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Managing a remote workforce: a new reality of COVID-19

As we navigate and unite against COVID-19, one mantra is consistent and clear: stay home.

Many organizations have been forced or have chosen to shut their doors resulting in a dramatic increase in the number of employees working from home. As we emerge from the spin of the first few weeks of an abrupt shift to a virtually fully remote workforce, we now have to think about how to manage a remote workforce.

The fact is that even before the current situation, approximately half of Canadians worked remotely at least some of the time. So, while it’s new to many, it’s not all that new to a good number of Canadians who already have this remote work thing down pat.

Let’s take a look at what those who have already been managing that remote workforce can tell us about how we can get this right. After all, the reality is that we’re likely in this situation for several months. It’s also likely that at the end of this pandemic we’ll see a permanent shift to remote work for some.

While organizations work toward establishing remote work policies for the new reality created by COVID-19, here are 10 tips for successfully managing a remote workforce:

  1. Keep communication flowing – When employees are remote, it’s even more imperative that communication be abundant and frequent to keep employees informed, engaged and collaborating to meet the organization’s goals. Use a variety of forums to keep the lines of communication open and keep employees up to date on at least a weekly basis of the status of projects, initiatives and the general going’s on of the workplace.
  2. Set clear expectations – Be clear in the expectations about work tasks, timelines and standards of productivity. Make use of digital tools to monitor and keep everyone on the same page and on track. However, be mindful that many employees are navigating the challenges of remote work for the first time. For some, it’s compounded with juggling the care and home schooling of kids, grocery runs for elderly parents or neighbours and the emotional toll of the pandemic.
  3. Give employees reliable tools – We can’t expect employees to be productive and meet performance expectations if we haven’t given them the tools they need to succeed. This is an ongoing challenge as many organizations try to rapidly implement the necessary platforms employees need to work from home. Ensure that when assigning work and objectives, consideration is given to what employees have in their remote work toolbox.
  4. Focus on objectives rather than activity – Focus on the achievement of overall objectives and targets and not daily activity. Be flexible and don’t micromanage employees’ work hours, time logged on or their daily activities. Maintain reasonable performance standards but let employees work in the way they need to accomplish the tasks. However, ensure employees are also not overworking and are setting reasonable boundaries on their hours of work.
  5. Be accessible – Respond promptly to communications from employees to keep them connected to you and the organization and ensure they have the information they need to work productively.
  6. Touch base regularly and use video – In some cases a daily touchbase might be appropriate, while in others connecting weekly might be sufficient. Instead of speaking on the phone, use platforms with video capabilities so you can see each other face to face. It is more personal, helps to maintain the atmosphere of a virtual physical workplace and avoids people multitasking and not focusing on the discussion.
  7. Be mindful of your tone and wording in written communications – It’s easy to misinterpret the tone of written communications. Take time to ensure the words and tone of your communications will be perceived as professional and respectful. Use personal greetings and avoid all caps, underlining or bolded or highlighted fonts, especially where it could come across like you’re barking an order or scolding someone.
  8. Keep celebrating personal and professional successes and milestones – Birthday wishes, service milestones and recognizing performance and personal achievements help to create unity and promote a sense of community among the group while keeping everyone connected to the workplace. Taking a moment to ask someone how they and their family are coping through the pandemic will also provide much-needed support and assist in fostering a cohesive culture.
  9. Continue performance coaching – Continue any performance coaching that was occurring before the shift to remote work and, if it becomes necessary, implement coaching during the period of remote work. However, be realistic about the challenges of a sudden shift to remote work on employees’ performance.
  10. Be positive and reassuring – The pandemic will provoke some anxiety for most employees. Keeping a positive and reassuring attitude as a leader in the organization keeps employees in a frame of mind to stay focused and productive. Humour and inspirational stories or messages are a great way to keep employees’ spirits up and give them the motivation they may need to successfully tackle the challenges of the day.

As we adjust to the new normal of working remotely, have patience, be flexible and trust your employees. It will take us all some time to develop our remote work skills and put in place strategies that work with the unique, individual challenges of our newly blended home and work lives.