Beyond the Pandemic – Managing & Motivating Remote Employees

Amid a global pandemic, and riots over racism and police brutality across the US, (see PINK’s Statement on racism here), it’s no wonder it isn’t easy to keep focused on the day-to-day and getting work done at the office. In fact, most of us aren’t even in the office, as much of America continues to practice social distancing due to COVID-19.

Clearly, it isn’t business as usual. The current crisis has made us aware that some things take precedence over that job and even a career. So, how do we, as leaders, help workers stay on task? How do we assure and motivate and hold our employees accountable so business goals can still be met?

The global spread of COVID-19 has fundamentally changed our lives. It has changed the way we socialize, shop, learn and the way we work. Many companies transitioned to telework in a matter of days requiring managers and employees to quickly adapt to working remotely.  

Before the pandemic, nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce (23.7%) worked some hours from home according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now, that number has doubled. While many employees initially viewed the idea of telecommuting as a job perk to improve work flexibility and reduce daily commutes, when managed poorly remote working is a burden to managers and employees.  Here are proven practical steps you can implement to maximize employees’ productivity and engagement in a remote environment. When done successfully, research shows that teleworking can improve employee productivity, creativity and even morale. 

Understand Thy Self.
“In my view, it is the job of each leader to notice what is called for in the moment, to dig deep within ourselves to find how we can be purposeful and respond appropriately,” says Henna Inam, author of Wired for Disruption. “We must be willing to share our stories. Our hearts must be moved. We must find ourselves in “the other”. We must feel the pain of the other and connect it with our own.”

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
“In teamwork, silence isn’t golden, it’s deadly,” says Mark Sanborn, author. There is no such thing as over-communicating in a teleworking environment. You must ensure your employees are abreast of organizational announcements and team updates and you must also check on his or her wellbeing. That may seem overwhelming. To help alleviate losing track of multiple meetings, schedule reoccurring 1:1 meetings with your employees, and regular team meetings. Use this time to discuss work projects, company updates, and even personal check-ins. Be open to a two-way dialogue and allow employees to consult with you on their concerns and questions. 

Create opportunities for social interaction.
Loneliness is one of the most common complaints employees have when working remotely. The informal water-cooler talk is gone. Informally stopping by a co-worker’s desk is gone. Informal conversations before and after a team meeting are gone. Employees feel disconnected from their colleagues and less connected to the organization, which can result in employee turnover.  As a leader, this is an opportunity to think creatively on how to maintain a cohesive team remotely.  Schedule virtual happy hours, virtual lunches, or start your team meeting with non-work discussions. While this may seem trivial, it can decrease feelings of isolation and increase a sense of belonging. 

More employee recognition.
According to Brian Kropp, Vice President, Research, Gartner, employees’ desire to be “recognized for their contributions increases by 30% during periods of disruption.” Recognition goes beyond a monetary award. Recognition includes public acknowledgment, a token of appreciation, an email note thanking the employee for his or her contribution, etc. The acknowledgment can motivate the employee and provide a symbol for others to follow. 

Trust your employees.
“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them,” wrote Ernest Hemingway.
Before COVID-19, many managers hesitated to allow employees to work from home because it meant losing consistent visibility along with concerns that employees would not work as efficiently.  However, research shows many work more efficiently and longer hours when working remotely.  Successful managers create work-from-home guidelines with feedback from employees to ensure expectations for remote work are aligned. 

Focus on the results, not the task.
Before COVID-19, employees had established childcare and mostly likely a designated workspace when working remotely. Now, in the remote landscape employees are juggling work and family at the same time. Be sensitive to the personal demands of employees while still managing their performance output. Focus on the results and not the tasks or processes. 

Be flexible.
We are in unprecedented times and employees are under stress of the abrupt shift to remote work, which can include partners and children at home. Empathy is key, acknowledging employee’s concerns and struggles, and encouraging a path forward. Positivity and optimism—just like stress, can be contagious. Employees tend to look to their managers for how to react in crises. If you are stressed and provide a negative outlook on the current situation it will have a trickle-down effect on employees. 

Disturbance or problems can offer “tremendous opportunities for leaders to re-imagine and re-create a better future,” adds Inam. The reality is that teleworking is here to stay. Twitter and other companies are allowing employees to work from home indefinitely, even after COVID-19 shutdowns end. Now, the question becomes how will you manage the new norm?  

Checklist Questions
–    Do you have regular check-ins with employees?

–    Do you create an environment of open dialogue for concerns or questions?

–    What social activities can you incorporate throughout the week to increase team camaraderie?

–    What non-work-related topics/questions can you use to start/end team meetings as a way for employees to connect?

–    What recognition practices can you implement to reward employees who go above and beyond?

–    How can you mentally let go of control of a task and trust employees, focusing on results?

–    Do have you established performance deliverables for employees?

–    How can you create a more results-focused environment?

–    How do you encourage employees to remain positive?

–    How would you rate your attitude in the recent environment?

“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change.
The leader adjusts the sails.” John Maxwell

By Michelle Glover
Photo by Laura Allen

Michelle Glover, CEO of Journey Unlimited, is a human resource professional with over 18 years of experience in leadership, coaching, change management and HR strategy. In addition to this role, Michelle has recently been appointed Project Director for The EDGE Women’s Business Center; which empowers, educates and inspires women entrepreneurs.

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