Common challenges of remote work
To start, managers need to understand factors that can make remote work especially demanding. Otherwise high-performing employees may experience declines in job performance and engagement when they begin working remotely, especially in the absence of preparation and training. Challenges inherent in remote work include:
Lack of face-to-face supervision
Both managers and their employees often express concerns about the lack of face-to-face interaction. Supervisors worry that employees will not work as hard or as efficiently (though research indicates otherwise, at least for some types of jobs). Many employees, on the other hand, struggle with reduced access to managerial support and communication. In some cases, employees feel that remote managers are out of touch with their needs, and thereby are neither supportive nor helpful in getting their work done.
Lack of access to information
Newly remote workers are often surprised by the added time and effort needed to locate information from colleagues. Even getting answers to what seem like simple questions can feel like a large obstacle to a worker based at home.
This trend extends beyond task-related work to interpersonal challenges that can emerge among remote colleagues. A lack of “mutual knowledge” among remote workers translates to a lower willingness to give colleagues the benefit of the doubt in difficult situations. For example, if you know that your office mate is having a rough day, you will view a blunt email from them as a natural product of their stress. However, if you receive this email from a remote colleague, with no understanding of their current circumstances, you are more likely to take offense, or at a minimum to think poorly of your colleagues’ professionalism.
Loneliness is one of the most common complaints about remote work, with employees missing the informal social interaction of an office setting. It is thought that extraverts may suffer from isolation more in the short run, particularly if they do not have opportunities to connect with others in their remote-work environment. However, over a longer period of time, isolation can cause any employee to feel less “belonging” to their team.
Distractions at home
Typically, employers are encouraged to ensure that their remote workers have both dedicated workspace and adequate childcare before allowing them to work remotely. Yet, in the case of a sudden transition to virtual work as, is the present case, there is a much greater chance that employees will be contending with suboptimal workspaces and (in the case of school and nursery closures) unexpected parenting responsibilities. Even in normal circumstances family and home demands can impinge on remote work; managers should expect these distractions to be greater during this unplanned work-from-home transition.
How managers can support remote employees
As much as remote work can be fraught with challenges, there are also relatively quick and inexpensive things that managers can do to ease the transition. Actions that you can take include:
Establish structured daily check-ins
Many successful remote managers establish a daily call with their remote employees. This could take the form of a series of one-on-one calls, if your employees work more independently from each other, or a team call, if their work is highly collaborative. The important feature is that the calls are regular and predictable, and that they are a forum in which employees know that they can consult with you, and that their concerns and questions will be heard.
Provide several different communication technology options
Email alone is insufficient. Remote workers benefit from having a “richer” technology, such as video conferencing, that gives participants many of the visual cues that they would have if they were face-to-face. Video conferencing has many advantages, especially for smaller groups: visual cues allow for increased mutual knowledge about colleagues and also help reduce the sense of isolation among teams. Video is also particularly useful for complex or sensitive conversations, as it feels more personal than written or audio communication.
There are other circumstances when quick collaboration is more important than visual detail. For these situations, provide mobile-enabled individual messaging functionality (like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.) which can be used for simpler, less formal conversations, as well as time-sensitive communication.
If your company doesn’t have technology tools already in place, there are inexpensive ways to obtain simple versions of these tools for your team, as a short-term fix. Consult with your IT department to ensure there is an appropriate level of data security before using any of these tools.
Establish “rules of engagement”
Remote work becomes more efficient and satisfying when managers set expectations for the frequency, means, and ideal timing of communication for their teams. For example, “We use video conferencing for daily check-in meetings, but we use IM when something is urgent.” Also, if you can, let your employees know the best way and time to reach you during the workday (e.g. “I tend to be more available late in the day for ad hoc phone or video conversations, but if there’s an emergency earlier in the day, send me a text.”) Finally, keep an eye on communication among team members (to the extent appropriate), to ensure that they are sharing information as needed.
Provide opportunities for remote social interaction
One of the most essential steps a manager can take is to structure ways for employees to interact socially (that is, have informal conversations about non-work topics) while working remotely. This is true for all remote workers, but particularly so for workers who have been abruptly transitioned out of the office. The easiest way to establish some basic social interaction is to leave some time at the beginning of team calls just for non-work items (e.g. “We’re going to spend the first few minutes just catching up with each other. How was your evening?”). Managers of remote workers (and the workers themselves) report that virtual sessions like this help reduce feelings of isolation, promoting a sense of belonging.
Offer encouragement and emotional support
Especially in the context of an abrupt shift to remote work and flexible working patterns, it is important for managers to acknowledge stress, listen to employees’ anxieties and concerns, and empathise with their struggles. If a newly remote employee is clearly struggling but not communicating stress or anxiety, ask them how they’re doing. Even a general question such as “How is this remote work situation working out for you so far?” can elicit important information that you might not otherwise hear. Once you ask the question, be sure to listen carefully to the response, and briefly restate it back to the employee, to ensure that you understood correctly. Let the employee’s stress or concerns (rather than your own) be the focus of this conversation. Similarly, use this opportunity to remind them of wider support available throughout the Civil Service department.