Telecommuting is hardly a new approach to work, but it’s never been foisted upon teams en masse like during this novel coronavirus pandemic. According to the Pew Research Center, only 7% of employees worked remotely in 2019. Now, new surveys reveal that 42% of workers measure their commutes in feet, not miles, and about 30% of the workforce is estimated to still work from home by the end of next year.
More than half of the people working from home are in uncharted territory. And leaders with little experience guiding remote teams are flying by the seat of their pants. What they’re discovering is that guiding a workforce from your home office brings its own unique problems.
But the challenge is not just remote work — it’s remote work right now. Some employees have kids to look after and sick family members to care for, and many others struggle to separate their personal and professional lives. Leaders need to make sure that people can work in their new environments while remaining sensitive to their individual situations. The challenge is finding the balance.
The Troubles With Telecommuting
Generally, people recharge their batteries by going into the office and being around other people. Extroverts in particular need social interaction. That’s why they’re less likely to opt for full-time telework, according to a Journal of Management Policy and Practice article. But plenty have been forced into work-at-home situations, crimping their ability to interact with others.
I personally procured energy and new ideas from my colleagues at Sapper Consulting during chance office run-ins. Without daily social stimuli, I’m left to my own devices to prompt creativity. Spontaneous innovation meetings don’t happen when you’re remote. I can’t just pull my team into a room for a quick brainstorm; no one’s coming to my house for a chat. Instead, I have to deliberately schedule meetings. And those meetings are critical. Communication is another huge remote leadership challenge. When someone isn’t sitting beside you, it’s easy to forget to loop them in on a call or email.
It’s likely that these (and other) remote work challenges won’t go away anytime soon. Even when we find a coronavirus vaccine, many companies will choose to let employees telecommute indefinitely. Twitter’s CEO, for example, said his employees can work from home “forever“ if they want, and early 2020 Gallup research indicates that half of employees would resign for a flextime-friendly company. Leaders must prepare for remote work to become the new normal.
You can’t wait this one out. It’s critical to maintain standards for telecommuting employees. In fact, the standards need to be higher than ever before. Business is hard right now: Customers have more choices, prices are lower, and deals are harder to win. The propensity to say “This product or service isn’t valuable to me right now” is higher. As a result, you have to expect more from your team (within reason). As Gallup’s first chairman Don Clifton says, “Nothing happens until someone expects something of you in ways you can achieve.”
How to Enforce Remote Work Standards
That said, you have to be careful about how you enforce those standards. While important, inspecting work, driving excellence, and ensuring that daily activities are being accomplished can put a lot of pressure on employees.
As you deploy your standards, think about ways to cultivate optimism and support. Promote positivity in all calls by talking about what’s going well. Bring fun to video meetings by instituting themed calls and engaging games. These activities are the spoonful of sugar that will help the medicine go down.
Don’t forget about the sugar. Setting expectations is critical, but it’s equally important to soften the blow considering the global impact of COVID-19 and the detestable racial injustice occurring in the U.S. With that in mind, here’s how you can ensure team standards are met:
- Get involved virtually.
Standards can become lax over time if leaders aren’t part of the day-to-day. If you’re running a remote team, set aside time to attend sales meetings, participate in client calls, and become a fixture in your staff members’ worlds. Touch base daily with workers and analyze what you see and hear.
Remember: You’re not there to micromanage. Instead, learn what’s working and what’s not so you can give feedback. Don’t just rely on phone calls or texts, either. Video allows you to observe your colleagues’ body language. You might realize someone is stressed by how they respond, giving you an opportunity to help.
- Set up frequent team meetings and utilize accountability software.
In addition to one-on-ones, bring your direct reports together at least once a day. I like to do 15-minute meetings every morning and late afternoon. Our group discusses what we did and what our days looked like, making certain our actions matched our plans.
To foster reliability, use cloud-based, collaborative task management platforms like Microsoft Teams or Asana. This way, everyone can stay on the same page and see who’s pulling their weight — and who needs a push. Look for a tech solution that offers real-time status tracking, file-sharing, and chat opportunities.
- Make sure everyone knows what ‘right’ looks like.
Don’t assume everyone knows the best way to do things. You want to make sure that your team understands the standards you set. For instance, our sales team understands what the “right” sales call looks like. They know the processes and expectations because we’ve communicated them.
Gallup research shows that only 6 in 10 team members know what they should do at work. Don’t settle for 60% — go for 100%. Explicitly establish baseline employee responsibilities and make excellence everyone’s ultimate objective. Once the basics are laid out, work with your employees to improve skills and optimize.
No one expected COVID-19 to completely alter the way employees and companies operate. To come out on top, you’ll need to enforce remote work standards to keep everyone working toward the same goal.