Six Steps to Rework How You Manage Remote Employees

Prior to the emergence of COVID-19, many organizational leaders were resistant to the concept of employees working from home exclusively or even partially.  These leaders held firm as many within their organizations loathed going into the office to give “face-time” five days a week when they could work more productively remotely. But, what happens when remote work is suddenly thrust upon workplace leaders and employees without the luxury of having the appropriate tools, resources, and relationships to effectively manage working remotely? On the one hand, workplace leaders are challenged to keep their teams engaged, encouraged, and productive on an ongoing, long-term basis.  On the other hand, employees may, in fact, struggle with the limited face-to-face communication, colleague interface and feedback, and guidance and support from leadership on a long-term and continuing basis.  Here are six easy steps that your workplace leaders can take to effectively manage remote teams and keep employees engaged.

1. Stick to an efficient and functional platform for working with your team

The quality of your remote work experience with your teams will be impacted by the type of virtual work collaboration platform that you use.  While teleconferencing may be simpler, it is less than optimal for an interactive and collaborative work experience with your team.  Emailing back and forth is also suboptimal, as it is time-consuming, and information tends to get lost in translation.  Consider opting for a work platform that enables to video-conference, share and store documents, direct and instantly message team members, and host presentations.  The platform that you select should be secure, functional, and reliable.  Once you have made a final decision about your selected platform, stick to it.  Constantly changing the work collaboration platform can cause confusion and delays.

2. Establish virtual work and meeting rules

In addition to having an updated company telework policy, leaders may want to develop a few additional ground rules that are tailored to their specific teams. A few suggestions are:

  • Be Organized and Timely: In order to be respectful of everyone’s time and avoid distracting interruptions, require all meeting participants to appear on conference calls at the scheduled time.  Have an agenda that you have already distributed to your team so that the meeting stays on track.  End conference meetings on-time with room left for questions.
  • Appear Professionally: Working remotely does not negate the value of a polished appearance.  While business attire may be unnecessary, everyone should be professionally presentable, not appearing on the conference with bedhead, in pajamas, or otherwise partially or inappropriately dressed.  How individuals present themselves on video-conferences sends a message to the team about the value and importance those individuals place on the meeting.
  • Avoid Commenting on the Background: Generally, most of us are protective of our homes and home or family life. Commenting on people’s backgrounds can seem intrusive, be embarrassing, or feel judgmental or critical.  Consider these experiences shared by some organizational leaders:
    • During a video-conference, the supervisor asked the employee, “what are you watching” as he peered over her shoulder to her wall-mounted television in the background. The television is muted and displayed a news channel.  The employee felt that her personal space was invaded and was intimidated by the supervisor’s comment, which, to her, offensively suggested that the supervisor suspected her of watching TV all day as opposed to working.
    • During a video-conference presentation, a crying baby and playing children were heard in the background. The leader sighed loudly and directed everyone to “please mute your phones.”  The employee with the crying baby and playing children felt embarrassed by the leader’s comment that suggested he was insensitive to the fact that in addition to working from home, that employee was also caring for children due to school and day-care closures. To avoid this, at the beginning of the video conference, remind participants to mute their lines until it is their turn to speak.
    • During a video conference, a co-worker commented on the background of another team member, announcing, “it looks like you’re in a closet. Nice ties!” Everyone on the conference laughed and chimed in jokingly about the ties hanging in the background. The employee felt singled-out and humiliated by the comments that unnecessarily drew attention to his only home workspace in a small apartment with a spouse and children.

 3. Tailor work expectations and goals to remote work capabilities

Back to business does not necessarily mean business as usual.  It is important to adjust your expectations as a leader to fit the circumstances presented by sudden and imperfect work at home requirements.  This does not mean that you should expect poor work quality or performance, but it does mean that expecting employees to maintain the same level of productivity and results that they produced in-office may be unrealistic.  This is especially true if employees have limited technological and administrative capabilities at home.  For example, as opposed to working with desktop computers, access to large copiers with printing, scanning, and faxing capabilities, and a closet full of office supplies, employees working remotely may be using small laptops, printing from small printers with limited capabilities, and trying to get by with a pack of pens and a highlighter.  It is important to keep these factors in mind when assigning work and evaluating the work that you receive.  This may also be a good time to assign those solo projects that needed completion, but were hard to get to in-office due to competing priorities and regular interruptions.

4. Keep lines of communication open

Open, fluid, and regular communication is key for managing a remote workforce.  

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  • Be Available and Responsive: Maintain an “open door” practice, whereby your team members may reach out to you (via phone, email, or direct/instant messaging) at any time during the workday for guidance, direction, and support. As the Director of Labor Relations for an organization, members of my team counted on having easy, regular access to me for questions regarding interpretation of collective-bargaining agreements, recommendations to discipline employees, grievance processing, and union requests for information.  They felt supported by having that regular, open access, and I was confident that if a particularly complex or thorny issue arose, they would reach out for assistance instead of trying to “wing-it” on their own.
  • Empathize and Encourage: Working remotely while also socially distancing or sheltering-in-place can be isolating.  Your team members need to know that you care about them, are available if they need you, and that you support them.  Seeming oblivious, insensitive, or pessimistic can quickly erode team and work morale.  If work is tough, acknowledge that fact and be honest about the challenges while remaining positively optimistic.  If your team members raise common issues or concerns, empathize, and share positive information.  Also, remember to acknowledge a job well done or the complexity of a particularly challenging assignment.  In addition to making yourself available, encourage your team members to reach out to each other for collaboration or support.

5. Connect one-on-one weekly

One-on-One video-conference meetings at the beginning of the workweek are a great way to connect with each of your team members individually on their assignments, productivity, and general work well-being.  If you are managing several employees with different work assignments, create a notebook for each employee and label it accordingly. Have it with you during each one-on-one conference, write down each assignment or project that the employee is working on, and the date that the assignment was made and when it is due.  Make sure you recap your list to the employee at the end of the conference.  During the next one-on-one, you should have your employee-specific notebook and use it as your guide through the meeting.  You should note updates, when items are completed, or when items are overdue.  A consistently maintained notebook can also serve as a guide and refresher when you are putting together performance appraisals for your remote team.  Also, consider taking the opportunity during your one-on-one meetings to occasionally solicit feedback about work assignments and your leadership in the remote setting.  This may help you identify ways to make adjustments that enable a more positive, collaborative, and productive remote work experience.

6. Wrap-up end of the week and show appreciation

Fridays symbolize completion and usually brings a sense of accomplishment to the week – TGIF!  We Made it!  Thus, Fridays are usually more spirited in the office.  Some offices even have casual dress or provide bagels or pastries to employees on Fridays.  Consider scheduling time on Fridays to hold a virtual team coffee chat or brown-bag lunch to reflect on the week’s challenges or accomplishments, show employee appreciation, and encourage team building.  Some employers are having lunch delivered to their team members as a show of appreciation.  For after-work hours fun, consider hosting a virtual social hour or game night with your team.

Letitia Silas is a partner at the national labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips where she is a member of the firm’s Labor Relations and Healthcare teams. As the former Director of Labor Relations at Howard University and Howard University Hospital, she has extensive experience managing large complex workforces and leverages that unique skill to counsel her clients on workplace issues that arise amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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