3 Considerations for Managing Remote Workforces Beyond the Pandemic

At warp speed, the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 has taught us many lessons.  A key pandemic lesson for businesses across the globe should be the importance of factoring in the effective management of remote workforces in any resiliency planning.  Prior to the Pandemic of 2020, remote work was a growing trend across the globe.  According to the Federal Reserve, in the U.S., the number of individuals working from home has tripled in the last 15 years.  However, according to the most recent census data, less than 6% of Americans worked 100% remote in 2018.  Then . . . 2020 hit, and we all very quickly became acquainted with terms such as “shelter-in-place” and “community spread,” and remote work became the new norm for millions across the country.  With every disruption comes the opportunity to plan for the future of your organization, including how to effectively manage talent in a remote setting.  The following highlights three areas of consideration that can help organizational leaders develop strategic planning around remote workforce management.

Consider the situational aspects of effective remote workforce management

“The art of life is a constant readjustment to our surroundings.” –Kakuzo Okakaura

Managing a remote workforce begins with managing expectations and situational norms. While business decisions on layout, functionality, and business economics surrounding physical footprint drive office environments, business leaders may have less input on the exact layout of an employee’s workspace at home.  Managers should have an understanding of their employee’s remote work environment.  While many states, including California, have privacy laws that protect employees’ privacy interests away from work, these rights do not hinder an employer’s ability to seek insight into an employee’s remote work environment.  Understanding an employee’s environment comes with key questions about optimal schedules and foreseeable interruptions or limitations that may arise from remote work circumstances (for example, is there a time period where conference calls should not be scheduled).  A manager’s clear understanding of individual workspaces is critical to effectively leading a team as a whole.

Additionally, with a remote work environment, particularly in an unexpected remote work situation like the one many are currently facing, it is critical for business leaders to provide clear guidance on performance expectations and how to best address questions that may arise without the benefit of being in a physical office.  Ensure that your remote workforce understands (1) how performance is measured, (2) how to best reach you or appropriate members of your organization should they have a question that needs to be addressed (via email or telephone call) and (3) what digital resource employees will have available to them to address frequently asked questions.

It’s also important for business leaders to recognize that when it comes to remote work, one size does not fit all.  The first question in evaluating how to ensure that employees have the resources and support they need to successfully function remotely is to fully appreciate the reason why an individual is working remotely.  If remote work is the standard operating procedure for an organization, setting out clear and consistent expectations and goals on how everyone will carry out their work from different locations is key.  However, in crisis situations that result in unexpected remote-work situations—the Coronavirus Pandemic is a perfect example—it’s important to have some flexibility in expectations and ensure you have visibility into the individual work situation of each team member.  Caregiving obligations and the unexpected nature of remote work, for many, are factors for which a leader must take into consideration and utilize their emotional intelligence to develop a strategy that is manageable for all.  Management of employees who may need to work remotely as a result of a health or medical condition will take even further individualized analysis and consideration to ensure that legal and business obligations are met.

Consider the legal implications of effectively managing a remote workforce

“Leadership is absolutely about inspiring action, but it is also about guarding against mis-action.” Simon Sinek

With any workforce comes the critical consideration of legal compliance.  The reality is that most of our workplace laws are still playing catch-up on how they apply to remote work settings, and certainly many of them do not provide direction on how such laws should be applied during a global health pandemic.  While government officials and regulators are doing their very best to respond to unknowns or limitations created by unanswered questions that have arisen in our new workforce reality, much still remains unknown.  This unknown does not mean that business leaders cannot proactively prepare to navigate legal compliance issues that arise with remote work, particularly when it comes to risk management.  Managers should be aware of the main areas of potential vulnerability which include the following:

  • Wage and Hour compliance: This includes management awareness of timekeeping obligations and proper communication to employees about the same, meal and rest period obligations, and expense reimbursement obligations that may be triggered by remote work situations.
  • “Work Place” safety issues, including compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) requirements as well as workplace injury response obligations under the Workers’ Compensation system.
  • Addressing time off and leave requests under existing and developing laws, including the Family Medical Leave Act and Paid Sick Leave Laws, both recently impacted by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
  • Americans with Disability Act and equivalent state law-related issues: Managers should consider how to properly respond to requests for accommodations that may take a different form than in-person requests.
  • Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws, particularly those associated with fair treatment in the workplace and payment of wages.

Consider the cultural implications of effective remote workforce management

“An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” Jack Welch.

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Leadership is forged in crisis, and the rapidly changing nature of today’s workplace and the unknowns that have developed because of the current health pandemic, create an opportunity for managers to strengthen their team culture.  This is particularly true when it comes to developing and strengthening culture in a remote work setting.  While the opportunity to meet with employees in person may be limited, there are still tremendous opportunities to create systems that allow employees across the globe to connect via video and telephone conferencing. Managers drive the tone and the expectations of connectivity, availability, and work expectations for remote workers by being clear on requirements and ensuring that they are properly communicating with their team.  It is up to managers to ensure that workplace policies and practices are always at the forefront of their teams and to ensure that managers address any questions regarding performance goals and remote work expectations.

Managers should also truly know the teams that they are managing.  This can be accomplished through one-on-one meetings and should include employee engagement beyond electronic communications. But managers need to do more than just set meetings.  Managers should genuinely listen to their team members individually and as a group.  Managers can build upon this critical feedback to create a team focused on successfully meeting business goals. This will not be automatic, particularly in a remote environment, but continued efforts to engage team members will provide the roadmap of what may be useful to remote employees. Managers should also ensure that they are well-versed in stated business cultural goals and are acting within those goals.  In order to do so, managers should review relevant mission statements, handbooks, and business codes of conduct and ensure that they are highlighting those goals with employees.  Managers should also couple stated business cultural goals and expectations with their own emotional intelligence to ensure that they can consistently supply the support and structure needed to their remote workforce.  Managing a remote workforce, particularly during times of uncertainty, is a great opportunity for business leaders to be “’Compassionate Sharpshooters’ communicating in ways that are equal parts direct and caring.”[1] Finally, in making hiring decisions, managers can also use a remote work environment as a real opportunity to look beyond their traditional talent pool.  In a remote environment, geographic limitations are less of a barrier[2] for managers and, therefore, may open up opportunities to diversify a team’s depth and strength.

Conclusion

The Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 has catapulted us into the future of the workplace.  Recognition of structural, legal, and cultural aspects of workforce management are critical pillars to effectively managing a remote workplace through the crisis and beyond.  These three pillars should serve as a foundation to build an effective team that can easily adapt to change and effectively perform in any environment, including a remote one.

[1] Perez, Patti, The Drama-Free Workplace: how you can prevent unconscious bias, sexual harassment, ethics lapses, and inspire a healthy culture, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (2019), p. 154. https://persuasionpoint.com/the-drama-free-work/  “Learn to be precise, and teach others in our organization those skills, and you’ll see a dramatic reduction in workplace drama.”

[2] Organizations should be mindful of tax implications surrounding an employee’s physical location during remote works settings to ensure compliance with federal, state, and city employee tax obligations.

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