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Caring for Your Newly Remote Employees During COVID-19

Video chats are a great way to start caring for newly remote employees.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are coping with situations they never thought they would experience. In addition to grocery shopping with a facemask, you are homeschooling your kids. On top of that, you’re working from home and managing your employees remotely. We can’t help with grocery shopping, but here are some practical tips on caring for newly remote employees.

If you manage employees or own a business that transformed into a remote-based company overnight, chances are the learning curve was steep. You probably scrambled to find the resources your new remote employees need, while also adapting your own life to a world gone crazy. But now that the situation is fully upon you, what are the best ways of caring for newly remote employees? What support and resources can you provide to help them not just survive, but thrive, in their new work arrangements? Use these tips to help you navigate the waters of managing newly remote employees during COVID-19.

1. Draw on Your Shared Experience

While uncomfortable and distressing, your personal experiences give you insights into caring for newly remote employees during the COVID-19 quarantine. Chances are the things that make you feel competent and supported in your new work environment will also help them. This is one time that you know exactly how your employees in crisis feel. You can put yourself in their shoes and put that knowledge to good use.

Remember, you are all in this together. In addition to using your experience to identify what needs your employees may have, you should also harness the power of sharing your experiences. Knowing that you have your own struggles will take the pressure off your workers to pretend that everything is okay. Caring for newly remote employees means encouraging them to share their experience as well. Not only will this serve to bond your team, but you will also gain important insights into their individual situations.

2. Gather Information

While your employees will have many common experiences surrounding the stay-at-home restrictions, each situation will be different. Meet individually with your employees so you can identify any unique needs they may have in a safe, confidential environment. Customize your management approach with each employee to ensure you address any specific needs they may have. Don’t assume you know their experience or prepare a response before you understand what they are saying.

In addition to one-on-one conversations, spend some time in your meetings talking about the status quo of new and ongoing team collaborations. Identify stress points and brainstorm solutions. Regular face-to-face meetings, ad-hoc status reports, and casual questions are more difficult in a distributed workforce. Find where employee communications are suffering and devise strategies to resolve any difficulties.

Keep in mind that some of the information you gather is personal and covered by privacy laws, especially anything that is of a medical or legal nature. Caring for newly remote employees means taking necessary precautions to maintain the confidentiality and security of their information. This may mean installing specialized software or retreating to a sound-proof room for sensitive conversations.

3. Provide Appropriate Equipment & Software Tools

Nothing is more frustrating than not having the tools you need to do your job. During your one-on-one meetings, ask about your employee’s work situation. What spaces and technology do they have available? Do not assume that everyone’s scenario is the same. Use this information to find and implement the right tools to meet the needs of your remote workers. In some cases, you may need to let your employees know what you already have available.

Upgrades you may need to address include:

  • Home Wi-Fi plans to ensure access to fast internet connections
  • Updating your employees’ computer hardware and office equipment
  • Introducing new software tools such as communication applications, human resources management solutions, or project management software

Another aspect of supplying the appropriate tools is training. If the tools are new—even if you are just activating additional functionality—training can make the difference between improving or reducing productivity. Luckily, ready-made video tutorials are widely available on the internet. If necessary, try one of the many easy-to-use software applications to make your own tutorials.

Everyone’s comfort level with new technology will vary depending on age, background, and skillset. Caring for newly remote employees means taking this into account when incorporating new tools. There is no point in trying to implement a tool that will require intensive training for your employees or that will overwhelm them and create push-back.

4. Develop Written Expectations

In addition to not having access to the tools needed to effectively work remotely, the information needed to perform effectively may also not be in place. Therefore, access to clear job expectations and task information becomes essential. Posting these in an easily accessible place will reduce the uncertainty and ambiguity that remote employees may be feeling.

When working in an office, many expectations are built-in and commonly accepted. Expectations include start-times, break-times, meeting schedules, dress codes, rules of conduct, communication norms, and so on. In the absence of the usual physical environment, transparency is especially important. Writing down any new expectations so everyone can review is helpful. Once you develop new policies and procedures, make sure they are easily accessible to all employees.

