A remote work environment may be new to many office employees who suddenly find themselves working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, yet it has long been part of the business and employment landscape, thanks in large part to advances in technology.
According to research by global staffing and recruiting firm Robert Half International, 47% of employees polled prior to the pandemic said their company offers remote working options -- a percentage sure to have grown dramatically over the past few months.
As a result, plenty of time-tested best practices have been compiled over the years that can help meet specific remote working needs. And that, at least, is comforting news for managers unfamiliar with coordinating the efforts of a remote workforce.
Here are some of the more common issues confronting managers of remote workforces as well as tips on how to solve them.
1. Technical issues slow productivity
Problem: Remote workers have trouble accessing essential systems, and there's no local IT help desk to rescue them.
Solution: Act as a bridge between the IT team and your remote workers to ensure that the employees are properly and securely connected. If necessary, ask for a full system test in advance to see if remote workers can access everything they require, including files on shared servers. Your IT team may also need to conduct an audit on employees' home setups to confirm that they're reliable and secure.
Glitches are inevitable, which means workers must have access to their company's disaster recovery plan. Make sure everyone has a list of emergency phone numbers in the event their broadband connection is interrupted.
2. Workers aren't prioritizing the right tasks
Problem: Remote employees can sometimes focus on the wrong priorities.
Solution: Perform informal check-ins to see how your employees are doing and ensure that they're focused on the right things. Since you can't simply walk over to a remote worker's desk, you need to invest a little more time in organization and guidance. How granular you get with your instructions and coaching should depend on the employee.
Entry-level workers may need more guidance, for example, on when they need to be available for meetings. The more you encourage these workers to track their tasks and milestones -- perhaps with an online whiteboard or calendar -- the faster they'll get their footing.
For more experienced staff, the hands-off nature of a remote environment can work to your advantage. Trust these workers to figure out how to adapt routine tasks to a remote working environment and challenge them with broader, more strategic goals such as reassessing 2020 project milestones in the wake of the pandemic.
3. Workers miss out on vital conversations
Problem: In the office, employees can have dozens of valuable interactions every day, from team meetings to quick chats in the elevator. In a remote work environment, this information flow can slow to a trickle.
Solution: Remote workers can still have these conversations if you help facilitate them. A good starting point is to hold a regular team meeting with the agenda set by the team. Give everyone a chance to talk about their experiences, share information, discuss problems and brainstorm ideas.
You can also invite less formal conversations on collaborative tech platforms like Teams and Slack. Open a separate channel called #Chit-Chat, for instance, where your team can shoot the breeze. This helps them to stay -- and feel -- connected while keeping the main communication channels free for work-related discussions.
4. Virtual meetings are unproductive
Problem: Video conferencing has proved to be indispensable during the COVID-19 crisis, allowing teams to communicate face-to-face while working at home. But once the novelty has worn off, the disadvantages of platforms like Zoom and Teams become more apparent. For example, even a small amount of lag time or microphone problems can make it hard to replicate the quick-fire brainstorming sessions held in an office setting.
Solution: Video conferences are most productive when they're focused and well moderated. Forward the meeting agenda to all attendees in advance and nominate a host who can keep everyone on topic.
Video conferencing also works best with a small number of attendees so everyone can have an opportunity to participate. Try holding smaller group sessions instead of large meetings. Failing that, try a seminar format whereby one or two people give a talk, followed by questions from all other attendees.
5. Workers get distracted at home
Problem: Remote workers encounter the typical distractions of being at home, such as household chores, deliveries and noisy neighbors. They may also need to care for their children or relatives during work hours.
Solution: Flexibility is the biggest advantage of working at home. And that can help employees work around distractions rather than work through them.
If, for example, one of your team members needs to provide childcare while their partner is at work, you could arrange a more suitable schedule for them, such as working from noon to 8 p.m., so they can focus on their kids in the morning and on their job the rest of the day.
6. Workers feel their day has no structure
Problem: Some employees need a daily regimen to stay motivated and on track, which an office environment can provide. When their routine is suddenly disrupted by a different work routine, they may find it difficult to stay focused on their job.
Solution: There's a lot to be said for the relatively rigid structure of office life. Hourly landmarks like commuting to work, meetings, impromptu huddles and lunch breaks can help people map out their day and stay motivated.
Help remote workers form a new structure by having one-on-one chats to set goals, encouraging periodic work breaks, scheduling times for them to work on specific tasks and setting aside time like a Friday afternoon happy hour to recognize worker accomplishments or simply unwind with conversations unrelated to work.
WFH beyond the pandemic
Not long ago, the idea of a virtual TGIF would have seemed silly, but technology is changing the way we approach work. And experiences encountered since the start of the pandemic prove that remote working is here to stay.
About the author
Jim Johnson is senior vice president of technology staffing services at Robert Half, credited as the world's first and largest specialized staffing firm. He supports nationwide operations for the company's Robert Half Technology, Robert Half Legal and Creative Group divisions. He has more than 20 years of experience in the staffing industry and has presented at the HDI Conference & Expo and Microsoft Ignite, among other events.