Remote Work Transition

The last 18 months of drastic change, for example, brought down a lot of myths like: If people work from home, they’ll work less (they worked longer). Young people are eager to come back to the office (they are less willing than older employees per a recent survey by the Conference Board ). Unemployment is statistically low now so we’re getting back to normal (SHRM HR News called the changing the balance of power in employees’ favor as the Great Resignation).

The number of organizations that offer flexible or completely remote work  options increased by 40 percent over the past five years. Companies  transitioning to remote work stand to benefit greatly when it comes to hiring top talent and keeping their employees happy. However, taking away the office and sending off employees to work remotely is not an easy undertaking. Just like playing a successful game of chess, it requires significant planning and preparation.

Define remote work policies.  According to Upwork.com, a free lance work marketplace, the majority of hiring managers said they have the  resources to hire remote employees but they donʼt have the necessary  procedures in place. Before transitioning a team to remote work, itʼs important  to outline expectations, share them with everyone on the team, and update  them regularly.  These policies will depend on the team size and needs, however, a general  remote policy should outline:

  • Availability — Does the team need to be online during specific business  hours or will they be able to set their own schedules?
  • Tools — Which tools will the team use to communicate and collaborate  effectively?
  • Data management — Which tools will the team use to organize and share  documents and information securely?
  • Productivity — How will the team track progress on projects and measure  results?

Update hiring policies.  Going remote brings a whole new set of challenges to the hiring process as  well. Whether a company is building a remote workforce from scratch or  transitioning to hiring remote employees only, managers will need to revise any  hiring strategies to reflect remote work expectations and responsibilities. For  instance, it may be more important to focus on a candidateʼs soft skills — such  as self-motivation and communication skills — to ensure theyʼll be an  appropriate addition to the team.

Have the right tools ready.  Team collaboration and communication can become messy and disconnected  quickly if managers arenʼt careful. Therefore, itʼs important to have all the tools  in place to support remote workers before making the switch.

  • Communication.  When working remotely, teams will need a way to communicate with each other  painlessly. Email is not always the best option, so remote teams should opt for  communication tools such as Slack, HipChat or Skype to stay connected. All of  these tools offer real-time messaging, video call options and the ability to  organize conversations by channel, project or topic.
  • Project management.  Organization will be key for teams working remotely. Itʼs a good idea to set up a  cloud-based project management tool so that everyone can access the files  and information they need at any time. These tools also offer ways to organize  projects between different departments and set deadline reminders. A few of  the most popular project management tools for remote teams include Trello and  Basecamp. For document and file sharing and management, Google Drive,  DropBox and Box are popular options. 
  • Productivity.  How do remote managers know if their remote employees are really working?  Nowadays, most remote teams assess their employees based on the number of  tasks completed and whether or not they are meeting their goals, rather than  the number of hours they clock in each day. However, it can still be challenging  to keep everyone on task. If productivity begins to slip, time-tracking tools such  as Toggl, Tick and Timesheets can be used to monitor projects or simply assess  how long tasks are actually taking to complete to make improvements.
  • Security.  Going remote means many team members will be tapping into WiFi networks at  cafes, co-working spaces, libraries and other public spaces to do their work.  Therefore, itʼs important to have an information security policy in place before  transitioning to remote work. Remote teams should create secure passwords  with tools like LastPass and update them frequently. Sensitive information  should be stored in a secure cloud storage platform like Box, and a virtual  private network (VPN) is recommended when connecting to public  networks.

Prepare managers.  A successful transition to remote work also depends heavily on well-prepared  managers or team leaders. For many managers, the process can quickly  become overwhelming, so itʼs important to train and prepare them well.

  • The first step is to make sure managers have the right tools (such as those mentioned above), so they can be available for their employees, answer any questions, offer feedback, and most importantly, keep projects on track. Have a meeting place. Going remote allows teams to eliminate the expenses that come with an office  space, such as rent and utilities. However, it still may be necessary to have a physical place for the occasional team or client meeting. In most cities, there are  temporary office spaces that teams can rent by the hour or day. These services can range from lavish meeting rooms that can impress clients to creative and  comfortable spaces for in-person brainstorming or collaboration sessions.
  • A positive company culture is fundamental for employee engagement. In fact, according to Gallupʼs 2017 State of the American Workplace report, company culture was among the top five reasons why employees leave their jobs for  positions with other companies. Many teams fear that by going remote, company culture will suffer. However,  this could not be further from the truth so long as team leaders make an effort to  maintain it. With some creativity, teams can maintain a strong company culture. For example, with the money saved from eliminating an office space, teams can  travel and meet each other quarterly or annually.  In addition to a team retreat, there are lots of ways to maintain a company culture digitally. For instance, regular video conferencing, rewards for accomplishments (such as gift cards), and having a place for team members to  chat casually (such as a Slack channel or Whatsapp group) can help bring  employees together.
  • Trust and let go.  About 35 percent of employees admitted they would leave their current job for  one that offered remote work. Additionally, 90 percent of people who currently  work remotely say they plan to continue doing so for the rest of their career.  The demand for remote work isnʼt going away, and team leaders that donʼt trust  their employees will find transitioning to remote work difficult.  There will be challenges along the way and managers wonʼt be able to control  everything all of the time, so itʼs important to let employees find their own solutions to challenges that arise when necessary and suggest how to improve  things moving forward.  With the right planning and preparation, teams can transition to remote work  successfully.

