The advent of the novel coronavirus has left an indelible mark on the world. It’s changed how we educate our children, connect with loved ones, visit gyms and restaurants, go about our daily lives, and work. While many thought that the new wave of working from home all over the world would only last as long as the stay-home orders in each location, it’s starting to look like working from home is here to stay permanently.
There are plenty of pros and cons to this situation—and tons of posts, stories, and videos about managing in this new environment. Here are the most important things you need to know to ensure that you can manage and inspire your remote teams as we all navigate the new world of work in the post-pandemic world.
The Truth: Working from Home Is Here to Stay
You read that right: Working remotely is not going to go away anytime soon. That’s according to a number of experts from a wide variety of backgrounds. This poses some good news and some bad news for everyone. First, bosses have to learn to up their game when it comes to managing a remote workforce that’s been compelled to figure out how to balance kids’ virtual school schedules and multiple Zoom meetings a day and still get their work done. Second, it also means that since the grand experiment of working remotely seems to be working, employees are going to expect that it will continue whether or not the rest of the world goes back to “normal.”
The new environment means that workers are generally working longer hours and shifting their work around their kids’ schedules. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that the workday for those working from home during these times has gotten noticeably longer, and the number, size, and frequency of meetings have increased. Workers are also sending more Slack messages and texts in the hours between 6:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m., as they shift to what many call a “Swiss cheese” style workday—with “holes” in the day to deal with the demands of virtual schooling for kids and other family needs.
Additionally, if you think that it’s just tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Google all going to permanent work-from-home environments, you’re incorrect. Nationwide recently announced that it was closing five regional offices all over the country to go more remote. Nielsen, the media reporting company, is transitioning to a mostly remote workforce and converting its offices into meeting spaces for employees. Siemens has also announced that employees can permanently work from home two to three days per week. As the pandemic continues to remain mostly unchecked in the United States, it’s safe to expect that there will be more companies moving to either a hybrid home-office work environment or completely remote work in the coming weeks and months.
The truth is that going to a more remote workforce makes good sense for most of America’s workforces and businesses. The cost of commercial real estate in places like New York and Los Angeles is astronomical, and if companies can save money by getting more employees to work remotely, the decision to move to remote work is a no-brainer. Remote work also provides significant upsides for things like the environment (fewer greenhouse gases emitted because fewer people have to commute) and even housing in densely populated areas (because people can work from anywhere, they can live in more affordable places).
Hone Your Digital Communication Style
Since the financial argument for working from home is so strong, it’s time to adapt your abilities to the new reality. Here’s how you need to hone some of your communication skills in order to successfully manage a remote workforce.
First, learn when to use instant messaging and when to use emails, calls, or video meetings. Pre-pandemic, it was common to communicate with team members via text message, email, and Slack. Since the pandemic began and more companies sent their workers home, Slack has seen more than 40% growth year over year.
Yet just because we have more ways to get in touch with our employees doesn’t mean that we should always use them. Remember the adage that the medium is the message. Emails are still reserved for more permanent communications, while Slack messages or texts are generally better for less formal check-ins and quick questions. Zoom meetings have started to over proliferate, so it pays to use them with some restraint so you don’t drive your remote workers crazy.
Additionally, it’s essential to hone your digital listening skills. For clarity, I don’t mean stalking employees on social media; I mean having more frequent and perhaps more regular check-ins. Since we can’t pass each other in the hallway on the way to lunch and talk about the latest sports game or what our kids did at school, it’s harder for remote managers to really know what might be going on with an employee—especially if their performance starts to slip. Though we can no longer have the physical proximity we once had, you can and still should check in with remote employees to see how things are going. We’re all under a lot of stress and facing a lot of change in the current environment, so being a bit more patient and emotionally intelligent with employees can do wonders for your workforce’s morale.
Being more transparent and succinct in your communications is really important in this new remote work environment. For one, since we can’t be in the same room with one another, it can be tricky to “get” nonverbal communication, so it pays to say the things you are thinking (within reason, of course). Secondly, because we are all working remotely, juggling a million things, and trying to keep everything organized, it pays to be concise and direct in any communications you have with an employee. Now more than ever, no one has time to read or respond to long texts or messages. Keep it short, to the point, honest and direct, and your employees will thank you.
Managers will have to adapt to this new environment, which means brushing up on tech communication skills, coaching skills, and your willingness to trust. The pandemic has changed many things for all of us, and there’s plenty that we need to learn in this new environment.
Create Rules of Engagement That Work in the New Environment
Not everyone works well first thing in the morning, just like not everyone always attends the work happy hour event. The new work-from-home environment offers opportunities to change how we interact and how we engage with one another both virtually and (eventually) in real life.
One way to help motivate and support remote workers is to create socialization opportunities that are a bit less structured. Perhaps you offer time at the beginning of Zoom meetings to talk about any nonwork items. Maybe you use the time at the end of a call to check in. Either way, it’s still important to foster work relationships even when we can’t be in the same room. This kind of interaction helps all of us feel like we are part of something greater, and it helps stave off the loneliness that can creep in when we work remotely.
Perhaps in the past you used an instant message platform for emergencies only and email for less urgent topics. You may need to rethink how you use technology to engage your remote workforce since their needs have changed. An instant message platform might provide the perfect place for less formal conversations, while emails may serve as a way to give the entire team an overarching view of where a project stands. Either way, it pays to take a close look at the technology you use to engage with your employees and ask whether there might be a better way to do it. What worked before doesn’t necessarily work now, and the real way in which you connect with your team truly matters today.
Since the line between home and work tends to blur when we work remotely, it’s also crucial to establish “working hours.” That means you and your team should establish times people will be available and online or reachable, should they be needed. This helps create a clearer delineation between work and home lives and offers employees the opportunity to flex their schedules around what works for them and the team.
Finally, it pays to get creative when it comes to the rules of engagement. Perhaps your HR department starts a step-goal competition for your workforce, getting them to get up from their desks and take a walk every hour or so. Maybe you plan a Zoom happy hour to connect with other departments. While we’re all adjusting to this new paradigm, it’s important to stay open to new ideas and new ways to engage.
Be Honest About Your Own Struggles
Employees want leaders to offer them some sense of direction and hope, especially as we all struggle with the new remote work realities. But the truth is, employees also want to know that you are struggling with the same (or similar) types of issues they are facing. Being human and honest about the messy parts of working from home makes you relatable and approachable as a leader, and it can help instill a sense of confidence in your employees to know that you are feeling your way through this just like they are.
As I have written before, a big part of being a leader means being honest about the human parts of your life. We are all imperfect and messy, and sometimes—especially when the world is changing so quickly—it’s comforting to know that we are all just finding our way. Letting your employees know that you too might be struggling with working remotely is a good way to help break down barriers remote working can put up. It can also offer a good opportunity for you to get to know your employees a bit better and forge deeper connections with them.
We’re all still learning to navigate this new world of work, but by honing your communication skills, defining the new rules of engagement, and being honest about your own struggles, you can create a remote work environment that supports, motivates, and connects to your employees all over the world. While we all may mourn the loss of parts of the life we knew before the pandemic, as business leaders, we must be trailblazers in this new world and find ways to make this new environment work for ourselves, our families, our businesses, and our employees.