How to Help Employees Still Struggling with Remote Work

Last week, a client remarked, “You know, this may not be over till next summer.” He told me he’d installed a new door to his home office nook because his constant video meetings were disruptive to his kids’ remote school programs. This permanent change was necessary for him and his family to cope with work and life during the pandemic.

We agreed that it isn’t smart to wait for things to go back to normal — not even a new normal — because we can use already-established strategies to operate effectively under these challenging conditions. You can try these approaches to help team members succeed in their current reality — and to help you feel like you have a better grip on what’s really happening.

Reach Out

As a leader, you’re now responsible for working conditions you can’t actually control. If you were opening a satellite office, you would have planned for a thousand different details and specifications. But if you’ve got a dozen folks on your team, all suddenly working remotely for the foreseeable future, then it’s as if you’ve opened 12 satellite offices without any planning whatsoever for their unique locations and settings.

It’s crucial to find out how well each setting is working and whether there are ways your organization can support your team members better. We’ve already lived with the pandemic for at least six months, a useful interval for evaluating what has worked so far and what needs to shift if we’re going to be working remotely for another six to 12 months.

Set Things Up Right

We can’t install new doors for everyone, but the right equipment is key to supporting remote workers’ productivity and reducing their stress. For instance, laptop stands and noise-cancelling headphones can improve team members’ ability to generate output and offer them the peace of mind necessary for participating in frequent video conferences.

Providing ergonomic chairs may also help people deliver — and potentially reduce work injuries or disability claims in the future. Similarly, portable green screens can help employees shield unmade beds, kids’ toys, or housemates walking past from colleagues’ view; letting employees cover up compromising backgrounds will help them feel more relaxed during meetings, and they’ll be less distracted and think better, too.

Pay Attention to Timing

Savvy scheduling can provide real payoffs. Experiment with cutting 30-minute meetings to 25 minutes so people don’t arrive late or leave early as they switch from one Zoom conference to another. Shorten hour-long meetings to 50 minutes so team members can get a snack, check on their kids, visit the restroom, or prepare for the next meeting. Poll the team to find out which times of day are optimal, tolerable, or inconvenient for meetings.

Do everything in your power to avoid the inconvenient times, whether they’re caused by the start of the school day or a team member’s conflict with a roommate who uses the same space. In fact, don’t even ask why a certain time doesn’t work; just survey everyone, and accommodate their responses.

Work Process

If you’re not already holding daily team check-ins, consider having brief stand-up meetings at least a couple of times a week. They’ll help you keep everyone on track and discover any ongoing barriers to getting the work done. By meeting in groups rather than individually, you might be able to identify opportunities for team members to help each other out, including sharing or swapping tasks based on their schedules or strengths, in ways that are more efficient overall. At minimum, you’ll learn promptly which of your deadlines and deliverables are at risk, and therefore gain more leeway in figuring out solutions.

Performance Management

Critiquing performance or giving negative feedback via video or phone can be harder than it would be in person, so start by being rigorous about what kind of feedback is necessary and is most likely to have a positive impact. Once you’ve verified the functionality of an employee’s setup, scheduling, and ongoing work processes, think carefully about whether other team members have been able to deliver in the way you’re expecting this individual to do. If they have, try partnering the weaker team member with stronger ones, or ask those stronger team members to share their best techniques for whatever tasks seem problematic so the less proficient employee can experiment with those techniques.

Whether you’re relying on group support or your own explicit direction, as soon as you finish the feedback meeting, fire off an email to the employee you’re concerned about. It can be very brief: “Thanks for the conversation on Topic X. You agreed to try Techniques 1, 2, and 3 and to let me know how it’s going by Tuesday.” This email puts you on the record and gives the employee another chance to explain whatever barriers they’re confronting.

Some Successes Are Easier Than Others

Some people are having the most productive months of their lives. They’re putting their commuting time toward exercise and personal development, eating healthier, and sleeping better. But that kind of success is not evenly distributed. Most people are experiencing at least some sort of hardship — and some of it is quite significant. For organizations to get the best from employees during this difficult time, each leader must understand the challenges that confront their team members and provide structural resources and support to help them maintain focus and collaboration.

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Author: Liz Kislik

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