As soon as the COVID-19 outbreak reached the United States, I implemented a voluntary Work-From-Home policy to ensure the health and safety of our staff, as well remain productive in a chaotic economic situation. While my company has long had a liberal work remote policy, most of our staff still comes into the office. This literally changed overnight and as all the self-quarantine lengthened, I worried about the ability of the department management to remain efficient and engaged with work responsibilities. With that in mind, I added some training in my company to aid management for oversight of remote staff. I put some information below as it may be a help to others as we move through this crisis.
Except for one area, there is little difference between managing in-house staff and remote employees. The key variation is the use of communication tools to interact with remote staff. Managers no longer have the luxury to walk down to your office for a project update. As communication is the foundation of any manager-staff relationship, tools must be in place to ensure beneficial dialogue between management and staff. Outside of that, all other elements of manager-staff interaction remain the same. So without further ado, here are my rules for a solid business relationship between staff and their team leads, project managers, and direct supervisors.
Rule #1 – Set Expectations
For a manager, defining clear and deliberate expectations for every employee is the keystone for a solid working relationship. Establishing ground rules for interaction and feedback is paramount to avoid miscommunication. The manager-staff duo together should set clear lines of accountability, including performance goals and targets. Measurable metrics must be part of these goals, so there is no confusion about success or failure. For a remote employee, goals must be the same as the rest of the team. Remote staff must know they are treated equitably using the same metrics as everyone else.
Rule #2 – Communication is Key
I require a communication plan for all my remote employees. This documented plan details the obligations for both managers and staff members on how communication should flow. Include sections on how long email response should be during work hours, project/task updates, attendance at team meetings and level of interactions at those meetings. It’s imperative not to multitask during meetings. It is impossible to focus on conversations when you are checking email or working on a deliverable. A communication plan sets the expectation (see Rule #1) for scheduled team and one-on-one meetings.
For a manager, great communication tips to facilitate meaningful communication with your staff includes:
- Video conferences work better than phone conferences. People are more attentive in meetings when they are seen and can see others.
- Set meetings in the morning. It sets the tone for the coming workdays and gets staff thinking about tasks, deliverables, and scheduling.
- Set aside time at the beginning of meetings for “pleasantries”. Remember, a lot of your staff is working alone, some basic human interaction goes a long way to keep them engaged. (plus it is just a nice thing to do!)
- Avoid long email threads. If staff are reading emails, they are not doing constructive work. Limit email threads to only 4 iterations at a maximum. We should handle anything more than that in a call or meeting.
- Send amusing and/or helpful notes as needed. Managers need to keep team members focused and involved, but a little humor eases stress or boredom.
- Cardinal rule: When in doubt, over-communicate! While remote staff are, well, remote, they want to know they are not forgotten. Communication is key to make that issue never occurs!
Rule #3 – Document, Document, Document
I work in a regulated industry, and the mantra in our industry is, “If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen”. This guideline works will all staff members, it is particularly important with remote employees. There is no greater danger to efficiency and productivity than confusion about tasks and objectives. The best way to avoid this chaos is to document all discussions, decisions and action items. This documentation does not have to be verbose, a simple email will suffice. But ensure it happens so everyone is following the same roadmap to work tasks.
Rule #4 – Know the Pain-Points
There are certain issues remote workers seem to encounter more than on-site staff. For example, remote staff often feel like they are “forgotten” by the rest of the team. Therefore, communication is vital to keep remote staff feeling engaged and part of the group. Another issue I’ve noticed is that staff hate to “bother” remote employees. “Oh, I don’t want to interrupt them if they are working at home”, is something I hear often. This comment infuriates me. While they are working from home, they are, in fact, WORKING! If you would bother them in the office, then bother them when they are remote.
Rule #5 – Technology is Our Friend
The one true difference between a remote staff member and someone working in the office is technology. It is easy for in-house workers to have a conversation around the water cooler. Remote staff can’t do that. To resolve that, managers must embrace technology to communicate, set expectations, document all their team members equally. Examples of technology include instant-messaging dashboards, video communication software, file-sharing, and task management. There is no end of excellent technical platforms to make this happen. At my company we use Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, and SharePoint; but there are literally hundreds of different systems out there. Companies have different requirements, find the technical tools that work best for your company or team. The primary hurdle for any managers of remote staff is it is not optional to use technology. A non-technical manager cannot direct remote workers successfully. The inability to use technology effectively limits those managers to in-house staff only.
There is very little difference between in-house and remote staff members from the manager’s perspective. A successful manager is communicative, sets fair expectations, and demands accountability. Where the employee works is largely irrelevant. It is important is that ALL staff members, remote or otherwise, feel they are a valued part of the team and the company. Remote employees must be treated equally with on-site staff members for advancement, salary, and work assignments. Remote employees must trust that managers provide them with equal communication time consummate with other staff, are not marginalized or “forgotten” simply be because they work remotely. If we address those concerns, managing remote staff is simple.