Leading a remote workforce – in good times and in crisis

Neil Crawford
Neil Crawford, practice leader of HR strategic consulting at Ottawa-based Stratford Managers.
Editor's Note

This article is sponsored by Stratford Managers. 

Many business owners, executives and managers are unexpectedly finding themselves in new territory: Leading a remote workforce.

While some may be comfortable with teleconferences and accustomed to employees occasionally working from home, ensuring productivity and employee wellness through a screen can be daunting for those unfamiliar with virtual work. 

The first step for many organizations is ensuring employees are set up to work from home and can access their email and digital files. Once operational, there are several strategies leaders can employ to make the transition to remote work easier for their teams and themselves.

The common thread is to take a flexible approach that accommodates the unique situations that each individual employee finds themselves in, says Neil Crawford, a practice leader of HR strategic consulting at Ottawa-based Stratford Managers.

“Some people have elders to care for, some have children ... there are all of these new situations in play,” he says. “You need to be thinking about that employee relationship from a one-on-one perspective and consider how much interaction and structure is needed for each person to succeed.”

As teams settle into the reality of an extended period of remote work, employees will increasingly be looking to managers for flexibility as they adjust and find the most effective and productive ways of working outside of the office.

Communications

One of the biggest changes to consider is that employees may need to work non-traditional hours while at home, which can be a big adjustment from the traditional nine-to-five. While it may take time to find the right relationship structure with your employees, being clear that they are not expected to work 24/7 or be in constant contact is important. 

Given the uniqueness of each employee’s situation, managers should also consider more frequent check-ins with employees, as working from home removes the more casual contact that exists in the office. 

One of the easiest ways of implementing this into your team’s routine is to set smaller, shorter-term goals, which opens up the opportunity for quicker feedback. This approach can also help ensure that work is progressing and builds even more trust within your team, says Crawford. 

“It’s not just for the person who’s overseeing and supervising the work. It’s also beneficial for the person who’s doing the work,” he adds. “Getting the appropriate opportunity to seek advice, counsel and coaching really helps move things forward and establishes a work rhythm.” 

Depending on how long employees need to work from home, Crawford also suggests that managers encourage employees to take breaks and be flexible with vacation and unpaid leave requests whenever they can as some employees may find it to be the best way to address child care requirements or other needs. 

“A lot of what we’ve learned about keeping employees motivated and focused on work has to do with understanding them as an individual,” he says. Managers need to be prepared to adjust things to a more personal level – especially in a crisis situation.

And while this may be an unprecedented time for many workplaces, Crawford predicts many businesses will start to view remote work in a new light.

“They may not have realized the long-term cost savings that they can have with a balance of work that’s done in an office setting and work done at home,” he says, adding it may permanently shift the nature of work.

“This will accelerate the way we use technology, the way that we interact with people remotely. The longer this goes on, the more (remote working) will be accepted as the status quo.”

Key takeaways for remote managers

1. Ensure your team’s IT infrastructure is in place to support work at home – access/VPN, security/encryption, sufficient computing power.

2. Regular check-ins with team members and individuals are critical. Ensure they feel supported and they have what they need to work effectively. Include video-based calls to support social interaction/connection, despite the distancing

3. Recognize that the rhythm of working remotely is very different and may take some time to adjust.