Help Managers Support Remote Employees: 7 Tips From Psychologists & Leadership Experts

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Liz Strikwerda

Content strategist and corporate blogger (2000+ posts). Her work has been featured on G2's Learning Hub, Human Resources Today, Better Buys and over 500 business websites. She plays bluegrass mandolin and enjoys sailing her catamaran and hiking in the red rock wilderness of southern Utah. Connect with me on LinkedIn

Has your company been forced into remote working due to the pandemic?

Remote work can be great in normal times. By no stretch of the imagination is this a normal time. It’s never been more crucial for leadership to step up.

Managers play an important role in helping remote employees adjust. Those who succeed will help their organizations survive this crisis.

Considering managers have high influence on their teams–they account for at least 70% of the variance in team engagement–their own experiences with your company can affect your entire workforce. “Covid-19 Has My Teams Working Remotely: A Guide for Leaders,” Gallup

This puts pressure on those who coach managers; HR directors, executives, business owners and consultants.

How are psychologists and leadership experts counseling managers?

  1. Set clear expectations
  2. Use repetition
  3. Be transparent about your company’s response to the pandemic
  4. Have realistic expectations about productivity
  5. Be proactive about employee engagement
  6. Share your webcam during video conferences
  7. Be empathetic but positive

Let’s discuss what your employees are going through.

An earthquake during a pandemic followed by an economic cliff dive

The Salt Lake City, Utah area was shaken by a 5.7 magnitude earthquake on March 18. Like you, we were already dealing with the pandemic. Then the ground literally started moving under our feet.

The ground is still moving under your employees’ feet. And there are new aftershocks every day.

Leaders need to recognize that employees are going through a lot. It’s not just work as usual but done remotely — it’s work done remotely while dealing with what may feel like an existential crisis. Ravi Gahendran, Ph.D.

Your employees are not only worried about their health. Many of them have a partner or spouse suddenly out of work. State unemployment websites are crashing. The government loan relief program is having a bumpy rollout. Family members are sick with COVID-19. Hopefully, you haven’t had any deaths among your team but that is increasingly becoming a sobering possibility.

These types of thoughts are going through their heads:

Is my job secure?
What if I get sick?
Can the virus live on takeout pizza boxes?
My 6-year-old has been playing Minecraft for three weeks straight, am I a bad parent?

The importance of compassionate management

It’s your managers, first and foremost, who can guide your employees through this. But your managers are dealing with the same things.

A sudden change in the practice of management can be hard on managers. They may worry about disruptions to the workflow they’re accountable for. Some may feel they have to be physically present to be good coaches, unsure that they can engage workers from a distance. Rather more negatively, there are still some managers who don’t trust workers they can’t see. All of them will have to manage workers in a new way, and fast. Gallup

How can HR Directors, executives and business owners help managers successfully manage newly remote employees?

Don’t assume your managers know how to handle this abrupt change. Be specific about what you want them to do. Do you expect them to check in with their teams daily? Provide resources for them to help their teams adjust.

Action items

Now, let’s discuss what managers need to be doing.

7 Tips For Managing Newly Remote Employees

1. Set clear expectations

All of us need a plan to follow. Especially when we are stressed and distracted.

Make sure your managers set clear expectations with their teams. Newly remote workers might have children at home. Are they expected to work a normal schedule? How quickly should an employee respond to a Slack message?

Help employees set up a routine for at-home working. Though this is a basic productivity technique, don’t assume they are automatically doing it. Even if they followed a structured schedule at the office, it may have fallen by the wayside. Help them set up a basic schedule with enough flexibility to adapt to changing routines.

2. Use repetition. Use repetition.

Our anxiety meters are pegged day after day. It’s hard to remember things. It’s hard to stay focused. Your managers can help their teams by patiently repeating what’s important.

The 10x10x10 rule applies here: Say something 10 times in 10 different ways for people to retain 10%. “4 Actions to be a Strong Leader During COVID-19 Disruption,” Gartner

Action items

Use your HR portal or company message board to repeat important information:

  • CDC coronavirus updates, health and social distancing advice
  • Updated COVID-related regulations for the states in which you have employees
  • Company PTO policies, government sick leave updates, FMLA specifics
  • Expressions of gratitude for employees’ hard work and specific contributions (name names!)
  • Tips on using videoconferencing applications (e.g. how to upload a personal photo for a virtual background)

3. Be transparent about your company’s response to the pandemic

Engaging work can be a welcome escape when life has been turned upside down. But when you don’t know what’s going on at work, it makes a fraught situation even worse.

In the previous step, we discussed setting clear expectations. This brings transparency to the employee-manager relationship. Your employees deserve to know what the executive team is doing as well. Are they considering furloughs? Closing some locations? Applying for government relief to help recoup operating expenses? If you have employees worried about being laid off, it would be reassuring to know that leadership is proactively working to keep everyone on the payroll.

