I’ve been a manager for many years. And I love it. I love problem-solving. I love the challenge of removing barriers that might prevent workers from producing at their highest level. I love listening. And by now, I’ve stockpiled enough experience in the fringe cases to believe there isn’t much I haven’t seen. Until now, that is.
Perhaps the very first priority in the face of the current crisis should be all the operational matters that arise when a business must go virtual overnight, but the management challenges are right there on the heels. All the same objectives still exist—optimizing productivity, managing conflict, and staff morale and motivation. But if you’re suddenly managing your employees from afar, things may feel overwhelming and out of control.
Managing remote employees has challenges, but also many benefits, and certainly some misconceptions. If you can get past the layer of management that has now been inserted into the foreground—crisis management, employee morale, services, not to mention possible furloughs and other HR matters—you can adjust quickly to this new working environment with the right mindset shift.
For those who are new to the world of managing remote workers, the first important step is to understand what the challenges are, and what they aren’t.
Two key misconceptions
A common assumption among many who don’t have experience with telecommuting is that staff morale and individual productivity will suffer in any remote scenario.
Concern about team camaraderie is probably the number-one misconception about managing remote workers. It’s not that this isn’t a valid issue – obviously, the lack of a physical workspace creates a distance that must be monitored and managed. Luckily, there are many technological ways to minimize the impact of that physical distance on staff morale. Regular video conferencing is crucial to assess body language and bring multiple team members together. It’s a greater time commitment, perhaps, but this a new world we live in, and this must now be a manager’s priority.
Similar concerns around individual productivity may also seem daunting – yet they, too, can be overcome. It may seem inevitable that remote workers will slack on their responsibilities and deadlines if they are not being physically monitored, but research shows this is not true in most cases. In fact, in the recent State of Remote Work report by Owl Labs, more than three-fourths of employees reported experiencing increased productivity and focus when working remotely. The ability of individual employees to concentrate on working when they are most productive is strengthened — not stifled — in a remote work environment.
Staff must come to trust that their manager is “there” whenever they may need him or her. Meanwhile, managers must come to trust that staff are trustworthy and in general, will do their jobs up to the standard that is required of them.
The benefits of remote work
While many companies have temporarily been thrust into remote-work scenarios by the COVID-19 crisis, firms that allow telecommuting on a regular basis actually enjoy some significant business advantages.
Allowing remote work allows companies to draw on a larger talent pool, and the flexibility of telecommuting is a major factor in increasing employee retention. The Owl Labs study also found that 80 percent of employees believe that working remotely makes them less stressed. In a time where uncertainty is a reality for workers everywhere, having control of work-life balance at home is a critical plus.
Most importantly, remote employees have the opportunity to work in their natural rhythms, finding the times of day in which they do their best work. For some, it might be late at night after the kids have gone to bed, while others may find they get their best work done before sunrise. No matter their individual working preferences, workers feel more in control of their workday when they can choose how to structure it. This sense of control in turns helps to improve both productivity and quality.
Motivating remote teams
Motivation is very important to managing staff. If your staff are remote, motivation is almost everything. Many old-school managers think of motivation as simply a matter of carrots, sticks, and the occasional pep talk, however there’s quite a bit more to it than that.
Employees often feel more motivated when they have a full understanding of their role within the larger context of the organizational mission. Communicating this to staff becomes one of your key managerial responsibilities when managing remote workers. Employees no longer overhear sales team members talking about products on the phone. They no longer snag anecdotal stories about customer satisfaction. Managers must not lose perspective on how this can erode employee motivation. Communication is key. Acknowledge staff accomplishments. Pair employees together in strategic ways. Encourage cross functional knowledge sharing so that everyone understands where the organization is headed.
The objectives of managing employees are the same whether those employees are remote or in person. However, in this ever-changing business landscape, managers must remain open to new ideas, new information, and new technology to accomplish these goals. There is a great deal of uncertainty in the current world of work, however, it’s safe to assume that remote working will become more and more prevalent in these changing times. Now more than ever, it’s critical to learn how to embrace this shift.