The best tips for managing remote workers in extraordinary times

All together now.
All together now.
Image: Gosia Herba
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The coronavirus pandemic has lead to an upsurge in remote work and the likelihood is that, for many, it’s here to stay. We brought together the best advice for managing a distributed workforce both during the pandemic and in its aftermath.

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Communicate effectively and consistently

Communication is critical to managing remote workers in any situation. But with managers now finding themselves in charge of entire remote teams, there’s an even stronger imperative to make sure conversations are both consistent and productive.

This means talking, messaging, and other forms of communication will probably take up more of a manager’s time than it used to do. In Quartz’s guide to remote management, Corinne Purtill suggested that managers “consider a micro and macro approach” for each of their reports. “For example, you might have one system for sharing daily updates on the progress of assignments and immediate business, and a longer scheduled meeting, perhaps on a weekly basis, to go over big-picture issues.”

The guide also notes that using a range of communication tools can help cover different bases and avoid misunderstandings: An instant messaging platform like Slack for quick messages; email for longer, more complex communications that require documents or other materials; and phone and video calls to check in on visual and auditory cues like tone of voice and body language. 

The need for clarity also means communicating well about your own status—whether available or out for a run, for example—and capacity to respond to messages or longer pieces of work. 

Qualtrics, a firm that helps companies manage employee experience, surveyed workers in April and found that 62% of employees wanted to receive Covid-19 updates from their companies at least every day, and 8% wanted them more often than that. That level of enthusiasm for updates has likely waned but it still points to the fact that communicating too much is better than saying too little. 

Choosing the right technology for the job, and for the individual communication need, will also make this smoother. Julien Codorniou, vice president of Workplace from Facebook, the platform’s collaboration tool, says companies need good options for both synchronous and asynchronous communication: For example, a great video call platform for all-hands meetings, plus a system that allows managers and workers to communicate well even when they work in vastly different time zones. Depending on the business, a number of other types of communication tools are probably also necessary, including online tools for collaboration.

What’s key, of course, is that all the technologies work well and everyone knows exactly how to use them.  

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Recognize the individuality of your remote staff

Few experiences have tested our ability to work well to the extent that Covid-19 has done. Working from home has not been a comfortable experience for many. Younger workers have felt isolated and trapped. Many parents have been overwhelmed by the need to care for children. Employees with aging relatives or health conditions may have been wracked by worry. Anyone experiencing lockdown will have gone through a variety of intense experiences, ranging from the destabilizing elasticity of time to the depressing effects of the daily news cycle. 

Of course, it’s a challenge for a manager to tailor their approach to the individual needs of a large team, but that’s the advice—even from those with some of the biggest teams around. Mary Bilbrey heads up human resources for JLL, a corporate real estate firm with a global workforce of 94,000 people. “We learned very quickly that we all experience this crisis very individually and very personally,” Bilbrey told Quartz.

When it came to decisions about where and how to work, Bilbrey said, they consulted their staff on a case-by-case basis, taking into account everything from the length of a person’s potential commute to their caregiving responsibilities. Adrienne Gormley, head of EMEA at Dropbox, said that she’d found it necessary to push beyond stock expressions of interest in her reports’ lives (like the classic “how are you?”) and really learn about their individual circumstances—like kids and parents—then revisit those topics in regular check-ins. 

Flexibility, in pre-Covid times, was often thought of as one of many possible job perks. Now it can mean the difference between a person thriving, or quitting in despair. 

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Offer a truly flexible work schedule

Even as we become used to the new reality of a world changed by the global pandemic, that’s not a signal that it’s time to get back to “business as usual.” For many employees—like US parents facing uncertainty over the future of schools—that may be completely impossible. 

It’s therefore important for managers to understand what their team members can deliver, and work with that. Perhaps that will mean an adjustment in deadlines, with only very key work having to be delivered urgently. Perhaps some activities will have to cease or pause. Benchmarking using the volume of work done before coronavirus struck and expecting teams to deliver exactly the same isn’t reasonable if other things are in the picture. The good news is that, according to Deutsche Bank research and several other studies, most workers feel they are being more productive since the pandemic began. Hopefully this, as well as other factors such as time saved commuting, goes some way to counteract the impact of other, newer draws on employees’ time and attention. 

When organizations fail, or appear to fail, to acknowledge the reality of life for workers, the backlash can be intense. In late June The Lily reported that Florida State University had told all its employees that it would “no longer allow” parents to care for kids while also working. The policy caused widespread outrage, to which FSU responded that it had been misunderstood. The university issued a statement in the following days stating: “We are requesting that employees coordinate with their supervisors on a schedule that allows them to meet their parental responsibilities in addition to work obligations. This may be different for each employee based on the specifics of their situation.” 

Last week, journalist Starlee Kine tweeted that her sister, who had been widowed during the pandemic and had two children under four, had been fired because she “seemed distracted.” The tweet received over 7,000 comments and almost 70,000 “likes”—an indication of how deeply unfairness seems to grate on onlookers.

