Now that a significant proportion of the professional workforce is working from home, managers are faced with big questions. How can they manage, motivate and support staff working remotely -- not just within the context of COVID-19, but in a future dominated by remote-first teams?
According to Carol Cochran, VP of people and culture at jobs platform FlexJobs, managing flexible workers needn't be significantly more difficult than managing in-office workers. "While it does take a shift in managerial practices, the management practices that work well for flexible workers work well for all workers, so it's a benefit for the entire team whether people work flexibly or not," she tells ZDNet.
"Start by discussing and setting agreed-upon goals with your remote employees. Measuring remote employee productivity involves thinking about issues such as quality of work, quantity of tasks completed, and ability to finish tasks in a timely manner."
Once these expectations are agreed upon between manager and employee, they should be converted into SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based) targets.
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From here, managers should set clear expectations and practice proactive communication on what it means to be a remote worker at the organisation, says Cochran: "As a leader, ensure you're frequently connecting with each person on your team to talk about their specific contributions and to acknowledge their unique experiences."
According to Blakeley Hartfelder, research director at analyst Gartner, HR managers may be reluctant to give up the level of visibility into employees' activities they were used to having in the office in the 'new normal' of remote working.
A Gartner poll of HR leaders last year found that the percentage of organisations tracking the productivity of remote workers rose from 49% in April 2020 to 73% in August. Of these, 33% of organizations are passively tracking remote employee productivity through technology, Gartner found.
Before embracing employee monitoring technologies, managers should consider whether the benefits are worth the risks of causing employees stress, damaging employee-manager relationships and enabling a culture of mistrust and suspicion in the digital workplace, says Hartfelder.
"Most employees who work remotely enjoy it, primarily because of the flexibility it gives them in terms of when and where they work. By taking away employees' sense of flexibility and self-direction, overzealous monitoring may cancel out the benefits to their engagement and productivity," she tells ZDNet.
"Managers should be able to trust employees to do their work without persistent monitoring. Constant surveillance might motivate employees to make sure they look busy all the time, but it is unlikely to bring out their best work."
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Communication is key
If managers feel the need to micromanage the activity of their remote teams, this could be a sign that the employer-employee relationship is already damaged.
Cochran says issues in setting and measuring KPIs for remote workers often arise when there's a lack of communication between employer and employee.
"It's easy for leaders new to remote management to mistake activity for productivity. Logging in does not necessarily equate to work being accomplished," Cochran tells ZDNet.
"Conversely, an employee who happens to step away from their desk when you message them through a tool like Slack may have exceeded their goals for the day, despite a momentary absence."
Logging employees' activities on a granular scale can be a poor tool for measuring performance, Hartfelder explains.
"Take, for example, an employee whose productivity is recorded automatically based on keystrokes and app usage on their work computer. The system might encourage behaviors like staying at a desk all day, afraid to take breaks or doing busywork to avoid looking idle," she says.
A better approach to managing remote workers is to set clear goals with well-defined timelines and deadlines, and to measure performance according to whether employees meet their goals effectively.
How their work impacts the business should also be taken into consideration, says Hartfelder. This outcome-based approach gives employees the flexibility to manage their time in whatever way works best for them.
Of course, goals tend to be based on prior targets and results. For some employees, goals may no longer be relevant if the move to remote working has changed businesses' priorities, or otherwise made certain ongoing projects unworkable.
Managers should be aware of situations that might result in employees having to adjust or reassess targets. This can include personal triggers -- changes in an employee's personal life that may impact work, for example -- as well as changes in their work environment or wider company strategy.
"[Managers] should also be having proactive conversations with employees about business strategy and how that strategy connects to employees' work and progress against goals. In a remote environment, it's even more important these conversations start with empathy," says Hartfelder.
Regular check-ins shouldn't be solely for the purpose of ensuring workers are hitting deadlines.
Many employees are still struggling with remote work, particularly those who have additional duties at home, non-ideal home-working arrangements, or anxiety about the pandemic.
This can have a knock-on effect on workplace performance, notes Chris Mullen, executive director of The Workforce Institute at tech company UKG.
"If staff are failing to meet their targets while working remotely, the first logical question for managers to ask themselves is why?" Mullen tells ZDNet.
"Do not just go in all-guns-blazing and assume the employee is underperforming. Take a step back to consider the ongoing disruption to each and every person. While many employees' actual working style might not have changed, other parts of their lives have been transformed and it is important for managers to recognize and respond to this."
Perhaps the most obvious change for business leaders in recent months has been a greater focus on empathy and employee wellbeing, says Mullen.
As part of this, managers have had to take on coaching roles and openly discuss workloads, interests, mental health, aspirations, and other factors outside of their current role to form a closer connection with employees.
"Maintaining personal connections and introducing stress management and self-care practices have also become critical steps in helping employees maintain a healthy work-life balance," he adds.
"While employee wellbeing has always been important, ensuring staff are happy, healthy, and motivated has become a day-to-day imperative for business leaders in the new world of work."
A report from Ricoh in February highlighted how employees are affected by the lack of face-to-face interaction with peers. In an office environment, employees were accustomed to receiving validation -- so-called 'micro-rewards' -- for doing good work. This validation provides a confidence boost, which in turn motivates workers and boosts productivity.
Without regular communication and feedback, workers may lose confidence in their ability, killing motivation and leading to a drop in productivity. Managers can help here by recognising individual team members' efforts and achievements and sharing this recognition with the entire team.
"As a leader, ensure you're frequently connecting with each person on your team to talk about their specific contributions and to acknowledge their unique experiences," says Cochran.
"If you feel a remote employee is slacking off or needs help, consider asking more targeted questions that will address the situation and get to the heart of the productivity decline. When coupled with regularly scheduled check-ins, open-ended questions like 'What do you need help with?' and 'Is there anything getting in the way of meeting that deadline?' will ensure work is being completed and KPIs are staying on track."
Cochran says that affective management ultimately comes down to giving employees the resources they need to do their jobs well and having regularly scheduled team check-ins, scheduled one-on-ones, and access to cross-team training.
She also suggests that managers get creative with virtual social activities that can help remote employees to feel included and avoid burnout.
"Whether these initiatives look like a company-wide Zoom team lunch or a virtual water-cooler channel on Slack, it's critical for leaders to establish and promote healthy work-life boundaries," she tells ZDNet.
"It's important to give trust to your remote workers that they will manage their time in a way that produces the best results. If that's not happening, address it immediately. Proactive communication is critical to the success of remote work."