Finding remote work a struggle? Here's how to get your team back on track

Logging on to work from home has become the new normal, but keeping teams motivated and effective is harder than ever.

First the good news: almost all (96%) business leaders believe their company has successfully executed its remote work approach. Now the bad news: people working from home consistently report feeling disconnected.

While employees have managed to keep their company's operations running in challenging circumstances during the past year, research suggests these efforts can often be at the expense of their own health. Many remote workers report feeling burnt out and disconnected from the managers who make decisions from afar.

That's despite the efforts of bosses to experiment with new agile forms of leadership, where command-and-control styles are being replaced by new management techniques that encourage collaboration and foster accountability.

While the most effective bosses have used the past 12 months to support new remote-working practices with Agile leadership styles, the fact that some workers feel isolated and unsupported suggests the management technique is still a work in progress.

That failure could have long-term ramifications – if we're going to turn the WFH experience of the last year into a permanent hybrid way of working, senior managers will need to ensure remote workers stay connected. So what now? Here, three business leaders share their experiences and best-practice tips for keeping remote workers motivated.

Don't be scared to have a a laugh

Laura Dawson, CIO at the London School of Economics, says leaders who want to support their remote workforce shouldn't underestimate the importance of showing empathy.

"If you want to support people who are remote working, you cannot be an old-fashioned leader. That sounds critical, but you can't be the kind of leader that is saying, 'I don't really like people who are remote working and I want to know that they're doing stuff', and then always checking that the green light's on," she says.

Evdience from the Harvard Business Review suggests Dawson is onto something. HBR says business leaders must understand that being nice to each other and goofing around together is part of the work we do. The informal interactions at risk in hybrid and remote work are not distractions; instead; they foster the employee connections that feed productivity and innovation.

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Dawson says successful business leaders in the future will have to be more empathetic. They will have to be unafraid of asking people how they're getting on. That question will need to be posed in the right way: rather than checking up on staff to see if they're at their desks, leaders should have conversations with staff about their feelings and objectives.

"We've got to get away from that old style of management," she says. "If you want to keep your team motivated, talk to them. Be really clear about what they're there to do and how you are going to help them to do it – and that's we do; that's what you have to do."

Use good habits to maintain the right balance

Many business leaders have spent the past 12 months successfully managing their disparate workforces from home. So what happens now? Rich Corbridge, CIO at high-street pharmacist Boots, sums up the uncertainty facing many executives: "If I'm honest, I don't know."

The thing he misses most when managing people from afar are the sparks of creativity that come from people working together in an office. Yes, cloud computing technology has helped us communicate and collaborate, but Corbridge says there's nothing like standing in front of a whiteboard and working through some ideas.

Equally, he recognises that being apart from his colleagues has sponsored new and effective ways of working. He hopes some of the good habits from the WFH experience stick, such as half-hour standups at the beginning of every working day.

"It's a chance to ask, 'What are we doing, guys? How are we working together? And are you okay?' And genuinely focusing on that human side – not just using it as a way of saying 'hello', but actually meaning 'Are you OK, are you going to get through today with everything that's on your plate?' I hope we can try and retain that in some way," he says.

What's more, now we've all get used to collaborative tech, Corbridge says there's no reason why some of those check-in sessions shouldn't stay online: "I think there's a real balance that we'll only know how to achieve as we start to drift back to normal."

Do your best with the tools you've got

Paul Coby, CIO at Johnson Matthey, says the past year has been a learning experience for everyone, both managers and their staff alike. Coby says keeping retained employees motivated hasn't been the only challenge. Business leaders have had to find ways to onboard new employees in a socially distanced manner, too. 

Johnson Matthey has taken on many new employees during the past year. Coby says it's hard to find your feet in an organisation when you're working remotely – and that's something business leaders will have to think about as they continue to source and then lead people from afar in the post-COVID age.

"I think everybody's tried really hard," he says. "If anybody joins, we encourage people to contact them and they have buddies to support them. I think training is really important as well. The good news is, that being an IT function, most of our technical training was already available online. The bits I worry about are the softer training elements – it's the human interaction between the people in the classroom that really makes the difference for those things."

Coby says there is a simple lesson for all managers who want to keep remote workers motivated: "All you can do is your best with the materials you've got. I'd hope that half the battle is recognising that this is a real issue. So at least if you've recognised it, you're doing something about it."