As a result of COVID-19, remote working has become the norm for many employees and attitudes to remote and flexible working are changing dramatically.
In September 2020, XpertHR surveyed 148 HR professionals and found that more than half (54.7%) of businesses plan to increase the amount of permanent homeworking in their organisation in the future. And 35.1% of organisations that did not use homeworking prior to the pandemic plan to now have at least some permanent homeworking arrangements.
But employers must be aware of some the challenges of managing remote workers. At the start of the pandemic, remote working was a novelty for many employees, but it is now starting to have an impact on some people’s health and wellbeing.
Remote working does not suit all employees, and employers should implement measures to support them, especially if the workforce is divided between some people working remotely and others in the office.
Here’s how managers can be more confident when managing remote workers in 2021.
Ensure managers have the right skills
Managers of employees who work remotely need to be more skilled at certain things such as communicating, relationship-building, coaching, and managing by results.
If most of the interaction with an employee is by email, Teams or Zoom, managers can’t rely on body language and facial expressions to help convey their message or to better understand what an employee is saying, increasing the chance of a misunderstanding. So, managers of employees working remotely need to be excellent communicators, not merely competent ones.
Managers need to let go
Often managers find “letting go” uncomfortable. But they need to trust their team and not micro-manage them. Managers must know their team too, and recognise each employee is an individual with their own unique combination of strengths and weaknesses and particular set of personal circumstances and life commitments.
Managers should also have confidence in their ability to guide and support their team, and to create a positive environment where new ways of working can be explored. But confidence doesn’t mean arrogance; managers should understand their own weaknesses and work on those.
Good communication and engagement are paramount
Managers must make time for regular catch-ups with employees and know them well enough to recognise when they might be struggling but reluctant to admit it. This is an important part of looking after an employee’s mental wellbeing.
Ensure employees know they need time away from their desks, and encourage communication with their colleagues, such as having a virtual coffee or Friday afternoon drinks, which can promote good mental wellbeing. Also remind employees of any benefits provided by the employer, such as employee assistance programmes.
Plan new working arrangements carefully
At the start of any new working arrangement, managers should agree some regular events (virtual or face to face) everyone can commit to regardless of their working pattern.
Agreeing these events as a team, through group discussion where there is cooperation and compromise, will mean employees should feel more committed to attending them.
Managers should plan and diarise the events they want everyone to attend well in advance. This means team members can more easily plan and, if necessary, change their work schedule so they can attend an event.
Set objectives to measure performance
Managing employee performance while working remotely can be challenging. Measuring an individual’s performance by results and not by their presence in the office or the hours they work is the best approach.
A person’s presence at work does not necessarily mean they are working. Equally, when someone is working from home, or on the move, this does not mean they are not working or slacking. Often, it is the reverse. Given the freedom to work in their own way, employees almost always get on with the job and appreciate being trusted to choose when and where to work.
To assess an individual’s performance by their output, managers must conduct a thorough objective-setting process. The focus should be on agreeing with team members their outcomes over a specific period and how these outcomes will be measured, and giving them the freedom to choose how they will meet their objectives.
This flexibility will give individuals the chance to use their knowledge and experience – the individual doing a job is usually the one who knows best how to do things better or differently.
After objectives have been set, managers should monitor progress. Creating regular opportunities to review, reflect and provide feedback against required outcomes is even more important when an individual is working flexibly and there are fewer opportunities to observe directly or provide in the moment advice or feedback.
Coach and facilitate
For remote workers, a coaching management style will be more effective than a “command and control” approach as there is less scope to help trouble-shoot problems when they arise. Team members therefore need to develop the skills to solve problems independently.
A coaching management style means managers guiding individuals to work out things for themselves. Managers must be approachable and recognise that employees will be stretching themselves and may need guidance. It is essential they don’t reprimand someone for asking obvious questions or suggest someone is incompetent if they can’t see an obvious solution straightaway.
Giving employees the confidence to deal with problems more independently is something that will benefit both the business and the employee in the long run.
Give constructive feedback
Managers’ recognising good progress and outcomes is crucial for team motivation. Equally, if there are issues with the progress or outcomes that a particular individual is achieving, managers must feed this back promptly, so that they can improve.
It can be demotivating if a team member thinks they are doing a reasonable job because no one has said anything to the contrary only to be presented with a lot of negative feedback at their annual performance review when it is too late for them to do anything about it.
Remote and flexible working can be hugely beneficial for both employees and employers. Allowing employees input and control over how, where and when they work means they are more invested and more likely to perform better.
For employers it can boost productivity, engagement, and commitment from their workforce. While COVID-19 thrust this way of working on many organisations now is the time to reflect and take advantage of the benefits it can bring in 2021.
This article is based on the XpertHR line manager briefing on leading a flexible working team written by Peter Thomson.
About the Author
Jeya Thiruchelvam is a managing editor on the employment law team at XpertHR. She is particularly interested in race, disability and sex discrimination law.
Prior to joining XpertHR, she worked as an employment solicitor for six years, regularly hosting training seminars and contributing articles to local and regional publications.