Getting the best from people working from home has lately become a core skill for many UK managers. Given how suddenly Covid-19 accelerated a pre-existing trend towards remote working, many have been learning through experience. Some lessons have been learned the hard way. But, by and large, Britain’s mass experiment with home working has worked out well. Many firms have found they function fine without employees always seated side by side. The workplace of the future looks set to be increasingly distributed – held together by web-enabled technology. That means working with remote employees will still be an essential management skill long after the current coronavirus crisis has abated.
Like any self-respecting training provider, my own firm has been compiling and updating learning resources on that very topic. But we’ve also been experiencing the challenges and rewards of remote working at first hand. That’s certainly helped to separate the must-have skills and strategies from the nice-to-haves. Communication is the key here. It’s true in any workplace – but especially so in virtual ones – that communication doesn’t happen by itself. It’s essential anyone managing employees working off-site communicates in a regular and structured way with anyone reporting to them.
The first thing to communicate, and continue communicating, is what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. Make sure they have a sense or structure and routine – that they never have to wonder what they should be doing next. Don’t overload them, but make sure there’s always something constructive and purposeful for them to get on with if they’ve ever reached the end of an allotted task when you’re not around to issue further instructions. Make sure, also, that they understand when you are and aren’t going to be available to answer any questions they may have.
Make time for one-to-one chats – and don’t cancel or move them around. People work best when they understand you value what they’re doing. Congratulate and encourage them whenever you can. If you let remote workers feel neglected, they’ll quickly become demotivated. If they’re not sure what to do next, they may wander off, mentally or physically, and that sense of purpose and routine can start to wane. Regular positive communication keeps people engaged and motivated.
Obviously it’s easier to achieve this when you can talk face to face. But, with a host of video conferencing technology available free or at minimal cost, there’s no excuse for not doing the next best thing. It’s a big mistake to think you can just rely on emails or texts to manage off-site staff. A call or, better still, a video call, can go a long way towards making up for not sharing physical space. Of course there will be times when messaging’s all that’s needed, or all there’s time for. But try to use emojis or animated gifs to compensate for the lack of visual cues that comes with disembodied communication.
Team meetings keep teams feeling like teams. But one-on-ones are just as important, giving you a chance to understand what challenges team members may be facing – and to work out how to help them overcome them. One-to-ones give you a chance to understand more about how and where they’re working, whether they have the technology and the physical workspace they need to function efficiently, and whether they have distractions you can help them work around – for example by flexing their hours. You will also gain insight into any mental or physical health problems they may be facing. As a manager, these are things you need to know.
It’s important – both with teams and one-to-one – that you don’t just talk about work. Allowing time for social interaction is essential for motivation. That’s more important then ever with remote workers, because the evidence shows that well motivated home workers often experience lower stress and higher productivity than office-based staff.
If they understand clearly what’s expected of them and how to achieve it, you may even find team members spending hours they might have spent commuting going the extra mile. Another crucial aspect of motivation is a sense of being valued, invested in and, ultimately, having a career path. You can help remote employees with this by arranging online training that allows them to acquire new skills or upgrade existing ones. Perhaps a course on how to work from home!
This article by Searchlight Business Manager Andy Payne originally appeared in T-C News magazine.