Such backlashes may not be immediately detrimental to an organization, but it’s possible they’ll have long term consequences, suggested Facebook’s Codorniou. “People will choose their employers based on…how they have been treated during Covid, or how the company behaved during Covid,” he told Quartz. “You don’t want to work for a company right now, you want to work for a community, where you feel connected, you feel informed, you feel empowered, you feel supported, wherever you are and wherever you work from. Especially the new generation of talents.”  

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Measure productivity rather than time 

When many of us had offices, time physically spent there was used—however unconsciously—as a proxy for how hard we worked. Many firms realized this was inefficient: That what matters is the amount and quality of the work people get done, not how busy they appear. With work moving away from offices, presenteeism has moved online, and become an even less good measure of work done. Managers need to have oversight of what their teams are achieving, not whether they’re sitting at their desks. 

Recently, a few firms have gone further by deciding to cut overall working hours to four days per week, with the key metric for success being that productivity remains constant. 

Uncharted, a small social impact accelerator based in Colorado, took the step of going down to a four-day week during the coronavirus lockdown. Like many others, their operation was forced to become all-remote by the pandemic, but Banks Benitez, Uncharted’s CEO, explained that they had already been considering whether a shorter working week could be good for work-life balance, and might even help them become better at goal-setting and measuring productivity.

Benitez described himself as a “brute force entrepreneur” by nature, someone who regularly worked 50 or 60 hour weeks and would do any amount extra to get the work done. But the four-day week experiment forced him to analyze exactly how he spent his time, and prioritize the most important work—and to help his teams do the same. Now the 14-person team sets monthly OKRs (objectives and key results) and weekly goals, tracking themselves against a baseline measured before they cut hours.

Andrew Barnes, who pioneered the four-day week at his New Zealand estate management company and then wrote a book on the subject, also advocates this approach, which translates well into five-day weeks as well: Measure how much a team can achieve, and set goals based on that. Your team and its members should know exactly what your expectations are for each unit of work, whether you decide to set those on a daily, weekly, or some other basis. So long as team members aren’t totally checked out and are delivering work, it’s possible to be truly flexible on when and how they get it done.

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Agree on work-life boundaries 

We can often achieve the same things at work happily or unhappily. We can feel constantly harried and oppressed, or relaxed and excited, and often the difference is whether we have boundaries in place, and whether they are being respected. If we can’t sleep at night for worrying about a project, that might be a sign our own boundaries are too porous. But if we’re set on the path of worry by an out-of-hours Slack from our manager, the problem is with expectations and the manager’s boundary-setting.

Nancy P. Rothbard from the management department at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, provides a useful schema for understanding boundaries: We are either integrators—who don’t mind taking personal calls at work or bringing tasks home—or segmentors, who work best when they can focus purely on the task in hand, and also don’t want their leisure time interrupted.  

Problems can arise when a manager and a report come from different groups, and any such problems have likely been exacerbated by Covid-19. Time and space are the battlegrounds for these potential conflicts to play out, Rothbard explains: “a segmentor might have had a boss who expected emails to be answered in off-hours before the pandemic. Now that boss may want to escalate those interactions into video calls at all hours, while the segmentor would prefer an audio call or an email exchange so that aspects of their home life remain sacrosanct. A manager who is an integrator may not be able to easily recognize the segmentors’ concern; as a result, they need to learn what routines will help each team member perform at their best.”

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Take wellness seriously

Before coronavirus, employee “wellness” offerings were—a little like flexibility—often seen as a perk, though plenty of firms were also beginning to take seriously the impact of work on mental health, and the impact of poor mental health on everything from productivity to loyalty and creativity. 

Many ways in which companies supported their employees’ wellness—like gym memberships or lunchtime yoga sessions—have become obsolete or had to move online. There is still a lot companies can do, though perhaps more than ever it’s down to  managers to communicate those policies and, to a degree, ensure they’re adhered to. 

In home-office settings, being physically comfortable can be a challenge, and one that can be very draining for workers putting in long hours. Frans van Hulle, CEO of PX, a customer acquisition platform, noted that his company released budget for equipment that employees could use to make their lives easier, like noise-cancelling headphones. Confirming that employees have the equipment they need, from ergonomic chairs to second screens, is imperative. But so are interventions that don’t involve hardware, like encouraging people to take breaks, get outside, and book time off—even if actually taking trips and holidays is complicated. 

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Seek support yourself

Rob Falzon, vice chair of insurance giant Prudential Financial, said that in supporting all the people who now worked remotely, he’d had to extend his own working hours. 

The reality is that much of the above advice—communicating more, and more individually; taking responsibility more for employees’ health and happiness—takes time and mental energy. Ideally, managers should be looking to their own managers for support, and to concrete solutions like training. No one automatically knows how to work in the new reality: JLL’s Mary Bilbrey, and many others, said the firm provided specific manager training to help them deal with supporting staff from a distance, and other new challenges that arose. 

A key tenet of management advice is also to model the behavior you want to see from your team. By that rule, managers need to spend at least some time focusing on their own mental and physical health, set boundaries that keep them sane and, when it comes to life challenges like kids at home or elderly parents, cut themselves the slack they’re cutting for their teams.