COVID-19 has disrupted work as we know it, forcing many businesses to transition to a remote workforce. Telework adoption was increasing prior to the pandemic, but most organizations and employees weren’t prepared or interested in shifting to a largely virtual workforce, especially overnight. But whether we like it or not, virtual work isn’t going anywhere.
Effectively managing a virtual workforce and being a productive virtual employee require different operating practices, habits and behaviors than we typically employ in the office. Consequently, many organizations and employees are currently struggling to maintain productivity and make space for creative thinking and innovation while working from home. For those who didn’t choose the work-from-home life, it can feel solitary, uninspiring, depressing and stressful.
Trust is the Foundation
I’ve worked remotely full-time for the last five years. I’m intimately familiar with the shifts that need to occur to both remotely manage and engage employees effectively, and to be a productive, high-functioning remote team member. For all organizations and employees, trust is the foundation for any successful virtual working relationship.
- Managers and leaders need to trust that their employees will get their work done and won’t take advantage of the lack of in-person accountability
- Employees need to trust that their managers and leaders are transparent about their expectations and company strategy
This mutual trust facilitates workplace efficiency and enhances performance. Without it, managers can quickly turn into bean-counting taskmasters and employees can become disengaged and insecure. Such mistrust stifles adaptability, open communication, creativity and innovation – qualities that are increasingly important in today’s uncertain times.
Fortunately, organizations can build a culture of trust and this should be the goal. However, there will always be managers and employees that don’t have the temperament to thrive in virtual working environments. Knowing when to cut ties with these individuals is important as well, and further demonstrates an organization’s commitment to building a culture of trust.
Interestingly, remote managers and employees can build trust by engaging in seemingly opposite behaviors. Remote managers can engender more trust with employees by relaxing the reigns a bit, while remote employees can create trust by operating with more structure and intention.
Rethinking the Eight-Hour Workday
Re-examining the structure of a typical workday can also promote better performance and results from remote teams. Most organizations adhere to the typical eight-hour workday, which was conceived during the Industrial Revolution, when most work was manual labor. This model no longer makes sense, nor does it really foster a culture a trust.
Today’s remote workers are largely dedicated to cognitive tasks, rather than physical labor. Cognitive work requires focus and strategic, analytical and creative thinking. Not only is it hard to focus for eight hours straight, but innovative ideas are rarely formed sitting at a computer from 8:30 am and 5:30 pm, Monday through Friday.
I’m not advocating for working fewer hours (although I’m not opposed to that), but I’m in favor of greater flexibility in how and when we work remotely. The focus should be on output and outcomes, not the number of hours worked. Relaxing some of these antiquated notions of work creates potential for more engaged, productive and creative remote teams and employees.
10 Practices to Thrive With a Remote Workforce
Remote managers and employees can adopt a number of flexible practices, habits and behaviors to foster trust and unlock greater productivity and creativity.
- Give employees autonomy – Don’t micromanage your team; trust that they will accomplish what they have agreed to accomplish. Give them space to think creatively and don’t expect them to be on call 24/7 or respond to email immediately, just because they are at home.
- Clearly define expectations and goals – Communicate ground rules, clear lines of accountability, milestones, deadlines and how you want to be informed of progress. Schedule regular check-ins and let employees know if there are standard hours they should be available (i.e., a customer- or market-facing role may require set hours, other roles may not).
- Communicate your company and team strategy – Be transparent about business practices and strategies and generously share the context for decisions. Withholding information, intentionally or not, often breeds mistrust.
- Be available and show your humanity – Without frequent in-person interactions, it can be harder to know how remote team members are doing. Let your team know they can always reach out to you and be there to support them. Show an interest in getting to know each team member on a personal level.
- Invest in communication and collaboration tools, but don’t overuse them – Communication is more important and more challenging when everyone is remote. Tools like Zoom, Slack and Trello can help, but teams can burn out on hours of videoconferencing each day and Slack can make employees feel obligated to engage 24/7. Picking up the phone and sending emails to communicate still work well.
- Create a routine, plan for the week and structure your day – Start and end work around the same time most days and let your team know your general availability. Go into each week with a high-level plan for each day that you can modify as needed, in order to stay disciplined and accountable for following through on what you committed to accomplish. To do lists are helpful.
- Set boundaries – It’s easy to slip into working all the time when you’re working from home. This is why routine and structure are critical. Know what you plan to accomplish each day and have a stopping point where you don’t respond to emails or do more work. Communicate your boundaries to your team members.
- Take breaks and get outside – Working at home all day can be rough on your body and your mood if you don’t take breaks. Set aside time for a midday walk or workout to get your blood flowing and to give your mind a break. Often, your most creative ideas occur during these breaks.
- Bring your whole self to work and incorporate this into your brand – Give team members a glimpse of who you are outside of the office – it’s ok if they occasionally hear your child calling for you or your dog barks; you don’t have to be perfectly buttoned up all the time. Enhance your brand by bringing more of who you are and your personality into your work.
- Invest in self-care – Working from home can quickly devolve into a life of living in your PJs, eating takeout and never leaving the house. Shower and get dressed every day (even if you’re changing out of PJs and into sweats), keep healthy food at home and build in time for social interactions.
Working remotely full-time can be a big transition for managers and employees. If you or your organization want help navigating how to optimize remote work, let’s talk.