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When Work from Home Stops Being Optional | How to Effectively Manage Remote Teams during COVID-19

March 11, 2020 Maria Howard

As the COVID-19 public health crisis spreads, we continue to see a meaningful impact on communities and organizations. The impetus is now on organizations and their leaders to begin to both anticipate and mitigate the effects of this crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended “social distancing” as one way to combat the spread of disease.   

Many organizations have turned to new work-from-home policies to keep employees safe. Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are all encouraging employees in the Seattle area to work from homeOrganizations are also limiting their travel. Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase have said that senior managers must approve international business trips.  

These measures will have an immediate impact on the way teams and organizations do business, with more employees working from home than ever before.  

Working from home isn’t new: Nearly 29% of US workers said they could work from home in 2017–18, and nearly 25% say they actually do, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.   

But, a significant shift in workplace behavior like the changes being put into place by organizations right now may have a long-term effect on the way we commute—or don’t commute—to work in the future.  

Shifting to a work-from-home culture, especially during a time of crisis or uncertainty, brings its own unique challenges. Managers and leaders overseeing teams working remotely for the first time should put in place common-sense measures to maximize the effectiveness of their teams.

Here are five important ways to engage a remote workforce:   

1. Leaders, engage your remote employees, every day

A high-performing workforce is essential for growth and survival, and employee engagement is a major focus for senior executives looking to optimize the performance of their workforce.    

Harvard Business Review Analytic Services conducted a survey of business leaders that found that just 24% of respondents say employees in their organizations are highly engaged, yet 71% rank employee engagement as very important to achieving overall organizational success.   

Employees who work remotely need to be engaged in meaningful ways by their teams and their leaders. You wouldn’t walk into an office or shared workspace without greeting your teams or coworkers, so remote employees should be accommodated in the same way. Take time to reach out to remote employees in ways they enjoy. Some employees love chat functionality while others may appreciate a check-in email. Your workday may not overlap with every member of your team, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for engagement and bonding experiences.   

2. Education isn’t limited to the office, so embrace online learning 

On-the-job training is an important tool for organizations looking to engage and retain their workforce.

In fact, 70% of respondents in a recent survey of employees spanning three generations (Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials) indicated that job-related training and development opportunities influenced their decision to stay at their job, with 87% of Millennials citing access to professional development or career growth opportunities as being very important to their decision of whether to stay or go.  

Now, in response to a number of needs, including flexibility during times of health crises and increased accessibility for a diverse workforce, organizations are making training available in new and innovative ways.  

At Linkage, we are proud to offer digital leadership development opportunities which afford organizations the flexibility to provide high-quality development to their remote or work-from-home teams.

3. Teach your employees how to work from home—its not a natural skill

Working from home offers a number of perks, including skipping timely and costly commutes and offering increased flexibility around schedules, but working from home requires skills and boundaries that don’t necessarily come naturally. Invite members of your team to share practices that have worked well for them, and share best-practice articles and blogs to get them thinking about healthy and productive ways to work from home.   

Burnout, which is affecting more and more employees, may be something we associate with working in an office, but for employees who are adjusting to a work-from-home schedule, burnout remains a possibility. Without a commute to bookend the day, employees may struggle with officially “ending their day” in a way that feels natural and satisfying. Work with your team members to help them establish boundaries to their day in a way that is both productive for the team and helps team members avoid costly burnout.   

4. Understand that adjustment takes time and allow for a learning process

Working from home can be a major transition for employees who have always worked in an office and it may require an adjustment period; a schedule of meetings or expectations that applied in the office may not translate to a remote workforce.   

Open up a line of dialogue with your remote team to get a better understanding of what’s working—and what’s not. Do you need to adjust your meeting schedule to better accommodate a remote workforce? Think about how time is spent in the office and how you would normally communicate with your team. If you have an informal office environment where information is shared cubicle to cubicle or during impromptu meetings, understand that you now need to find virtual means to communicate with your teams. This takes effort and time to get right, so allow for a learning process and don’t be afraid to change up the status quo. The shift to virtual work can be a great way to identify meetings or habits that don’t serve your team anymore. And, who wouldn’t want to get some time back in their day?

5. Bring technology to your organization that will allow remote employees to be fully present

Remote employees have unique technology needs that must be addressed before they can realize their full potential. Identify the technology and the tools needed by your team and quickly respond to changing needs. Remember that while some technology will work for a majority of your team, you may have specialized needs within your team that you must address.

Many organizations already have information technology reimbursement or gifting programs in place. Make sure your team is aware of any financial reimbursement they may be entitled to if they are working from home, like phone or internet costs.   

Also, be aware of the inherent cost of working from home for members of your team who do not have office setups. Can you offer perks like standing desks, second monitors, or wireless accessories to your work-from-home employees? If these resources were vital to productivity within the office, they are just as necessary at home, and providing them to your team is a meaningful display of your commitment to a work-from-home workforce.   

The big takeaway 

Leaders are thinking creatively and acting swiftly to accommodate the changing needs of their workforce, with the ultimate goal of keeping their employees and teams safe. With a new focus on working from home, leaders have a significant opportunity to quickly and meaningfully enable their teams to continue working with little or no interruption to their schedules and productivity. With these tips, and leaders committing to supporting their remote teams, every member of your team can realize their full potential.

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