[Authored by: Kim Hoogeveen, PhD]
Many business leaders are today facing a new challenge: how to effectively supervise and lead employees who are working from remote locations. Truth be told, this has been a vexing challenge for years, but now the number of supervisors facing this challenge has exploded.
We want to offer a few insights that might be helpful, but let’s start with this reminder: for some challenges there is no perfect answer. There is a reason a great therapist doesn’t suggest to his client that they just visit over the telephone. There is a reason the president’s advisers all gather in one room rather than have email or text exchanges when there are decisions of great importance to be made. There is no fully satisfying substitute for being able to meet in person; there is no fully satisfying substitute for bringing bright people physically together to all focus on an important opportunity or challenge. Communication is enhanced when we can hear and see even the smallest inflection or reaction in the eyes.
Yet given the concession that remote supervision may not be as effective as could be accomplished via personal interaction, we still have the opportunity to do it well. Here are eleven thoughts from MindSet that may help you lead better from afar when it comes to managing remote employees:
Eleven Essentials for Supervising Remote Workers
1) It’s Not About You. When employees are working remotely for the first time, their personalities don’t change. Think about which of your employees normally need more reassurance or guidance from you and make a reminder to contact them more frequently. Make sure they know you are available weekends and evenings for a call; that may be the only time they get a calm enough household in which to work. As MindSet always reminds you: leadership is all about the employee on the other side of the desk. Well, now we are going to tweak that to say: it’s all about the employee on the other end of the phone. Leaders still need to adapt to what each individual needs from you to grow and succeed.
2) Help Employees Find Their Grove. We are all aware that many first timers working from home will have difficulty structuring their day. The only thing that may feel “normal” is their morning shower. (Note that one tip many successful at home workers give is to get up at a normal workday time, shower, and dress for work. That structure seems to help set an orientation for the day and prevent the weekend pattern of sleeping in and donning a bathrobe until after lunch. J) After their morning routine, they are in new territory. Employees may not have a good work area, the kids may be at home, or their spouse may also be finding a way to work from home or be figuring out how to function with your employee now also underfoot. It will take some time for them to get acclimated, so be understanding and refer them to the many resources available to help first-time, work-from-home people succeed. If you’d like to provide your employees with an additional resource, here are 9 Tips from MindSet on Working from Home.
3) Stay Connected. We have the blessing of technology – use it. Technology can separate us from human interaction (e.g., the couple out for dinner sitting across from one another and both reading emails), but when used purposefully, technology can connect us as well. Physical separation may be necessary, but we have the power to make sure it does not degrade into isolation.
Consider how you can help your employees technologically onboard to the new normal. Make sure they have (a) the needed technology and equipment, and (b) access to the tech support (24/7 if possible), and (c) constant encouragement to connect, connect, connect. If your team isn’t accustomed to video conferencing/chatting, now is the time to try it (we recommend Zoom, an industry leader in video conferencing). Leading remotely requires extra effort to maintain connection. Insist on regular video calls if you are able. What may start as novel and awkward will soon become a new normal.
Make your tech folks available – and tell them to breathe deeply and perhaps be even a bit more patient than usual! That star customer service rep who always had someone beside her to fix the software glitch or explain how to use a program is now working at home and is feeling frustrated and helpless.
4) Clarify Expectations for Job Performance. Make decisions on operational details that will be on your first-time home workers’ minds. How do work hours work? When should they check in with you? What tasks can they go ahead and run with? Should they call colleagues? Do we have clear time frames for work production? Your specific answers are not as important as being proactive. Creating clarity around basic expectations will build confidence and reduce anxiety. Warn employees that they may need a couple weeks to find a productive pattern. And extend some grace by letting them know you understand they may need to run an errand or sort out a ruckus when their 4-year-old son who has again done something to upset his 6-year-old sister.
5) Clarify Expectations for Communication. On a related note, individuals working from home for the first time, you need to be accessible – a LOT. So either check your email often or tell your remote workers your triage system for responding, e.g., to email if the issue is not pressing, text for quick but important issues, and call if urgent. Some will be hesitant to contact you after normal work hours, so make explicit how open you are to that, and the more welcoming you are the better. Bottom line is you need to structure your accessibility as your staff members can’t now come stand in your doorway when something is important.
6) Just Make the Call. The telephone should be your friend. If working from home is a new experience for them, call your direct reports. Have no real reason or topic in mind? Call anyway. The point is to just check in and see how they are doing. Visit about THEM and if there is anything you can do to help them with work or their family.
7) Keep Your Team Connected. Often, not only about work issues or questions, but just to chat for a bit and stay connected. Consider a virtual happy hour. It might also be helpful to encourage those who are having more difficulties adjusting to working at home to reach out to colleagues for suggestions or perhaps to just find out that others are facing the same challenges. The former is constructive and the latter is reassuring!
8) Add a Personal Touch. Make your written communication, particularly emails, warmer and more personal. When we see Bill every day and have the opportunity to talk about his weekend or the football game, we can make subsequent email communication with Bill strictly business related, i.e., brief and to the point. Well, now you don’t get to see Bill in person every morning, so that social connection needs to be stoked. You don’t need to recreate your typical social interaction in its entirety, but the tone of your email can be softened by just an extra salutation, joke, check-in question, or even (horrors!) a smiley face. In other words, lighten up!
9) Encourage Special Projects and Growth. Consider expanding their purview or opportunities. Sometimes work from home can drag. Employees may feel constrained in their scope and what they can accomplish. Consider giving them a little something extra, e.g., do some deep research, write a position paper, plan a webinar, or chip away at that “rainy day” list. This can help switch things up and keep them involved in their work without being depressed by the mundane.
When the work-from-home situation is temporary, consider how they might use this time to improve their skills and knowledge base. Skill acquisition can be had from formal online training offerings or by simply encouraging/allowing them to explore and learn on their own. Self-directed learning opportunities abound online if we commit the time and focus on using them.
9) Spend Some Time on the Positive. Don’t make all of your communication about the day’s current crisis. Talk about something someone did for someone else or an exciting business idea for down the line. Ask about their kids or a trip they are looking forward to this fall. Your staff members will appreciate you relating something uplifting or hopeful. If you are naturally inclined to be a pessimist…well, suck it up or hand off communication to someone better suited to lead humans!
10) Do Something Unexpected and Thoughtful. Have some fun and be creative. Send a gift to the house – maybe something like a “work from home” care package. Think of the family as well, e.g., one brilliant MindSet client has set up an online “story time” for the children of staff members who are now forced to work from home.
11) A Bigger Opportunity for Tech Support. We earlier mentioned the importance of making your tech people accessible to ensure your remote workers are comfortable with the technology they need. But they have an opportunity to do even more. As they interact with remote workers, they have a great opportunity to share stories about good things they have heard from other staff members. Encourage your tech support staff to not just solve problems, but to connect with remote staff on a personal level. Be eyes and ears to get a feel for how a given staff member is doing with the new work situation, and make sure they know that you will 100% welcome any cues from them should they sense that it would be a particularly good time for a supervisor to give a remote worker a call.
Working remote requires change, and neither individuals nor systems are naturally good at that. But change also brings opportunity if we embrace it more as an adventure than a torture chamber that must be endured. Help your employees to be challenged and excited about the possibilities. With the right combination of tone and technique from leaders, individuals can be happy and productive from home, and remote teams can thrive.