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The New Normal: Managing a (Sometimes) Remote Workforce

June 9, 2020 / by Elliot Hershik

Business-Meeting-in-an-Office-with-Remote-WorkerAs various states begin to relax shelter-in-place directives prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak, employers face critical decisions in how to manage their workforces. Should they allow employees to continue to work from home (WFH) or encourage them to return to their places of business?

The "new normal" might involve a combination of these two approaches. Here are some suggestions for how to effectively manage the situation.

Step One: Determine What's Right for Your Business
To a degree, the nature of your business will make this decision for you. In some cases, such as with hair salons, WFH is simply not an option. If the state told you to shut down, you had to shut down.

Now that many states are allowing salons to reopen, the owner of a salon must first determine whether operating would be safe for employees and customers. This assessment must be done with the input of employees; some may not be ready to return to work due to concerns over their health or that of loved ones. From there, it's just a matter of following your state's guidelines.

For other businesses, such as big technology companies, WFH measures will continue for an extended period. One executive noted that his "personal opinions of WFH have been turned upside down" during the pandemic, and he now supports remote-work policies.

As for the many businesses that fall between these two extremes, a more nuanced approach is required. That brings us to …

Step Two: Figure out Who Can Best Do What From Where
Just as the nature of your business affects your approach, so too does the nature of individual employees. Some people thrive in a remote environment; others miss the social component of the workplace and are miserable doing their jobs from home.

A good manager will do their best to accommodate each individual's style to boost morale, productivity and job satisfaction for their entire team. In some cases, this may mean allowing employees to continue working from home, as long as they prove they can get their work done. (More on this below.)

Really, this is no different from what good managers have been doing at the workplace all along. It's always been important to gauge how each team member works and communicates best. Some employees share their ideas during large team meetings, while others prefer email or one-on-one conversations. Some team members are comfortable with unscheduled calls and messaging, while others prefer to schedule conversations. And those preferences tend to hold whether it's a WFH or an office environment.

To make these determinations, you can use personality tests, such as Myers-Briggs-type indicators, or simply ask each employee about their preferences.

Step Three: Rethink How You Measure Productivity
A primary concern among some managers is that a WFH environment creates too many distractions that could lower employee productivity. In reality, a number of studies have shown that productivity actually increases among a remote workforce.

Moreover, some managers might have been oblivious to a lack of productivity within a traditional office environment, where many employees might simply have been logging "face time" between when they finished their work for the day and when they actually left the office (i.e., whenever the manager did). That dead time can undermine morale.

The point is, it's time to start measuring output by task rather than by time.

Step Four: Focus on Good Communication
In the end, managing a remote workforce is similar to managing an in-house workforce. During times of crisis, like the COVID-19 outbreak, employees are dealing with heightened anxiety and increased distractions. Your job as manager is to communicate clearly and effectively and to provide as much reassurance as you can.

With that in mind, don't forget to:

  • Acknowledge achievements. In the past, if you would have stopped by a team member's office to let them know they had done a great job or given them a shout-out in a meeting, be sure to do the same in a WFH setting. It's more important than ever to thank your employees.
  • Keep it loose. Building in a certain amount of "water cooler" time has always been a big part of creating a positive, productive work environment. Be sure to factor that into your WFH approach by offering things like "Formal Friday" (as opposed to "Casual Friday"), where everyone overdresses for a videoconference. At the same time, recognize that employees returning to the workplace could suffer ongoing anxiety about the pandemic and might want to continue to practice social distancing — even around the water cooler.

As You Were …
Whether you're still operating exclusively in a remote environment or a hybrid of WFH and onsite, the key to effectively managing your team is to focus on the how rather than the where. Chances are, in these strange times, your team craves business as usual.

Topics: Small Business Advice, Chicago Far West Suburbs, Business Continuity

Elliot Hershik

Written by Elliot Hershik

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