4 Ways Leaders Can Keep Remote Work Pros from Becoming Cons

I may be the only person in America that actually considered getting office space instead of ditching it in 2020.  Having run a business for almost ten years totally remote, I was beginning to question whether that was the best option for me and the business.

As a company, three of our core values- people first, passion, and productivity- are guided by this statement: “To help drive passion and productivity, we don’t care how or where work gets done, just that it gets done in a way that meets client needs. This coincides with our desire to put people first by allowing them the autonomy to make decisions based on their personal preferences. We believe this stimulates passion and productivity.” 

I believe this guiding principle has led to my productivity and the productivity and retention of our team and echoes what has been found in research from Harvard Business Review, among others, that workers (specifically knowledge-based workers in the HBR article) are more productive remotely. 

So what gives?  This chart found at ventureharbor.com might provide some insights: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like many others, I’ve been working largely from home with kids also going to school in our home on and off for the last year.  Unplugging after work has also been a challenge when the to-do list is long and the interruptions are large (“Mom, my teacher can’t hear me, something is wrong with the sound on my computer!”  “Mom, how do you spell contagious?” Mom, I’m hungry!….” It never ends…. Especially when there is also an 18-month-old that isn’t in school but is very BUSY all the time underfoot too.) 

In addition, people seem to be working longer, or at least working on very different schedules.  From a LinkedIn report on what WFH means: “Workers in Austria, Canada, the UK, and the US are logging 2.5 hours more each day on average, according to Bloomberg, with a longer workday becoming the new normal globally. But while many have more meetings and emails to catch up on, having a longer workday doesn’t necessarily mean more hours working, per The Washington Post. Some people have adopted new work schedules in which they work later but have longer breaks throughout the day.” 

So even though remote work can and has brought about significant positive outcomes, including potential productivity gains, reduced office space costs, and employees having more autonomy, there are always two sides to every coin. What side of the coin someone is landing on is largely an issue of their current and specific personal circumstances and the realization that too much of a good thing is, well, bad. 

Leaders need to be mindful that everyone’s situation is different and be aware that the advantages of remote work also lead to challenges. Once this is done, leaders can support their people at the individual level and provide resources to help support productive work.   

Much of Microsoft’s research on what makes a great manager, which was published pre-pandemic, still holds true in a remote working world.  This guides some ideas for practicing strong remote work leadership: 

1. Set guardrails around communication, productivity, and working hour expectations.  Many of our clients have talked extensively about the need for manager training around the new way of working, particularly respecting boundaries around work time and response expectations.  One client told me, “I don’t want to go back into the office full-time, but I feel like I’m expected to be checking email before 7 am and I am often called routinely after 6 or 7 pm about unimportant work things by my boss.  Most types of calls would not have been urgent when we worked in the office and could have waited until the next day, but now for some reason, these non-urgent issues seem to need to be resolved before the end of the day. The new expectation is, you’re right there by your computer all the time, so let’s just handle this now. There has got to be a healthy balance.”  As a leader, make sure you are guarding people’s line between work and home when the home is now the office.

2. Realize these guardrails may be unique to each person.  One person may need to be sending emails before 7 am because they are also a schoolteacher from 8 am to Noon when virtual school is taking place for their kids.  They need to be productive first thing in the morning, take a break, then return to the “office” for an extended time than when the standard workday takes place.  Talk to each of your employees (see number three, hold regular one-on-ones) and see what they need and how you can effectively communicate their needs and working arrangements to all team members that rely on and collaborate with them. 

For example, I may need to work on the weekends (as I’m doing now writing this post) because this past week my kids were home all week due to the winter weather.  But that doesn’t mean I’m expecting my entire team to be working on the weekends too.  One of our team members has a lot of commitments with her family over the weekends, but her kids are older than mine, so she isn’t interrupted by their needs as much during the week even if they are home. Her regular schedule is working intensely Monday-Thursday so she can have time on Fridays to get personal things done and/or travel with her family for kids sporting activities.  I don’t try to schedule anything for her or with her on Fridays.  We have yet another team member that is a night owl.  The girl can crank out some good work well after I go to bed and it is in my inbox the next morning.  Yet another person has volunteer commitments that are meaningful to her and our work, so I try to be mindful of her commitments there when considering her workload and times for the meeting. 

3. Hold regular one-on-ones but avoid virtual meeting overload.  In a virtual setting, request that your people turn their cameras on while you are meeting one-on-one.  This provides the needed context for what can be learned by what is not being said through people’s expressions and body language.  You can do this while assuring them that you are not at all bothered by a kid/spouse/pet coming into the picture at times and that if they need to pause the meeting to handle something, that is fine.  In addition, one guardrail to manage is to make sure that just because it is convenient and easy to convene a virtual meeting, doesn’t necessarily mean you need one.  Make sure a meeting is the best way to facilitate communication. Don’t meet when an email will work just as well. 

4. Provide specific resources based on each person’s needs.  This may be office space for someone to utilize, not all the time, but at certain times when distractions at home seem to be the highest.  As seen in the chart, loneliness is one of the biggest struggles with remote work. What can you do to support human interaction needs in a remote world?  One simple thing may be encouraging people to turn on their camera while in virtual meetings so people can be seen, not only heard.  Likewise, another may need to keep their camera off because their office is also the classroom and their six-year-old is working beside them. The chart also describes a problem, you may need to simply tell someone on your team to take a vacation.  If you’re holding regular one-on-ones and understand people’s unique situations, you should know when someone is approaching burnout. 

All in all, I’m still on the fence about whether office space is necessary for me and my team.  But if it ever does become something we invest in, I know I’ll make sure that my team knows that the office is available for them, not a requirement of them.  When clear expectations and a mindset of service excellence are set, I still firmly believe that people get their best work done when they get to decide how, when, and where to do it. 

How are you managing the pros and cons of remote work? 

Mary Ila Ward

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