When the “future of work” comes up, usually one of the first conversations is about hybrid or remote work. According to PwC’s US Remote Work Survey, the “new normal” includes work-from-home opportunities.
While some are completely content to abandon the office space, others prefer a hybrid workforce with employees rotating in and out of offices as needed. In short, flexibility is the key to the future of work.
But hybrid and remote work isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There are inherent challenges and trade-offs when managing remote employees vs. in-office employees, and preparing for the shift to more remote work takes some strategy.
How Things Have Changed For Managers In A Remote And Hybrid World?
When the pandemic hit, businesses had to adapt quickly to continue operations in the wake of lockdowns and employees’ fears. Many were able to make this shift quickly and with minimal hiccups, eventually proving that remote work could be successful.
This did come with some learning curves, however. The structure of day-to-day operations went AWOL. There was less delineation between workday start time and end time. Without the structure of “9 to 5” in place, boundaries for both employees and employers were easily crossed.
Employees had to balance home and family requirements, such as caring for their now home-schooled children, dogs barking during a Zoom conference call, or managing multiple family members working in the same household with the workload, meeting schedules, and deadlines.
Communication modes also shifted – what was once an office meeting became a video conference call, an email, or a chat on Teams or Slack.
Virtually every aspect of the job was new and different, leaving managers feeling less prepared and less confident in their roles. Managers lost their most effective mode of communication and in-person check-ins, increasing the chances of frustration and miscommunication that occurs when there is less face to face.
Common Challenges Of Remote Work
A remote workforce typically means fully remote, 100-percent work-from-home employees, while a hybrid workforce integrates both in-office work with at-home work. The breakdown of in-office vs. at-home work may vary according to the needs of the business.
A fundamental technology in remote or hybrid work is cloud technology. While this is excellent for keeping everyone connected throughout the work day, it also means that employees are working on-the-go some of the time. There’s more freedom, but less unity without a centralized location for communications, such as a conference room.
Both employees and employers or managers have higher levels of freedom – they can work where they want and when they want, in some environments. This does complicate communications, however, since employees and managers may be on asynchronous schedules and require more coordination to connect.
In addition, the lack of 1-on-1 interaction can take its toll. In-person interactions enhance emotional engagement, so without this “human element” of the workplace, the team can become isolated and disengaged.
There’s also a greater chance of miscommunication, insufficient communication, or information silos that occur between departments, hindering productivity. Employees no longer have the “mutual knowledge” or social cues that come from face-to-face interactions, which can illuminate situations.
For example, an employee may be having a bad day and a little snippy in communications. In a face-to-face situation, a manager may let this slide after knowing the day has been particularly difficult (as long as it’s not disrespectful), but may not be as tolerant in virtual settings because they don’t know about those stressors.
Finally, both employees and managers may struggle with distractions, such as children at home, taking care of housework like laundry or preparing meals, or simply ambient sound from a television, traffic, the mail delivery, etc. While it’s important to note that most employees feel more productive in a remote or hybrid environment, the distractions at home can impact productivity.
This leads to another issue – micromanagement. Without the ability to observe and supervise employees in an office environment, some managers may be concerned that employees aren’t working hard enough, leading to micromanagement.
Micromanagement is counterproductive. The concerns about employee productivity at home has been assuaged following the pandemic, not to mention that employees experience poor mental and physical health effects from being micromanaged. They may also think that their managers are being unsupportive or distrustful.
Ways To Successfully Manage A Remote Or Hybrid Team
1. Create Structure Where It Makes The Most Sense
For some workplaces, a 9-to-5 schedule still makes sense, even for a remote or hybrid team – the clock-in is just virtual. For workplaces allowing a flexible schedule and deadlines or tasks instead of hours, structure can be established with a daily check-in.
You have numerous options for a daily check-in, from one-on-one calls to team calls to a group chat on communication apps. The right choice depends on the type of work (collaborative or independent), but the most important feature is the check-ins are predictable and scheduled, and take place in an expected format. During these check-ins, you and the employee or employees can address progress on work, concerns, or questions.
2. Set Ground Rules And Expectations
Remote work can be efficient and productive, but it’s up to the manager to create expectations for the team in terms of response times, online presence, and availability. For example, you could say that videoconferencing is required for daily check-in meetings, but an instant message on Slack is preferred for urgent or private communications.
In addition, both you and the employees should have an understanding of the best communication channels and times to connect during the workday, especially in asynchronous environments. For example, you may be available for Zoom meetings or phone calls later in the day, but prefer texts early if there’s an urgent conversation.
You also need to monitor and supervise the communication between employees and teams to make sure they’re all sharing the information they need to. Miscommunications can happen in virtual workforces, but clear manager communication regarding expectations can minimize communication mishaps.
3. Provide Options For Employee Contribution
As mentioned, some workplaces require set hours for all employees. If you can, however, it’s good to offer flexibility on how, when, and where an employee works. One of the major benefits of work-from-home models is that employees have more satisfaction, better productivity, and better work-life balance with more control over their schedule.
For example, an employee may be more productive early in the morning before the kids get up, or a creative type may prefer to work in the evening (as many do). Providing this flexibility gives your employees the opportunity to manage their time and motivation as it suits them.
4. Curate Connection
One of the tradeoffs of remote work is that employees may experience social isolation from a lack of face-to-face interaction with other employees. Managers can combat this by structuring ways for employees to interact socially while working remotely.
In practice, this means time set for employees to have informal conversations about topics not related to work. This can be done by setting aside time at the beginning of team calls to “catch up” with each other, or by hosting virtual video conference parties that include care packages sent to each team member.
While it may seem a bit odd to facilitate social events in a virtual space, remember that it works well for concerts and other forms of entertainment. Furthermore, managers who use this type of social interaction have seen reduced feelings of isolation and a higher degree of collaboration with their remote employees.
Up The Communication
In a startling shift to remote work, employees can experience higher levels of stress, concerns, anxieties, or insecurities, but it can happen with a seasoned remote team as well. It’s important for managers to listen, connect, and empathize with the employees.
This is especially necessary when the business has sudden changes or a crisis. Research into emotional intelligence revealed that employees refer to their managers for signals as to how to react to situations in the workplace. If the manager seems stressed or unsure, the employee will too.
Effective managers should address this by checking in on the emotional state of employees and listening to their concerns and fears. During that conversation, it’s important to provide encouragement and show appreciation to ensure the employee that everyone is part of the team.
Managing a remote or hybrid team isn’t as scary or stressful as it seems. Once you manage the challenges effectively and adapt to the changes, you may enjoy a better work-life balance, more flexibility and engagement, and better productivity from your employees.