How to implement a remote workforce: Seven Core Tips from a flexible work specialist
With the current COVID-19 health crisis necessitating the closure of some physical office spaces, businesses are being forced to urgently form strategies for ensuring business productivity and remote working. The situation is moving faster than preparation allows.
If your company hadn’t done so already, chances are that flexible and remote work was not something that was deemed necessary, plausible or welcome.
Research has shown that remote workers are more effective than their office-based counterparts, but that is only if they are enabled to be. The implementation of a successful remote workforce requires an accompanying strategy and process that is realistic and tailored to each organisation, with day-to-day operations largely dependent on the ability of the manager overseeing the flexible workforce. For many who have never managed a remote team (or individual) this may feel like an incredibly stressful and impossible task.
From what Rapid Context have learned through building a thriving flexible work and workplace model, here are seven core tips to help implement a successful approach to remote working:
One: CLEAR EXPECTATIONS
Contrary to popular belief, many employees who are new to remote work can find freedom from the constraints of the office stressful and overwhelming. In an ideal situation an employee should be able to access the training, technology and policies that underpin their remote work arrangement. However, the current coronavirus risks are proving to be an exemplar of a crises moving faster than preparation allows.
The best managers clarify expectations, create accountability, and support employees by helping them to structure their work around priorities and goals. This reduces the chance of wasted effort and benefits both employees and business productivity as a whole. Key areas for clarity include:
Outlining goals and priorities (i.e. Complete risk assessment for project A and B), expected hours of work (i.e. 40 hours spread across 7 days or 7.5 hours per day or something else), specifics of deadlines (i.e. “due on Tuesday” – what time? 5pm? Before midnight?) and the standard of output required (i.e. Draft format OR Final product ready for client).
Two: COMMUNICATION STRATEGY
Managing a productive remote workforce requires a strategy for communication. Free or inexpensive programs such as Zoom, Skype and Facetime enable team collaboration and client meetings to continue. Guidelines need to be created on what activities will still happen:
Which internal and external meetings will still go ahead?
Will there be a daily/weekly ‘check in’ required?
Could you start the collective work day with a virtual version of a ‘To the Point Hustle’?
Managers need to set clear expectations on their responsiveness to team generated communication. Email tends to be the go-to option for remote employees to contact managers, however with many managers trying to streamline communication (using strategies such as inbox xero) to manage their own levels of productivity, it is important to be clear on expected turnaround time on contact.
What is the expected turn around on employee/employer generated communication?
Do you need to add a timeframe for all emails that you send out that require a response? i.e “Please let me know before you finish for the week”
Do you need to add a line in your signature block that says you will respond within 3 hours or 24 hours, or whatever is a realistic and fair timeframe?
Three: RELIABLE TOOLS
Clarify any resources available for employees to use to enable remote work and be open about the level of accessibility they can expect i.e. Can they access all work platforms from their home computer?
There are many remote work tools that are readily available for happy and productive employees. Optimally, managers are able to break down each task and ensure appropriate and timely resources and support are in place to achieve the desired outcome, whether it is as simple as files being ready to be downloaded or virtual technology support to problem solve issues.
Does your team have what they need to get the job done?
Four: BE REALISTIC
Working remotely is not for everyone. Remote employees can experience unique challenges, and managers and supervisors need to understand these to be able to effectively manage their team.
The 2019 State of Remote Work report showed that some remote workers struggle with communication, loneliness and not being able to unplug at the end of the day. Further research can also be found by the International Workplace Group.
Are there some employees who will need to have more regular check-ins?
Some may have children or pets at home with them. If they are at home, perhaps that means others are as well. As seen in the BBC clip from 2017, even when there is a home office, things do not always go to plan. Tip: Zoom has functionality to record a meeting so that those who cannot attend, can still view the content at a later stage.
Acknowledge an employee’s situation by calling out the main tensions ahead of time. Is there a contingency plan for when things don’t go to schedule?
Work with employees to design a schedule that best meets both the business and remote working needs:
Are there core hours where all employees must be online, and others that are more flexible?
Can staff have a choice on the structure of their day?
Five: AVOID MICROMANAGING
Many managers can struggle with the trust-related implications of allowing employees control over when, where and how they work. Micromanaging is not the answer here. There is a huge difference between setting expectations and communicating these priorities to your team, and drilling down on their every move.
What do you need as manager to know that the work is being done? Make sure that these are factored into your communication strategy. Micromanaging undermines all attempts at building a trusting remote workforce.
Six: FOSTER PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
Psychological safety has been identified as the number one dynamic required for optimum team cohesion within a flexible workspace.
How psychologically safe an individual feels can predict how much information they will share, whether they will ask for help, or contribute creative ideas.
Would your team feel comfortable admitting/or identifying a mistake?
Psychological safety is not something that can appear just because an organisation has decided it should be so. Similar to organisational culture, it is built over time, interaction by interaction.
While talking about the importance of psychological safety is an important step, the foundation comes through modeling appropriate behaviour. Amy Edmondson suggests that leaders and managers establish this space through:
Setting the stage, and being open and honest about the challenges ahead (either a situation, or a task).
Being proactive in inviting input, for example modelling curiosity by asking lots of questions.
Respond to both good and bad new with appreciation
A further suggestion is to show your team how. How can you show your team that you are working remotely? Are there both challenges and successes that you can share?
Seven: EVALUATE HOW IT IS WORKING
It is important to evaluate how the flexible working set up is working, not just if this is your organisations first attempt at remote and flexible work, but as an ongoing process.
Using Survey Monkey, or emails to collect information from the team using questions such as:
What daily routine has been working for you?
How are the tools we are using as a team working out?
Is the communication strategy working for you? If not how can we make it better?
What have the biggest challenges and successes been so far?
How can we better support you in this situation?
Collate the information and send the collective voices to the whole team, making sure that you include your own experiences in there as well.
Where to next?
Rapid Context can help you understand and make targeted changes to your organisations flexibility. We use high quality defensible research to meet urgent needs without compromising rigor. We assist organisations in solving sensitive and complex problems related to policy change or development, reform, culture change, or targeted issues such as leadership. Our experienced team of specialists analyse issues using different lenses and vantage points – not off the shelf models - to provide a more complete appreciation of the problem and develop solutions that are tailored to your specific context. Please send enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
Sara Edwards is the Manager Director of People and Culture at Rapid Context. She specialises in flexible workforces, organisational culture, and education and training. She works with clients across industries to develop successful flexible workforces, analyse and report on organisational culture and assist with team development.