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How to Manage a Suddenly, Newly Remote Workforce: A Guide for Bosses

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has completely upended the American workplace. More than three-quarters of Americans find themselves under some form of stay-at-home, shelter-in-place lockdown order; and businesses nationwide are being roiled by the “economic shock” of the coronavirus.

And everyone is wondering: what do we do now?

The question may be even more pressing for business owners, executives, and managers, as they must worry not only for themselves and their families but also for the entire teams and workforces that fall under their direct supervision and care. So, how should employers and business leaders manage this new, uncertain, and ever-changing situation?

In this guide, we’ll look at specific, grounded tips for managing:

  • All employees
  • Employees working from home
  • Employees working from home with kids
  • Employees who are sick

1: How to manage a workforce impacted by COVID-19 (i.e., everyone)

Be upfront and straightforward.
Right now, employee-employer trust is more important than ever. Uncertainty and distrust will kill productivity and engagement. The best advice: “Don’t avoid the topic,” Joan Rennekamp, an HR consultant at Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie in Colorado Springs, Colorado, told the Society for Human Resource Management. Organizational psychologists agree: “Prior research indicates that companies can help reduce uncertainty by communicating openly and honestly with employees,” writes Mark Bolino, Chair of International Business at the University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business, in Psychology Today.

Have a backup plan for labor shortages.
No one knows how the coronavirus pandemic is going to play out over time, and that means companies may find themselves understaffed at some point. Create a backup plan for how you will meet deadlines and objectives. “You may be in a situation in which other departments can pitch in if you have urgent deadlines, or you may be able to use temporary services to provide the people power to address some tasks,” Rennekamp suggests. “In any event, require department heads to have a plan ready in case of widespread illness.”

Focus on achievable tasks and objectives.
If all or some of your team is unexpectedly working remotely, certain tasks may not be achievable in the same way or in the same timeframe – or possibly at all – as in a normal working environment. If you push your employees to achieve the impossible, you risk inducing a sense of learned helplessness and stoking resentment. “A significant line of research indicates that stress is greater when employees are working in contexts with high demands and low control,” says Bolino. Instead, focus on priorities that can offer a sense of control and accomplishment.

Do not penalize employees for problems outside of their control.
COVID-19 has disrupted virtually everyone and every business, and all of those impacts can ripple outwards in unexpected ways. Your customers will be behaving differently, as will vendors, suppliers, third-party partners, stakeholders, and more. That can all affect your team’s performance and productivity in unpredictable ways. Be wary of penalizing employees for failing to meet objectives if there’s a reasonable chance it was outside of their control. To that end, it might be necessary to adjust goals, sales targets, and other metrics of success.

2: How to manage employees working from home

Conduct regular individual check-ins.
Most businesses are slowly acclimatizing to frequent videoconferencing to get business done, but don’t rely exclusively on group calls. Managers should make a point of reaching out to each individual worker as frequently as possible – at least once a day. It’s time-consuming, but one of the most challenging aspects of remote work for managers is a lack of visibility into employee workloads and challenges. “This is time-consuming but critical for keeping employees happy and productive through the next few months,” says Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University. “In the longer run, it will build valuable loyalty by sticking with your employees through the good times and the bad times.”

Re-create social contact as much as possible.
In addition to the normal requisite videoconferencing meetings, consider setting up an always-on videoconference channel – sort of a “water cooler channel” – where employees can pop in and out at will just to chat and experience some of the normal social interaction they’d have during the workday. Loneliness and isolation can kill productivity. Take proactive steps to promote a sense of camaraderie and belongingness in your remote workers.

Be flexible.
Despite studies that show remote work can boost productivity, that usually happens under ideal circumstances where workers are mentally and logistically equipped for the new working situation. That’s not the case here: COVID-19 has forced millions of Americans into a situation for which they were likely psychologically and logistically unprepared. If nothing else, many of them may lack ideal workspaces, equipment, or infrastructure (like high-speed internet) in their homes. Be especially understanding and patient with your workers during this time.

Focus on output, not time or process.
As workers adapt to their new and unfamiliar working situation, realize that they may be working under difficult conditions that make the normal metrics of success unhelpful. “Managers will have to get better at judging productivity by setting and monitoring specific goals rather than using the proxy of office attendance,” writes The Atlantic. To that end, Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, told ABC News, that employers should “be output-focused, not process-focused.”

3: How to manage employees working from home with kids

Don’t discriminate.
Workplaces often hold a double standard for parents taking time for their kids. The so-called Maternal Wall (which is a phenomenon that also affects fathers) is a well-studied phenomenon wherein parents are penalized for taking time away from work to spend with their children, especially newborns, when compared to taking leave for other reasons. The Harvard Business Review, for example, reports on a study that found a new father was harassed for wishing to take two weeks of paternity but was later praised for taking a three-week exotic vacation. That kind of double standard is unfair and potentially litigable. Be wary of holding workers with kids to a different standard than employees without children in their household (and vice versa, for that matter).

Offer flex hours.
Remote working doesn’t necessarily change office hours, but working parents, in particular, will benefit from a little flexibility in when they work. You don’t need to condescend; working parents already know to grab time while kids are sleeping or watching movies. But they can’t necessarily take optimal advantage of those working opportunities if employers don’t give them a little slack to do so. Just make sure any flexibility you offer parents you also offer to everyone. As the Harvard Business Review recommends: make no “distinctions about why [any given worker needs the flexibility]…. Judge people based on the outcomes of their work rather than the face time they put in.”

Don’t offload from parents onto childless workers.
In your effort to offer working parents flexibility and understanding, don’t overcorrect by shifting their workload onto non-parents. Long before COVID-19 came along, many employers leaned heavily on single and childless workers to step up. As Melanie Notkin, author of Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness, told Fortune Magazine in 2015, “It’s rare that childless workers are thought to have a life outside of work, so ‘what’s to balance?’ some may think.” Don’t assume that childless workers will be better equipped than working parents to manage heavier workloads.

4: How to manage sick employees

Encourage self-care and discourage working while sick.
American workers have a bad habit of working even when sick. A 2019 study found that fully 90% of respondents will go to work even when infected with a virus. A third “always” do so. Now is an extremely dangerous time to ask or force workers to work while sick, even for remote workers. Rennekamp says, “An employer that takes proactive steps to prevent the spread of disease will be viewed as an employer that has its act together.” But it goes further than that: employers who actively protect the health of their workforce will be “viewed as an employer who cares about employees’ welfare.”

Obey The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201).
Under emergency legislation passed by Congress, employers must now offer extended, emergency sick leave and family leave time if the reasons relate to COVID-19. Employers that fail to honor this mandate may face penalties. But there’s good news here: employers can utilize new tax credit provisions to recoup their financial losses due to the new paid sick leave requirements.

CoAdvantage, one of the nation’s largest Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs), helps small to mid-sized companies with HR administration, benefits, payroll, and compliance. To learn more about our ability to create a strategic HR function in your business that drives business growth potential, contact us today.  

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