With more cities and states issuing stay-at-home orders every day due to COVID-19, businesses across the country must figure out how to transition to a remote workplace while keeping their doors open (so to speak). Only 3.6% of Americans were working at home half the time or more in 2019, but 62% of workers believed that their jobs could be done remotely. That’s certainly being put to the test as traditional companies that prefer to work exclusively in offices move operations into employees’ homes.
As a remote manager of 14 years and founder of consulting company HPWP Group, I know many leaders will struggle with this sudden transition to remote work. It’s difficult to let go of old ways of operating, especially if you believe that employees require direct supervision to be productive. Even progressive employers who truly subscribe to a culture of mutual trust and respect still hit a wall when it comes to this topic.
It’s ingrained at many companies that this kind of “flexibility” is a perk, benefit, or special consideration for those who have earned it. One of my clients, for example, had policies based on negative assumptions about workers that created a system in which executives were “allowed” to do things that others couldn’t. After many discussions, we enacted a remote work policy change to accommodate certain circumstances — but only some.
In general, I’ve found that companies are willing to institute remote-work policies only when it benefits them and not to satisfy employee suggestions or requests. So how will companies respond when return to in-person work is authorized but employees want to continue to work remotely? When I’ve asked this question, there has been some consternation or the belief that maybe one or two days a week could be remote. But why one or two days? Isn’t this a bit arbitrary?
To survive, employers must change — fast
For organizations to attract and retain talent, they have to realize that flexibility will be a must. Companies that transition smoothly to flexibility and remote work by adopting these seven strategies will be ahead in the talent recruiting and retention contest. Here’s how you can adopt an effective modern approach that will benefit your company long after the coronavirus pandemic ends:
1. Fix your mindset.
The key to making this work is arguably the hardest part to change: your mindset. If you resist remote work under normal circumstances, you may hold negative assumptions about people: that they cannot be trusted, they’ll get distracted, or they’ll abuse the situation. For this transition to work, you must establish a positive mindset regarding your employees. Tell yourself, “I’ve hired good people who are dedicated to their jobs. They care about the success of the company, and they’re ready to rise to the challenge.” According to research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, when employees feel trusted, they perform better and rise to managers’ expectations.
2. Focus on outcomes, not activities.
A review published in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that Businesses see positive results when they empower people to find what works best for them as individuals. Don’t use this opportunity to implement monitoring software to track every minute of people’s workdays. Micromanaging people can lead to poor performance, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. It’s also easy to look busy without accomplishing much. If you’ve hired good people, they’ll want to perform well, so measure results.
3. Choose coaching before criticism.
With the stress of the new coronavirus, the rapid pace of change and uncertainty, and the new dynamics at home, everyone’s nerves are frayed. When problems arise — and they will — coach your employees on improvement. If someone isn’t performing well, don’t make assumptions or write them up. Instead, have a two-way, adult-to-adult conversation to find the root of the problem. Facilitate a conversation, ask open-ended questions, and set a high expectation that the employee will take responsibility.
4. Maintain genuine transparency.
Assume that people care about the business and deserve to know it all: good news, bad news, changes, and challenges. This is especially true during a crisis, when rumors and half-truths circulate quickly and anxieties run high. Last week, I talked with a CEO who found that the senior leaders who reported to her weren’t sharing the information she was giving them to mid-level managers. It led to a lack of trust.
Genuine transparency strengthens working relationships. A survey conducted by the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies found that people at high-trust companies are 50% more productive, 76% more engaged, and take 13% fewer sick days. Aim to provide people with all the information they need, and if you’re not sure how much that is, ask your team.
5. Give the people what they want.
According to Owl Labs, 80% to 90% of employees in the U.S. already wanted to work remotely at least part of the time before the coronavirus. Flexibility was desirable before, and it’s essential now.
Don’t expect the average workday to look the same: Many people will have children and partners at home, pets that need walking, and homeschooling to conduct. But trust that they will get their work done. In fact, some people will be more productive: A survey conducted by IWG found that 85% of businesses claim an increase in productivity because of greater flexibility for employees.
6. Provide a healthy amount of structure.
If you’re leading remote teams for the first time, know that each person adjusts differently. Your teams need judgment-free feedback regarding how they’re really doing, according to Gallup’s report. When people falter because the work seems unending, offer more structure. Help them set (and maintain!) healthy work hours, encourage them to create a priority list, and suggest they use accountability partners.
Other employees will miss the personal interactions at the office. They may feel cut off, out of the loop, and even depressed. For these people, team meetings and huddles are a lifeline, not a waste of time. Using technology that allows you to see and hear each other fosters continued community.
7. Expect the best.
In my book, “Creating the High Performance Work Place,” I mention how leaders who don’t set high expectations shouldn’t be surprised when average results are achieved. It’s when people are challenged to do great things that they rise to the occasion and perform their best. Now is the time to challenge your team and convey your heartfelt belief in their abilities. Only half of employees know what leaders expect of them, so setting high expectations during this difficult time will give purpose and meaning to the work they do.
During this pandemic, we need leaders who will inspire and motivate and team members who will operate without fear. If you can trust your employees to be responsible even when you’re not looking over their shoulders, I have no doubt that you’ll see positive outcomes. And you’ll be so much better positioned to meet the challenges the future of work will require.