How to Manage Your Remote Employees Effectively During COVID-19

By now, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses have figured out how to work remotely as best they can. Some were better equipped and prepared than others, and some business models and operational processes were better suited for remote work than others.

However, for those fortunate enough to keep operating remotely during COVID-19, there’s now a bigger question. How do you manage remote employees effectively and make the most of such an unexpected and difficult situation?

Fortunately, there are some great tips and best practices you can follow to optimize your management of remote workers. These are practices we know well because we built and operate much of our business remotely, even though we have physical offices in New York and San Francisco.

We operate a web-based platform that connects large enterprises, investment firms, and services firms to over 6,000 of the world’s top independent consultants. Most of these consultants operate and perform their services remotely, which allows them to serve a global client base and provide services more efficiently and cost-effectively than requiring on-site engagements. It also yields many additional insights into the best ways to make the most of remote work arrangements.

Here are some of the best practices we recommend based on our experience as well as those of our clients and remote consultants.

1. Understand the Challenges.

Managing remote workers is a unique task under normal circumstances, but the COVID-19 pandemic has presented an unprecedented set of challenges.

Even in normal circumstances, managing and working remotely can be challenging, especially when someone has limited experience or training. Both managers and employees can struggle with a lack of face-to-face interaction and supervision as well as the lack of easy access to the usual tools and information available when working and managing on-site.

Then there are the technical challenges of trying to connect, interact, and work remotely. The ability to manage and work effectively from afar depends heavily on having access to the right technologies, high-speed Internet, and reliable systems and connections.

During COVID-19, these challenges have been amplified, and there are additional complications. For example, distractions at home from spouses, children and pets can be disruptive, stressful and almost impossible to avoid under the present circumstances.

Technology issues have been rampant as well, especially as companies and employees get used to new hardware, software and systems. Technical problems are virtually inevitable under the current conditions, especially as increased Internet traffic and the sudden shift toward remote work have strained IT infrastructure and many popular business technologies.

Then there is the issue of social isolation, with many employees missing the social interaction they might typically get in the workplace. Workers who suddenly don’t have these opportunities and are isolated from their managers and co-workers may lose a sense of belonging to an organization and may lose motivation.

These are just some of the reasons why it’s so important to understand the unique context of COVID-19 and take the right steps to work through these challenges and manage your remote workers more effectively.

2. Establish Expectations

Just as you do with employees when you’re managing them on-site, you need to set clear expectations of what they should be doing, how they’ll be expected to do it, and what sort of performance and productivity you expect under the circumstances.

This may be the first experience that many employees have with working remotely, while others many have done so only on a limited basis previously. Many will also be dealing with the challenges of having children at home while schools are closed or handling other regular obligations at home.

Give them guidelines to help them adapt to their new work reality with clear expectations, and make sure to account for the different challenges your individual employees may have. Not everyone has the same circumstance at home or is equally prepared, adaptable and able to make a sudden and seamless transition to a new work model.

3. Engage and Check in Regularly.

Establish daily or weekly calls and communications with your remote employees and teams. They will help you keep work on track and allow you to provide coaching and support, answer questions and concerns, and provide a reliable source of interaction that will help workers stay engaged and motivated.

Give your remote employees as much access to you as possible, since many of them may be used to being able to see and speak to you in the workplace, stop by your office, or even share a lunch together. You can use multiple channels and technologies to communicate, but it’s important to schedule regular one-on-one video sessions and team video conferences =.

It’s important that this engagement be regular and predictable, and video is a critical tool to facilitate this where possible.

4. Use Multiple Communication Methods Strategically.

Email is inevitably the primary tool for remote work, but managers should provide multiple communication methods for collaboration, teamwork, and one-on-one meetings. In particular, video is an important tool for holding the closest thing to actual face-to-face meetings and interactions.

Instant messaging, texting, and cloud-based collaboration portals are also excellent communication tools to use, depending on the particular need and task. For example, collaboration platforms allow easy sharing of files, project schedules, and ongoing project-specific communications.

You might use video conferencing for all meetings and regular check-ins, a cloud platform for secure file sharing, email for all routine written communications, and an instant messaging service for urgent requests. Make sure to set ground rules for which communication methods to use for each task or need.

If your company doesn’t have the right video and other communication technologies in place, there are many inexpensive ways to obtain these tools for your team, even on a short-term basis.  Consult with your IT team to find the best options and ensure and appropriate level of security before you begin.

