The coronavirus has landed, with all the force of the Niagara Falls, on the desks of enterprises be they start-up, mid-growth or multinational. With full or partial lockdown, remote working is the new necessity.

But it is tough on those who still have to lead, manage and deliver. They must continue as if the torrent had never happened and may be just keeping their heads above water. The number one issue that keeps bobbing up is how to trust workers when they are not office based.

Is seeing necessary for believing?  Let’s take the Niagara Falls. How do you know that it flows? You have seen many pictures. You may have read about it in a geography book. Perhaps you have even confronted its spectacular grandeur in person and felt its cool, misty spray on your face. But you don’t need to watch it every waking minute to reassure yourself that it’s still going. You just assume that it is, unless otherwise notified (via the media showing the water being diverted to a dribble plus pictures of dismayed tourists). Why then do you need to see your employees to believe they are working? But, the cry goes up, Niagara Falls is a force of nature. Agreed – and so too are your workers.

Calculate supervision time. Perhaps some are not convinced by the above argument and live-stream Niagara Falls just to be sure. How much time would they spend actually observing it? Similarly, how much time do managers spend supervising people in their line of vision? The result may be surprising. Pre-coronavirus, many hours may have been consumed by internal meetings, engaging with clients, travelling, or even tackling their own hefty to-do list. The amount of time devoted to gazing at a co-worker (office crushes aside) is really very low.

But how do you paddle that bit further to engender and maximize trust with remote workers?

1 – Track record

“I don’t know if I can count on them.” Appraise your colleagues anew with evidence-based reflections. Consider qualities that make it expected that they will deliver. Perhaps they are intelligent, enthusiastic, hard-working, honest, committed, tenacious, proactive, reliable, experienced or just plain professional. If they are recent hires, you presumably appointed them for good reasons. Again, remind yourself.   

2 – Assess how much “non-work” occurs in the office

“I bet they’re getting on with some home chores.” You may will be right. But to what extent is that actually a problem? In the office people may take a coffee break, pop out to get a sandwich, or have a non-work related chat with a co-worker. The minutes build up. If an employee takes a few minutes to put a load of laundry on, it’s not that different. And remember that your workers will not be commuting and that saved time is likely to be devoted to work.

3 – Set measurable targets

“I suspect they’ll surf the net all day.” The internet is a universal temptation and indeed the road to hell may well be paved with iPhones. The answer is to lead by setting realistic targets, and explaining their importance and impact. Define outcomes and state deadlines for each task or stage of a project. With all that to contend with, there won’t be much occasion for dilly-dallying online.

4 – Choose the right means of communication

“I guess I’ll just have to put up with anything.” This type of defeatist helplessness by a manager is of no use to anyone. If something has to be improved in ways of working, say so – not forgetting that positive feedback is also a motivator. But select your means of communication wisely. If you have a tricky matter to thrash out, don’t fall back on e-mail or the phone when, in the office, you would do it face-to-face. Turning to Skype may not feel natural but it is the best alternative for those moments when real-time discussions, facial expressions and body language are as important as the message.

5 – Become the water cooler

“We’re too scattered to be effective.” A leader’s job description now includes pivoting to perform half the function of the water cooler, admittedly an odd requirement in the midst of a deluge. In lockdown there is no office conversation or camaraderie, no impromptu discussions at each other’s desks. You must do the information spread yourself. Use Zoom or similar for team meetings and give updates on what is happening so that every member is kept in the loop.  

You’ve done the above and still feel like flaking out? Watch Niagara Falls on YouTube, gushing beautifully and majestically, and listen with mood music of your choice. It’s actually quite soothing.