work projects and goals
- Be extremely clear with goals and directions with a constant focus on the big picture
- Work with a high degree of complexity
- Promote organizational commitment
One forum interviewee said, “It may be that leaders in a virtual environment need just a little more of everything: more knowledge of technology, more knowledge on how to work with team dynamics, stronger communication skills, and of course, a little more patience.”
Challenges for Employers
Employers need to ensure that employee productivity delivers the sales and profitability they need to keep business viable. At the same time, employee morale, motivation, and satisfaction are paramount in creating a positive work environment that retains your most-needed employees. Challenges to these goals include:
- Providing effective oversight of employees who have never experienced and may not have the skills necessary to thrive in a remote work situation
- Developing the communication and technology skills necessary to manage remote employees using devices such as laptops, smartphones, and software for holding remote meetings
- Knowing what, when, and how often to support employees’ emotional needs while keeping communication transparent and professional
- Facilitating remote team building using meetings, activities, and icebreakers that promote employee connections and morale
- Learning how to support your employees to enhance their work-life balance and emotional well-being in a remote workforce setting
Provide tips on how to maintain a consistent daily schedule and take time off for lunch and breaks. Remind employees about existing mental health programs your company may offer.
Advantages for Employers
When employees work from home, there are advantages for employers who properly manage their employees’ needs and wants.
Lower Operating Costs
Lower costs of operation such as lower utility bills, savings on bandwidth, and fewer staffing needs at customer-facing workstations are a plus for employers. For those employers who are convinced that remote work will remain their employees’ preferred work environment into the future, savings such as renting less square footage and purchasing less furniture and devices are substantial.
Boost in Productivity
Increased productivity results in better work from employees—they gain back the hours they spend each week commuting, and they can focus more on tasks without interruption from coworkers.
The blurring of lines between work life and home responsibilities can result in employees who spend more time thinking about and engaged in work projects and cultivating better outcomes.
General Cost Savings
General cost savings due to employees using their own devices for work and taking less paid time off (PTO) can lower expenses for employers. This also generates cost savings because employers do not have to deal with issues related to employee absenteeism and tardiness.
Tips to Effectively Engage and Manage Teams
You can provide effective remote talent management by taking the following steps while employees are working from home.
Increase Meeting Frequency
Schedule meetings more frequently so you have time set aside on your calendar to catch up one-on-one with individual employees, as a team, and in remote company meetings. When no one is working together in the office, time together becomes even more important.
Continually Check In
Set up recurring check-in times with your team members to foster the casual moments of connection throughout the work week that would normally have occurred in your offices.
These can include team happy hours, coffee breaks with coworkers, and virtual lunches over video to bond and celebrate your team and organizational successes.
Establish Clear Goals
When setting assignments for employees and teams, specify clear and well-defined end goals so they know exactly the result you need from them. Specify what you need—not how to do the assignment—so employees are empowered to decide their own course of action.
Share Work Progress
Use a shared tracking system for team and individual deliverables, deadlines, and goals. Such a system will foster trust among employees—and with you as the manager—that the team is doing their jobs.
Maintain Video Interaction
To foster a sense of in-office closeness, managers and employees need to use their webcams and video communication programs. The rich, in-person interaction that you take for granted in the office is scarce in remote work. Thus, effective managers will want to nurture relationships and foster connections by seeing people face-to-face.
You will want to make your team members feel valued and appreciated—even more when they are working from home under not-always-favorable working conditions. Employee rewards and recognition are even more important when the team is working remotely. Congratulate, thank, and compliment performance more than you critique or suggest improvement. Take the time every day to tell at least one employee either in an email or over the phone that you appreciate something about them and their work.
Emphasize Employee Wellness
Keep your fingers on the pulse of your employees so you are aware of how they are feeling and how they are dealing with any adverse side effects of remote work.
You can do this by holding well-being focus groups, using employee surveys, and asking managers and HR staff to talk with people. Start a wellness newsletter, schedule online yoga classes, send a daily wellness tip, or provide opportunities for employees to get together while keeping personal distance and wearing masks. One example is to purchase lunch for employees and their families and schedule a time for them to pick it up at the office, where they will safely see each other.
The Risks of Remote Talent Management
As managers learn to effectively oversee remote workers, they need to note that serious mistakes in decision making can adversely affect their relationships with employees. In these unexpected working conditions, managers will particularly want to avoid mistakes such as micromanagement, which in turn can foster distrust.
Perceiving the need to monitor employees’ work times and amounts can be tantamount to saying that you do not trust your employees.
Yet, a study by Gartner notes that employee monitoring has risen significantly since 2015, and 80% of employers are expected to use new tools and data sources to monitor staff as remote work becomes the norm.
Micromanagement Can Breed Distrust
You want to avoid making employees feel untrusted. This lack of trust can lead to workers spending time gaming the system and losing focus on their actual, needed output. According to Accenture, 52% of workers think that the use of new sources of workforce data risks damaging employee trust. It can also cause severe lack of motivation and commitment. Focus instead on what employees are actually producing—not on when they produce it.
Micromanaging employee work is a mistake managers are prone to make when they cannot see their employees actually doing their job. This is partly a trust issue, but also an inexperience problem. Managing in a remote environment can result in a leader showing controlling behavior when interacting with staff.
Overcoming Remote Management Risks
When providing talent management to your employees who are working remotely, do not forget the importance of personal and professional development. For example, if you notice an employee is not working enough and/or dealing ineffectively with telecommuting, you need to establish clear goals and criteria that sets a standard for the employee and motivates them. By addressing this failure promptly and correctly, you can build trust with the employee and the rest of your team.
The opportunity to grow and develop skills remains a significant contributor to employee morale and motivation. Make sure that online classes, coaching sessions with you, the implementation of a career development plan, and additional, more responsible work opportunities are available.
Setting Proper Guidelines
As a manager, you can provide particular guidelines about your employees’ working conditions even when the job is remote. By creating specific guidelines, you can go out of your way to make sure your employees are well.
- Requiring Meeting Attendance: You can require attendance at the remote weekly staff meeting or the total employee company meeting. You can also ask team members to share their schedules, projects, timelines, goals, and needs with each other so efficient project coordination can occur.
- Establishing Work Hours: In setting working hours, you can require a core time every day during which the exempt employee must make themselves available to collaborate with peers. With your non-exempt employees, you must have stated working hours that they adhere to and you can require that employees ask for permission to work overtime.
- Addressing Employee Well-Being: You want to ensure that you are properly attending to the well-being of your remote employees. In remote work, many of your employees will experience loneliness and feelings of isolation; they will also have to address new distractions such as family and pets.
- Planning Properly: Make sure that you do the appropriate planning before, during, and after the remote meetings you do hold. Having an agenda, clear goals, and anticipated outcomes becomes even more important when people do remote work.
To maximize employee productivity and well-being in a remote environment, encourage them to:
- Set up boundaries and expectations with family members
- Maintain a workstation that is separate from central living areas
- Set up a consistent work schedule
- Maintain self-care such as eating regularly, chatting with friends, exercising, and sleeping regular hours
- Communicate what they need in order to work more effectively
The Bottom Line
The era of remote work has brought about new challenges and opportunities that managers may never have expected to experience in their lifetimes. However, it has also generated a new vision for how employees will work going forward—and this may not include working full-time in an office. As such, it provides a valuable opportunity for managers to positively—and with deliberate practice—hone their new skills as a remote manager. Talent management from a distance will be the new norm in a globally dispersed and remote work environment, so it’s time to think about the potential for this new world of work.