Managing in the New Normal: Tactics for Better Telework and Remote-Employee Engagement

It was one thing to see her entire family during meetings when everyone first went into lockdown, but we’re months into this. Shouldn’t she have come up with some kind of work-at-home plan by now? I did. The situation is maddening! Her kids, dog, and husband do not mix well with work.

At first, I was thrilled with my new commute and the idea of working from home. At this point, I’m a little lonely and disconnected. Worse still, there doesn’t seem to be much light at the end of the tunnel.

If I have to have another on-camera meeting, I may scream. Enough is enough. What happened to good old email? It was working just fine. I don’t need to see his face or his kitchen to communicate basic information. I’m worn out.

 

Sound familiar? It just might if you and your team members are participating in the new normal of remote work. For those of us not expecting it, the switch came fast a furious, and we did the best we could. Some parts of the transition went well, and others are prime examples of what not to do when working from home.

At this point, many managers find themselves in an uncomfortable calculus. Remote work isn’t going anywhere, and it’s not going as well as it needs to. The good news is there are concrete actions managers can take to steadily improve to make the new normal productive and enjoyable.

Tip one: Think in stages. We’ve had the introductory phase and at some point, we’ll be bringing people back to the office. Now, we’re living in that middle space, and it’s time to focus on smoothing out the rough edges.

When talking with your team, stay positive about stage one, and take the opportunity to congratulate people for making it this far. Then, once you’ve recognized the positives, you can begin to discuss steps to improve. For example, “Everyone, I appreciate how quickly you transitioned from working in the office to working remotely. We get a grade “A” for speed and attitude. Now that we’re a few months in, it’s time to start thinking long term about what remote work should look like between now and the end of the year.”

Tip two: Revisit expectations. In a perfect world, organizations that move to telework have policies, procedures, guidelines, and even training to prepare people for the transition. During the pandemic, however, the cart may have come before the horse. But, nothing says you can’t get the horse back on its feet and start planning after the fact. The key to this process is communication and seeking input. This is especially important if you’ve been operating in something that looks and feels like the Wild West. As a manager you may (and probably will) encounter resistance from people who are happy conquering the frontier and operating without a lot of policies, procedures, or rules. Go slow, use the questions found listed in tip four, and be prepared to handle a range of reactions.

Tip three: Be honest about what’s working and what isn’t. When something is wrong on a team, it rarely fixes itself, and this is especially true when work goes remote. A member seems checked out, someone is missing deadlines, or people seem disconnected: whatever the problem, it probably won’t magically disappear. As the person in charge, you have the obligation and responsibility to find the issues. If you don’t your team will never function at its full potential.

Tip four: Ask questions. People rarely argue with their own data. And for that reason, you can accomplish more with questions than you ever will by simply telling it like it is. Here are a few questions any manager should ask related to working in the new normal:

  • Do people need to keep set hours to perform their jobs remotely?
  • Are there core hours when we expect people to be available and free from home interruptions?
  • Can people switch to part-time status if they’re having difficulty balancing work and home?
  • Must people work a certain number or hours, complete a number of tasks, or both?
  • What are the protocols for updating task status?
  • What are the rules for returning calls, emails, and other communication?
  • What communication channels make sense for various interactions?
  • Do people need to be on camera when they meet as a team?
  • How often does the team need to meet?
  • What technology is standard?
  • How can we infuse a little fun into our interactions?
  • How much communication is too much or too little?

Tip five: Develop a regular rhythm, and seek continuous improvement. Few teams get the telework equation right on their first try, and yours probably won’t either. Adopting an “evaluate – plan – act” mindset will allow your team to systematically reflect on what’s working and make adjustments. Start practicing that cycle at regular intervals as you transition your team’s norms. Once you’ve established a rhythm, you’ll most likely find people become used to the process and frequency of change.

Tip six: Connect people to their work. When a team is not together, employees can feel disconnected from each other and from the purpose of their work. As a manager, you have an opportunity to reestablish those connections. Do this publicly when possible. “Thank you, Chris for finding the new online collaboration tool. It’s going to make our online brainstorming sessions a lot easier. This is important because new ideas are the core of what we’re working on for the next six months. Good job.”

Tip seven: Repeat important messages. Even with advances in technology, remote communications often compete with a multitude of distractions. Know that you may need to repeat messages and send them using more than one channel.

With some focus, tenacity and those seven ideas, any manager can successfully navigate the new normal. Now what will you do to chart a course?

KateAbout the Author:

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works, Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what’s promised. For more information, visit www.businesstrainingworks.com.

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