The transition to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed employees to escape some of the distractions common to many workplaces, but it has also added a completely new set of challenges.
This may be particularly true for workers who are new to the experience. A survey of 2,877 U.S. knowledge workers last month by chat platform Slack found that nearly one-third of newly remote workers said working at home has negatively affected their productivity, compared to 13% of workers who had previous experience with remote work.
"This is a crisis without a playbook," Mike Bokina, vice president and head of HR at Siemens USA, told HR Dive in an email. "As regular work has been disrupted for us all, staying 'plugged in' has become increasingly more important — for both individuals and managers."
Managers have to make their own adjustments to a remote work lifestyle, namely by prepping their teams, upping communication and keeping track of goals, but accomplishing these tasks depends on a workforce that can remain productive through global disruption. It may be a tall task, but there are a number of strategies supervisors can take advantage of. The first may also be the simplest: showing compassion.
Managers need to be available
It's important for managers who have newly remote direct reports to be open and honest with their communication, Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster, told HR Dive in an interview. In one-on-one meetings, supervisors might start by acknowledging that employees aren't struggling through the transition on their own. Salemi suggested using phrases such as, "I'm a little unproductive too, and this is what I've done."
Managers also have to be very intentional about their communications, Rachel Ernst, vice president of employee success at management software firm Reflektive, told HR Dive in an interview. For example, they can work with employees to adjust their schedules to ensure workers can work during the time of day that will allow them to accomplish the most tasks, Ernst said.
Multitasking is also a potential pitfall. Recent research from the University of Houston suggested that multitasking can lead to negative emotions, which may manifest as an "emotional contagion" that impacts other team members. Remote work likely means more virtual meetings and, consequently, more opportunities for e-mail or other distractions to creep in when one's attention should be focused on being present, Ernst said. She noted that managers should set ground rules on meetings so as to avoid these issues.
Resilience training should be another priority for organizations, Ernst continued. One strategy is to ask employees to voice out loud the obstacles that hinder their productivity. "Sometimes, the moment you voice it, it feels less daunting," she said.
Siemens is sharing guides and tools with employees that cover resiliency, mental well-being and other tips for staying healthy while remote, Bokina said. The company is also providing workers access to e-learning resources on topics such as managing stress, time management and navigating relational conflict, as well COVID-19-specific modules. "This demonstrates to our employees that their health and safety are our top priority and that we recognize no one is exempt from these challenging times," Bokina said.
Use video calls to your advantage
Video calls can be difficult for newly remote employees to adjust to, particularly given their role in replacing office facetime. But they can also be important levers for training.
The growth of webinar-style presentations in recent months may lead employers to choose this type of format when presenting training, but Ernst said she believes that interactive video meetings may be more suitable: "What helps knowledge set in most? It's when you have the opportunity to interact with the information and talk about it with someone else." A video meeting, she added, "allows you to react and participate much more."
Employers must ensure that workers have access to the appropriate technology for this strategy to be effective, however. Ernst recommends employers take three steps to incorporating a video learning strategy on the fly: 1) decide which specific technology to use; 2) teach employees how to use it; 3) set a standard across the organization that "this is how we're going to operate."
Goal-setting is equally important to ensuring productivity, and employers can utilize their group video meetings to aid with this as well. Ernst said she holds a once-a-week meeting with her team in which members share their most important goal for that week. The group then commits to hold their peers accountable.
"The philosophy behind this is that it's actually more impactful to say what you're planning to do in front of your peers," Ernst said, "and then come back to say you've accomplished that." She added that this can appeal to workers' personal branding. "They think a lot about, 'how am I perceived.'"
Team planning can also enhance employees' sense of belonging, which may also take a hit among those asked to go remote. Slack found in its survey that nearly half (45%) of newly remote workers said their sense of belonging at work suffered as they worked from home.
"Managers especially need to create a cohesion of purpose — a vision of desired future state to help guide, inspire, and propel action on the team," Bokina said, noting that it may be more effective for managers to break a team's transformation during the pandemic into short-term goals while prioritizing that are the most realistic and impactful. "By establishing milestones, managers are able to track progress and, of course, celebrate successes as they happen."
A 2019 study by Portland State University researchers found that taking a few moments before work to mentally reconnect and rehearse specific tasks can lead to higher engagement. Managers can take a similar "reconnecting" approach during the pandemic, Ernst said, by reflecting on team accomplishments at the end of the week. This move helps employees understand the impact they're having on the organization, Ernst noted.
Know the employees' space and set-up
Sometimes, the prospect of boosting productivity can be much simpler. Employees may not, for instance, have a dedicated workspace where they live, or they may not be taking breaks for meals. "Managers can simply say, 'how can I support you?'" Salemi said. "If your internet is slow, maybe the company can pay to upgrade it."
Flexibility is another key place to start as employees work through needs like caregiving, Salemi said. Employers might consider allowing employees to adjust their schedules so that they are working at times when they can dedicate their attention to work.
"Right now, people need flexibility to make sure that they and their loved ones stay healthy and/or to balance new demands in their work and home life," Bokina said. Siemens offers employees paid emergency leave, but it has also worked to provide employees guidance on setting regular hours, supporting work-life balance, setting up an adequate workstation and taking regular breaks, he added.
Managers must also lead by example when it comes to taking time away from work. "Anecdotally, a lot of people are working longer hours, but that doesn't mean they're being more productive," Salemi said. "It's important to set boundaries." She recommended that managers tell their reports when they plan to take time off and make it clear that they intend to be logged off during that time.
Productivity may be important, but employers need to be sensitive to employee stress during a difficult time, Salemi said, knowing that not all employees will feel comfortable speaking up when they are overwhelmed. "It's not necessarily getting them to feel comfortable," she added, "it's saying that if you are burnt out, there are resources."