Don’t replicate an office environment unless necessary. As you begin to develop work hours and meeting schedules, make sure that you ask yourself if this is the best way to achieve your goals. For example, unless the employee handles customer service calls between certain hours, strict work times aren’t as important. Caring for newly remote employees may mean implementing a little flexibility to accommodate other priorities such as homeschooling. Try adjusting from a time-based approach to an output-based alternative. Monitoring how many hours your employees are working is also a sound idea. While some employees may work less if the opportunity presents itself, others will end up working too much.

Project schedules, milestones, and deadlines are also integral to newly remote employees. In this uncertain and quickly changing environment, these pieces of structure and order will help to break up tasks and projects into bite-sized chunks—making it easier to track progress, identify problems, and make adjustments if necessary.

5. Implement Structure & Accountability

Structure can introduce certainty into your employees’ day. While time and location are two easy ways to introduce structure, they are not the only ways. Decide if it would be advantageous to transfer some of your regular meetings to a remote environment using voice or video conference calls. Take advantage of your new asynchronous communication tools to ask your employees for daily progress reports. Set deadlines for tasks. Each of these will require your remote employees to schedule their time and complete activities to ensure your requests are met. In this manner, you provide them with structure.

The amount of structure and oversight your newly remote employees might need will vary. Chances are you will already have an educated idea of what your employees need. But it’s still a good idea to check in with them individually. Some employees who are normally quite independent may require more support. This is especially true of employees who have never worked remotely before, or if employees are resistant or hesitant to working from home.

6. Avoid Misunderstandings

When caring for newly remote employees, give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the best in people. Misinterpretation from written messages is often your greatest adversary. Without physical cues, even the usual workplace banter can come across as insensitive. Clarity is your friend. Clear, simple messages will work best. Avoid anything too long or complicated as the potential for misinterpretation increases the more complicated and denser the text becomes.

If you and your employees have never worked remotely together before, don’t make assumptions regarding communication. The transition to primarily written communication is jarring, especially if some of your employees are uncomfortable with writing. Expect different levels of proficiency. Reinforce your written communication with regular video calls and conferences if this is the case. Video communication can also be reassuring for your employees and help you discern important information from body language and facial expressions.

7. Create Opportunities for Socializing

Informal communication in an office environment is just as important as formal communication. During quarantine, many normal, everyday relationships are disrupted. Allowing opportunities for your employees to interact socially and informally can be important in maintaining a sense of normalcy.

For example, you can pad your meeting times to allow for pre- and post-meeting questions and interactions. Adding group text capabilities through collaboration software such as Slack can provide employees with space for informal communication. Another idea would be to hold video-chat happy hours as a way to promote social interaction and maintain relationship bonds. You may be surprised by how your employees will rally around each other to share inspiration, information, and humor for mutual support.

8. Adapt & Iterate

Constant change has become the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation is continually evolving, and so are the instructions provided by healthcare professionals, politicians, and law enforcement. The ability to adapt quickly and adjust to changing circumstances is required.

In addition to adapting to official instructions, you need to acclimatize to the feedback you are getting from your employees. Provide them with plenty of opportunities to let you know what is working and what is not. Using this information, brainstorm solutions and adjust your strategies. By staying nimble, you can stay ahead of issues before they become big problems.

Above all, remember that you and your employees are all in this scary and uncomfortable situation together. As a leader caring for newly remote employees, you need to set an example of hope and unity. By putting in place the right information, tools, and support systems, you are giving your employees the opportunities to succeed during future events. As important as it is for your employees to take advantage of these resources, don’t forget to use them yourself. Modeling the behavior you wish to see is the best way to ensure high levels of buy-in and engagement with your employees.

Do you have tips for caring for newly remote employees? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to tell us what you think. We’d love to hear from you!

iStock image: fizkes

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