With coronavirus uncertainty spiking anxiety, one thing managers do have control over is being completely clear on company goals and guidelines. Keep Slack an open space to discuss issues and be honest with employees about what’s going on in the management level. Make goals and make them apparent, and workers will step up to the plate. Business Insider

Be specific about your company’s response to the pandemic and economic situation. The steps will be different whether or not your company is an essential business.

In times of uncertainty, it’s helpful to provide your team with tangible action items. Discussing your own next steps or recommending next steps to your audience gives them a sense of control so they feel like they are contributing to stabilization. Use language such as, “Here are the steps we are taking” or “Here’s what you can do” to demonstrate action. “How to Reassure Your Team When the News is Scary,” Allison Shapira, Professor of Communications at the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business Review

4. Be realistic about productivity

If your employees started working at home in the past month, they would still be in a transition period–even if there wasn’t a pandemic. Don’t expect the same productivity and focus they had in the office.

Work extra hard to communicate in a level manner, emphasize verbal support and encouragement, and if at all possible, avoid criticism. Your workers won’t be at 100% during this time, but by being a source of stability, you maximize the productivity that your employees are able to have in this situation. (Source)

5. Be proactive about employee engagement

Employee engagement has been a buzzy topic in the HR space for years. The fiercely competitive hiring environment has kept the focus on how engagement improves performance, morale, and retention. But just because it’s self-serving from a profitability perspective, it doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.

First, ask each team member how they are doing.

Remote workers’ perspectives can provide rare insights into the organization. Shy, lonely workers need to hear they offer unique value–it can ease social anxiety–and outgoing, lonely workers need more contact. Either way, their insights on the work environment can bring to light connections they ought to make, as well as show managers new ways to improve processes.  “How to Manage the Loneliness and Isolation of Remote Workers,” Adam Hickman, Ph.D.

After asking well-chosen questions, make a conscious effort to listen and understand their answers.

Even a general question such as “How is this remote work situation working out for you so far?” can elicit important information that you might not otherwise hear. Once you ask the question, be sure to listen carefully to the response, and briefly restate it back to the employee, to ensure that you understood correctly. Let the employee’s stress or concerns (rather than your own) be the focus of this conversation. “A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers,” Harvard Business Review

If you have been meaning to start some engagement programs, now is the time to put them into practice. Even small things can have a big impact. It’s a fun, creative exercise to figure out how to adapt them to managing newly remote workers.

Action items

  • Use your HR portal to ask employees for suggestions for remote engagement programs. The most successful engagement programs often come from the bottom, not the top of the org chart.
  • In addition, look at things other companies are doing to promote engagement for remote employees

These are some remote employee engagement ideas from Reddit (in their own words):

  • I started a Teams channel for our HR team to share pictures of their dogs. Just the little things to remain connected.
  • There’s an increase of employee appreciation. Virtual gift cards for delivery services and such for a job well done.
  • Co-workers are picking a “remote” buddy and they’ll touch base every day. Some smaller teams are having virtual happy hours or coffee chats. My direct manager has a daily trivia question she’ll ask and whoever gets the most right by the end of this quarantine gets a prize.
  • Slack works really well for bringing people together. We have a kids channel for people to share photos of their kids, some people have pets channels or other conversation starters. Also, we have a kudos channel where people can say thanks, awesome job to other coworkers.

6. Share your webcam during video conferences

It’s easier to stay focused on the conversation when you can watch the speaker. When none of the participants have their cameras on, the mind tends to wander.

Swallow your pride. Even if you badly need a haircut, turn on your camera. Take off that stained t-shirt and put on a shirt that’s appropriate for your company. If there is real life in the background, all the better. It’s comforting to be reminded that others are experiencing the same struggles.

Effective managers are always on the lookout for signs that an employee needs extra attention. It will be easier to respond to employees’ needs if you can get them to turn on their cameras. Facial cues can be as revealing as the words a person is speaking.

Should managers require their team members to turn on their webcam during virtual meetings? Psychologists warn managers to tread carefully. Encourage, but don’t insist. Give them time. After a few weeks, they might become confident enough to share their webcam.

7. Be empathetic but positive

This is a balancing act. Validate your employees’ stresses. Then build them up and point them forward.

During team and one-on-one video meetings, it may be appropriate to set aside a little time for venting. But don’t end the meeting on a downer. When you’ve acknowledged the gravity of the situation and validated their concerns, shift gears. Affirm your confidence in your team’s ability.

Research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion tells us that employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations. Effective leaders take a two-pronged approach, both acknowledging the stress and anxiety that employees may be feeling in difficult circumstances, but also providing affirmation of their confidence in their teams, using phrases such as “we’ve got this,” or “this is tough, but I know we can handle it,” or “let’s look for ways to use our strengths during this time.” With this support, employees are more likely to take up the challenge with a sense of purpose and focus. Harvard Business Review

No pressure…

Mentoring your managers is critical right now. You’ve got to be at the top of your game.

Simplify HR management today.

Simplify HR management today.

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