Covid-19: Managing Change-Remote Workforce

— By Simone Summers

The new realty of COVID-19 is that many in-office work teams are unexpectedly working remotely. Organizational leaders have two goals. One is to create psychological safety among team members. The second goal is to use leadership skills that are more precise and focused on each team member's success.

The remote workforce has been growing for years now but methodically and with careful planning on the part of employers. Methodical went out the window with the appearance of the COVID-19 virus. To keep operations going, employees were suddenly sent home to work alone for the safety and health of the general population. The new reality, almost overnight, is the workforce became an entirely (or almost entirely) remote one, leaving organizational leaders challenged with managing employees they have normally worked with in a brick-and-mortar setting. The leadership focus must shift to managing with more precision and helping people not used to working remotely remain committed to achieving goals. Leadership skills must be utilized consistently, precisely, rigorously, and compassionately.

Helping Employees Adapt
When brick-and-mortar employees are suddenly told to work remotely, organizational leaders must adapt just as quickly. The remote work force has been growing, and the concept of working from home is not as shocking as it might have been a decade ago. But there is recognition that some people do not enjoy or are uncomfortable working remotely for a variety of reasons. They may feel isolated and miss the social interaction of the workforce. Many employees find extra motivation as a result of the give-and-take between people as they bounce ideas off each other or share information at the spur of the moment. Employees may be uncomfortable not working under direct supervision or worried about learning new systems and procedures.

The organization leaders' goals do not change. They want an engaged, productive, and satisfied team. The difference is that the leaders skills and strategies for achieving the goals must change. When people are in the same office or building, managers can hold impromptu conversations and meetings, hash out project details, ask questions, give and receive feedback on the spot, and recognize a positive accomplishment at the time. All of these acts are motivating, socializing, and engaging.

Same but Different
These kinds of interactions between managers and employees can still occur, but in a different way. Since some people are not happy working remotely, the first step is helping them get accustomed to working from home. They need the right equipment and to develop the required skills for utilizing equipment and programs. To help employees succeed in the virtual reality, they need regular contact with managers and coworkers, a check-in schedule, and realistic goals.

Psychologically speaking, it is uncertainty that creates stress. The constant barrage of negative news about the virus, frequent threats of a job-robbing recession, fears about the financial health of their employer, and being forced to work alone all raise stress levels.

For a short while, the manager's first step is ensuring the technologies are in place and working well for staying in contact with employees. Larger companies have internal programs capable of handling a remote workforce, but there are easy to use options available for other companies. The technologies can include instant messaging, like the WhatsApp Business Solutions or Slack which supports group chats with coworkers and is very easy to use. Video conferencing programs enable managers to meet online with one or more employees.

Putting the technology in place must be coupled with some structure. For example, a manager should set a schedule as to attendance at mandatory online meetings where fellow remote workers can share information and interact. Good leadership skills for managing a remote workforce means rigorously and consistently providing direction to the workforce so people never feel isolated or abandoned. Establish manager-employee communication protocols by asking team members how they prefer to be contacted – email, text, instant messaging, phone call, and so on.

Leading with Precision
The leadership skills must include the ability to communicate with precision in other words. Since a manager cannot walk up to an employee and provide additional direction or discuss a work assignment, the new operating rules must be clear and precise. It is more difficult to engage and manage remote employees to maintain cohesiveness. Precision in leadership matters.

What does leadership precision involve? It means not making any assumptions and ensuring personal availability so employees never feel abandoned. The leader of a remote workplace is precise about the work to accomplish, and informs employees when must be available for online meetings and conferences. Specific work goals are set and reinforced, and employees are held accountable.

To create a unified and committed remote team, it is important to share recognition with other employees when people are successful. They can be small achievements at first, like mastering online programs or sharing innovative ideas for improving remote team interactions. By sharing small and large achievements, it proves that no one is forgotten in the cyber world.

Precision in leadership takes focus and commitment on the part of managers. Most people take for granted certain operational aspects of their business because they know face-to-face exchanges are always possible. In the virtual world, non-verbal behaviors are the cues, like declining participation in voluntary group chat sessions, fewer emails, lack of input in online meetings, struggles getting into and using software, and missed goals after the initial transition period are just a few.

Everyone Must Adapt
It is much easier to identify an employee experiencing stress in the brick-and-mortar setting. There is a risk among remote employees that some will get increasingly isolated. The leader's role assumes the responsibility of ensuring all remote workers are included, experience psychological safety and know they are still fully supported as team members. The first step is helping people get comfortable as remote employees, and the second step is creating structure and routine.

The steps mentioned are just a few and the most immediate. Some of them may sound like a throwback to command-and-control leadership, but that is not the intent. When going to a remote workforce with little notice, everyone must change their behaviors. From a glass-half-full perspective, this is an ideal time for all organizational members to prove they are adaptable, flexible, and committed to personal and organizational success.