If you’re like many companies across the country, you’re continuing to hone remote operations after sending employees home for virtual work. The Atlantic has called it “an anxious trial run for remote work at a grand scale.” As employees and companies settle into this trial run, many are following the lead of tech giants like Facebook and Twitter and moving to—or considering a move to—a permanent remote workforce.
Many workers have fashioned makeshift offices in living rooms and basements, and on dining room tables. Others have finally settled into a more sustainable workspace. Either way, many employers and managers are exploring best practices to get the best, most consistent performance from their now-distant employees.
We’ve developed a list of resources to help employers suddenly managing from afar.
Establish a Remote Home Base
Building a remote base—even a basic one—is a solid starting point for many managers and companies moving to a distributed workforce, a lengthy remote work guide from Trello says. Trello notes five basic elements necessary for a remote office. The elements include at least one synchronous communication channel (like Slack), a digital workspace, a video meeting space, open document storage, and a common calendar. Thankfully, some well-established tech companies like Google, Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Dropbox have these platforms readily available.
Revamp Communication and Support
With a base in place, your next goal is communication. Establishing intentional, clear, and defined remote-work policies would be ideal, no doubt. But that’s just not realistic for thousands of managers who’ve had to adjust on the fly. This Harvard Business Review article lays out the challenges. Loneliness and social isolation, limited direct supervision, lack of access to information, and distractions at home are all new challenges employees and managers alike have to navigate.
What can employers do? Create daily communication check-ins. Also, engage with employees using different forms of communication. A daily phone call or Zoom meeting can help keep employees feel connected and motivated. These can also help you better provide direct supervision to employees who may be struggling to stay focused. There are no shortages of ways to connect, but remember that not all forms of communication work well for everyone. Learn what works best for each member of your team, then use that. Providing opportunities and platforms for social interaction and emotional support can also help offset employees’ potential loneliness and isolation.
Flexibility Is Your Friend
Research shows remote work can increase work-life balance without compromising productivity. As the coronavirus pandemic was ramping up in March, the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) created a practical guide for employers moving workers virtual for the first time. Fostering flexibility not only helps maintain a healthy work-life balance but, at the moment, also keeps employees safe from COVID-19. SHRM recommends establishing a chief communicator and information command center. The organization also encourages employers to adjust productivity expectations, be mindful of the health and safety of employees and teams, and be aware of how remote policies impact women and the under-represented.
Hiring and Culture
Think about building your remote workforce management plan in stages. Web-app integrator Zapier has been running a remote workforce since day one. Co-founder and CEO Wade Foster offered some sage advice earlier this year. The first task, Foster says, is to hire doers, writers, people you can trust, and those who are comfortable not working in an overly-social environment. Obviously, most managers weren’t considering hiring for a remote workforce when they first built their team To build your team, get this group going so that you maintain productivity, and then work with those who are less comfortable.
With your team in place, Foster says, use the right software and tools. Many already know Slack, Zoom, and GitHub, all of which Foster recommends. But Zapier has also manufactured its own tools like Async, which Foster describes as a “blog meets Reddit.” It’s in-between internal emails and Slack, and it can archive messages too long for Slack and too critical to get buried in inboxes.
Foster also recommends establishing weekly informal hangouts, creating “pair buddies,” and holding weekly one-on-ones to build the work culture of a remote workforce.
Change the Evaluation
US capitalist culture evaluates productivity based on hours worked. Many industries value employees who arrive to the office early, leave late, and come in on weekends. Let’s not fool ourselves. Even snazzy tech companies with on-campus gyms, hair salons, and multiple restaurants created those perks not just to make life easier for their employees. They wanted to reduce the number of midday errands that took employees away from the office.
What does that mean for you? Moving to a remote work environment creates an opportunity to redefine how you evaluate employees, even if—before your move to remote—you didn’t track hours and work schedules were flexible. Another SHRM article suggests creating a system to evaluate employees based on output rather than hours worked. Working with the age-old SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and timely) goal technique is one way employers can create competencies and evaluate accomplishments. Being intentional and more organized are other ways managers can clearly communicate goals and set actionable steps. This allows you to evaluate employees based on what they do, not simply seeing when someone logs on and then logs off for the day.
What About Distractions?
This, admittedly, largely falls on individual employees to self-regulate. But as a manager, you can help your newly remote employees avoid a midday Netflix binge or chore fiasco. A Glassdoor study from earlier this year found that TV and childcare are the two biggest distractions for remote workers.
One thing managers can do to support employees in striking a balance and avoiding work disruption is to suggest they make a schedule for their kids and families. They should consider kids’ school and play activities ahead of time, including lunches and naps. Include meetings and focused work time in the schedule as well.
A MoneyCrashers article suggests that employees establish places away from their desk for eating and encourages parents to hire help during key work hours for childcare and housecleaning. Providing tips and resources like these for your employees can help drive home your commitment to their success in working at home.
Another idea to help with distractions in general is to create a team-wide, self-care morning routine. Suggest a 15-minute yoga or meditation routine that teams can do together. Or ask employees to share their to-do or task lists each morning. This will help increase accountability and focus. Lastly, be clear about communication expectations. For example, create a policy that employees respond to Slack messages and emails within an hour or two during normal working hours.
Even before going fully remote, my small digital media company created a #random Slack thread. It’s for goofing off, YouTube videos, gifs, and making each other laugh. Slack recommends doing the same in its manager’s guide to remote work published in March. Remote work creates unique ways to infuse some fun into team meetings. Besides the weekly digital happy hours, Slack recommends trying some icebreakers at the beginning of team meetings. Take turns giving a tour of each team member’s home. Or have a show-and-tell time. Companies and teams can build some camaraderie while also getting to know each other in new and important ways.
Managing remote workers is new—and like anything new, some tactics will work well and some will need some adjustment. That’s what managers do. Make sure to keep an open mind as you experiment with what works best for you and your employees. And use these tips as your launching point.