Remote work, for years an emerging trend in American workplaces, has become an undeniable reality during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public health officials promoted social distancing as a means of mitigating COVID-19 when it began to spread throughout the U.S. in late February and early March. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended that guidance to workplaces, recommending that employers consider telework, phone conferencing and similar measures to reduce person-to-person transmission.
The resulting en masse movement to remote work has placed considerable strain on workers, by some accounts. An April survey by market research firm OnePoll and Citrix of U.S. office workers currently working from home due to the novel coronavirus found that more than one-third felt overwhelmed, and 30% said they were unable to focus because "there are too many people in the house." More than one-fifth said they experienced loneliness.
Managers sit on the front lines of these trends, and sources who spoke to HR Dive noted the incredible amount of responsibility placed on managers' shoulders when it comes to preparing, and refining, the flow of work when operations move remote. From ensuring efficient video chats to helping direct reports prioritize their work while their children are home, HR can relay a number of lessons to managers to ensure they're prepared.
Zoom has arguably become a cultural fixture inside and outside of the virtual workplace during the pandemic, but it can be easy to overwhelm employees with video conferencing. To avoid that outcome, managers should ensure their video meetings have a strong agenda, Arran Stewart, chief visionary officer of job-matching company Job.com, said in an emailed statement to HR Dive.
"Managers should get everyone's consent to have the discussions recorded and minuted, with calls to action, assigned duties with clear directives and deadlines distributed via email to all participants," Stewart said.
Leaders should have a meeting via video, phone, chat or similar medium with their direct reports at least once a day, Alka Ramchandani-Raj, of counsel attorney at Littler Mendelson, told HR Dive in an interview. Such meetings can be a good replacement for in-person communication in a remote work environment, more so than a back-and-forth email chain. In fact, the latter is "what we don't want to see," Ramchandani-Raj said. "It changes the foundation of the relationship between supervisor and employee."
There's also a certain etiquette to Zoom, WebEx and other conferencing tools that managers need to note. "Collaborative discussions require very different behaviors than status updates," Jordan Birnbaum, vice president and chief behavioral economist at ADP, told HR Dive in an emailed statement. "It's important to match behavioral expectations to the purpose of the meeting."
For example, managers might be able to help their teams overcome awkward pauses and breaks in conversations prevalent in the video conferencing medium by holding signs, encouraging participants to raise their hands, using the program's chat function or even employing a "5-seconds-of-silence-before-moving-on" rule, Birnbaum said.
Birnbaum also noted that emails and even text messages can't be too heavily relied upon during remote hours, in part because managers normally converse through dialogue, not just text. "When tone is important, use a live discussion," he said. "When tone is not important, use email."
Keeping up with goals and objectives
Email, incidentally, is a good way to track goals and objectives, Stewart said, which can be crucial to keeping workers on task: "Managers need to set clear, reasonable [key performance indicators] with set deadlines." Communicating and agreeing to those deadlines over email, he added, "leaves a mail trail and reduces potential confusion."
Generally, organizations should continue using the same standards for measuring goals they have in normal times, Birnbaum said. For most, that means measuring workers by outcomes rather than hours worked or tasks completed. Birnbaum said managers should use the "S.M.A.R.T." framework for goal-setting, and he advised against strict supervision of employees during their remote work stints.
"Certain jobs absolutely require constant supervision," Birnbaum said. "For the rest, constant supervision is a significant detractor, and would more likely hurt performance than support it."
But keeping an open line of communication is important, according to Ramchandani-Raj, if for no other reason than to allow direct reports the opportunity to ask questions, report technical issues and report the status of projects. If time-keeping is a compliance concern for the manager, he or she will need to check in with employees for accuracy, Ramchandani-Raj said.
Leading when life gets in the way
With schools closures impacting thousands of families, managers will need to be supportive as well as understanding during this time, Birnbaum said. He added that employees' needs exist at a practical and emotional level, and managers should anticipate and account for both.
"Statements of empathy and support can have an extraordinarily positive impact on people on people, and extend into workplace engagement," Birnbaum said. "A statement as simple as, 'I can imagine how difficult this must be. I want you to know I understand and will do anything I can to help,' can be great leadership in the moment."
Child care challenges are coming to the forefront for many. Employers like Microsoft have changed their leave policies to allow employees with children flexibility to deal with their home needs. Ramchandani-Raj said managers might want to consider allowing workers to shift from a day shift to a night shift, or a custom time slot, in order to make the situation easier for their direct reports to deal with.
There are legal reasons for paying attention to child care needs, too. Both federal and state laws may grant employees access to paid or unpaid leave. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act interacts with both buckets of leave in addition to an employer's own time-off policies. A manager's failure to recognize an employee's need to take leave could have consequences. "Someone could potentially bring a wrongful termination or constructive discharge claim," Ramchandani-Raj said. "For those reasons, supervisors should not try to address leave themselves, but should notify HR about the request."
Ultimately, compassion may be the biggest item for managers to emphasize in the months ahead, Stewart said. Social communication in the form of virtual lunches, happy hours and group meditations can be a good way of conveying to employees that the employer cares about their well-being.
"Fostering a sense of belonging through the relationships employees build with each other and the organization is perhaps even more important when you aren't seeing each other face-to-face regularly," Stewart said.