5. Understand the Effectiveness of Video.

Video provides visual and facial cues that help everyone communicate and understand each other more effectively. As a recent Harvard Business Review piece points out, “Visual cues allow for increased ‘mutual knowledge’ about coworkers 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-only communication.”

Video can also be a fun way to visibly share in the mutual experience and challenges of working from home. For example, you can set aside some time at the start or the end of team video conferences for employees to show off their home workspaces, have their children say hello to co-workers, or show off their pets.

6. Trust Your Team and Stay Focused On Your Goals.

Many companies are uncomfortable with the idea of remote work because they fear that work won’t get done and productivity will suffer. But there is a growing number of studies which show that remote workers can be more productive than on-site workers, particularly when their job is a good fit for remote work and the right policies and procedures are in place.

Of course, the unique circumstances of COVID-19 are making remote productivity a bit harder in some cases, especially if employees have children at home and may need to balance their regular work with supervision and home schooling. But it’s important to stay focused on your business goals, trust your team, and focus on what’s being accomplished rather than activity for its own sake.

Give your employees guidelines, set your expectations, and give them the tools and resources to help them accomplish your business goals. Help them succeed despite the inherent difficulties of working remotely under such unusual circumstances. Then focus on the end result and its value, not on exactly how and when everything gets done.

7. Use Technology for Team Building and Community

Don’t forget to keep up with the same team building you normally do and the same sense of community you try to create in your physical workplace.

With video and other technology, you can still celebrate employee birthdays and company milestones, recognize individual achievements, and create virtual spaces where employees can share positive news, useful tips during COVID-19, or just have some fun.

For example, some organizations have set up special animal channels on their online collaboration platforms, where team members can share images of their pets or the wildlife outside their homes. Others have held “funny hat” video conferences or have created virtual “water coolers” where employees and commiserate and share their humorous experiences during home lockdowns.

There are many ways to make a remote work experience inclusive and fun, and it’s especially important right now, since many employees can use the occasional break from work and reality. Building a sense of belonging and community not only offers relief, but it can go a long way toward keeping everyone productive, positive and motivated.

8. Be Empathetic and Understanding.

With COVID-19, we’re all being reminded that there’s a lot more to life than just work. Show your employees that you understand this by empathizing with the challenges they may be facing.

Where appropriate, ask then how they are doing with remote work, talk about their life and their family, and discuss the common difficulties you may share with them. Listen to their concerns or anxieties, and remind them that you’re there to support them.

Then show that support by giving them encouragement, instilling confidence, and helping them address any issues that interfere with their work and give them the tools to help make their remote work as manageable and effective as possible.

Employees often look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crises, and effective leaders acknowledge the stress and anxiety that employees may be feeling while voicing calm, encouragement and positivity to assure them that we can all get through it.

9. Help Your Team and Business with Added Expertise.

To help your employees tackle important projects and plot the best strategies to maintain and grow your business during and after COVID-19, keep in mind there are many top business experts working remotely too.

As a talent platform that connects firms with pre-vetted and top-tier consultants, we regularly help enterprises establish remote consulting and work arrangements with leading experts in corporate strategy, operations, finance, marketing, IT and many other areas.

Many of our clients tap our network of over 5,000 of the world’s top independent consultants to provide strategic guidance and subject matter expertise, scale up and complement their in-house teams, or help manage and drive specific projects and business initiatives.

All of our Graphite consultants are vetted according to a stringent process, and they have an average of over 12 years of experience, including hundreds who have an MBA from a top 10 U.S. business school or leading global program.

Each of our consultants also has at least two years of previous experience at a Big 3 consulting firm such as McKinsey, BCG or Bain, or they have worked in a similarly high-profile organization.

For companies looking to survive, thrive and even grow during and after COVID-19, hiring a world-class consultant can be a shrewd strategy. Our consultants are already helping companies navigate current economic and operational challenges as well as recommend and execute winning strategies both now and for the future.

To learn more about what we do and how we can help your team and business during this challenging time, visit us now at www.graphite.com

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Greg Andrade

Greg Andrade handles Graphite's marketing and communication programs. A graduate of the University of Michigan, he worked in corporate marketing for 15 years before turning his focus to virtual marketing consulting for startups and global businesses.

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