Remember the downside. The transition to remote work has led to several new problems. For workers, this is overwork and burnout. Working in the office allows for clear divisions in the day between “work” and “home” hours. But what happens when you work from home? The boundaries of the working day are blurred and employees get the feeling that they are at work all the time. Sadly, the most enthusiastic workers are especially prone to fatigue. For them, the work rhythm is most disturbing when working at home…their working day gets longer, while rest and lunch breaks are reduced to a minimum. The consequences of such a work schedule are dramatic: sooner or later, depending on age, energy, and state of health…fatigue takes its toll while productivity drops sharply. Carrying out a task that normally took a couple of hours will now take a whole day leading to apathy and turning favored work into hated work. It is no coincidence that more than half (56%) of FlexJobs survey participants said they experienced burnout during the pandemic, and 39% believe that today their mental health is worse than in January 2020. Not to mention the disruption in usual daily routine, caused by the transition to remote work, often causes direct harm to health due to a less active lifestyle.

Remote work raises concerns for employers too. Primarily, the inability to manage employees to the same extent as when working in the office. As a result, the company’s owners have started setting more requirements for employee’s performance, engagement, and psychological well-being. Managers are trying to compensate for these changes by tightening administration by introducing daily video conferencing, monitoring the presence of employees in work chats, increasing the number of work reports, and so on. Still, more often than not, the result turns out to be the opposite of expectations…the employer turns into an “overseer”, which negatively affects employee morale and motivation. In particular, as shown in the FlexJobs survey, the majority of workers believe that they do not need to communicate with their manager daily. Almost a third (31%) said they only need to communicate with the company’s management several times a week, 27% report that once a week is enough, and 22% would like their boss to meet with them as little as possible.

Meanwhile, the desire of managers to hold video conferences on any occasion has given rise to so-called “zoom fatigue”…18% of survey respondents said they have too many video conferences, while 24% complained about video fatigue. Some companies are increasing control over remote workers using special software that signals possible violations of labor discipline. However, the result is the same — employees’ irritation and a decrease in motivation and efficiency. Even worse, one of the main advantages of working remotely — the ability of an employee to organize their working day in the most convenient way, which guarantees the most efficient performance of tasks — disappears.

Recommendation thought. Management and workflow may need revision. Remote work requires strict self-discipline from both employers and employees, which might not be that easy. To find a compromise, the typical organization of workflow must be significantly restructured and modernized. First of all, it is necessary to change the approach to setting and assessing the performance of work tasks: management needs to focus not on the process, but on the result. 

In other words, business owners need to turn to management by objectives (MBO). The essence of this concept lies in managers and ordinary employees jointly determining the goals of their work, choosing the direction of action and making decisions. An important part of management by objectives is measuring and comparing the current performance of employees against each other and a set of established standards. First formulated in 1954 in the book “The Practice of Management” by Peter Drucker, the concept of management by objectives implies that when employees are involved in the process of setting goals and determining the direction of actions necessary to achieve them, they become more motivated to perform their responsibilities. As a reminder, maintaining high motivation is one of the main problems that arises from remote work.

Management by objectives implies that the work process should be divided into solving sequential tasks. As such, the clearer and simpler the task looks, the higher  the chance that it will be performed properly. It should come as no surprise that the motivation system of rewards also changes. The employee should receive rewards for solving each task, and not once a month or quarter, as traditional schemes imply. Well, it sounds like it’s easier to find a new job. Or at least, to develop a new labor contract (flexible, adaptive, smart) which will ensure the effective motivation and productivity of employees while protecting them from overwork and burnout.

One final thought. As I mentioned, proximity bias is the tendency for employees in close physical proximity to their colleagues and leaders to be perceived as better workers than those working remotely has clearly played a role. The results were on full display, but from my “old” department manager’s point of view, the work that went into achieving them was not. He only saw the outcome…Not the effort. Which, if some of your employees work remotely or even follow a hybrid schedule, might influence your perception of their relative performance and promotability. It may influence the opportunities you give them to demonstrate their skills, which further impacts their prospects. See Jane working hard every day and it’s natural to assign her an important project even though remote-working John is better qualified. See Jane step in to resolve a minor disagreement between employees and it’s easy to reward her with an informal leadership role even though John’s team consistently outperforms every other team. 

The result? A proximity bias ripple effect that rewards presence over outcomes. What you see is certainly important, but what you get matters most. Make sure you reward and promote the people who generate results.

For more thoughts on remote work, just search the Thoughts Library.

Copyright ©John Trenary 2021

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