In 2019,80% of employees reported wanting to work from home. However, many newly remote employees are finding the abrupt shift to remote work following the COVID-19 pandemic a challenging one.
At least 42% of people in the U.S. started working from home full-time after COVID-19 hit —up from 17% pre-COVID. This unplanned transition left many companies unsure of how to support their remote employees.
How can companies support their remote team members through this challenging transition? Moreover, what are some proven approaches to encourage and assist permanent remote employees on an ongoing basis?
The Challenges of Remote Work
Converting to full-time remote work can be enervating under the best circumstances, much less a forced exodus brought about by a global pandemic. It often takes companies months of preparation to move a position remote, yet many companies and workers had to do it in a matter of days.
Despite the complications, most organizations were able to swiftly adjust and keep moving forward to protect their people. However, as the virus lingers and the newness of working from home is wearing off, and reality is setting in. Long-term remote work is going to be challenging.
Remote teams often have entirely different problems, concerns, and needs than in-office teams. To offer meaningful support to remote employees, it’s essential to understand their principal challenges.
According to Buffer’s in-depth survey on the state of remote work, the following are the biggest work-from-home hurdles:
20% Collaboration and communication
18% Not being able to unplug
12% At-home distractions
10% Being in a different time zone than teammates
7% Staying motivated
5% Taking vacation time
3% Finding reliable wi-fi
Companies must implement strategies that address these challenges. Otherwise, they face productivity and profit loss, or worse, a degradation in their employees’ mental and emotional wellbeing.
Luckily, there has been substantial research and anecdotal evidence presented on the best practices for supporting remote teams, so companies do have some immediate workable solutions.
7 Methods for Supporting Remote Employees
1. Invest in Communication Technology
Two of the biggest struggles remote employees face are communication and collaboration. Email and phone calls by themselves are not enough to allow employees to connect and cooperate with ease. Thankfully, there are several viable solutions to improve the efficacy of communication and collaboration.
These solutions include Zoom, Google Hangouts, Slack, Microsoft Teams and Sidekick. Companies should encourage their remote employees to participate in choosing the communication tech stack as they can provide meaningful insight into what the team lacks and needs to thrive. It’s also critical to test out different options to see which solutions, when combined, create the best collaborative environment.
2. Set Clear Expectations and Regular Supervisor Chats
Research suggests that remote employees tend to feel a lack of support and clear expectations from their managers. They report having difficulty getting their questions answered by supervisors when not working in close proximity.
To avoid breakdowns in communication and expectations, organizations should make sure their people can reach their direct supervisor with questions throughout the day, just like in an office setting. Planned routine calls between supervisors and employees ensure there’s always time to bring clarity and build relationships.
3. Encourage Personal Connections
Organizations need to find ways to encourage their people to communicate and connect with each other. Set up a Slack account and create themed channels for popular topics, pet photos or book recommendations.
Consider regular check-ins just to chat, host virtual happy hours and try some virtual board games. Some offices even host a ‘virtual office’ once a week where anyone can join a real-time video or chat stream at any time to hang out with coworkers, chat and get work done without feeling so alone.
Working from home can be incredibly isolating — especially if a person is used to working in a bustling office environment. Employees who feel lonely are more likely to feel like they don’t belong and experience increased impulses to leave their company.
Finding ways to encourage personal connections requires creativity, but it’s essential for keeping remote employees feeling included and cared for in their work community.
4. Set Work Hours and Require Breaks
Since the pandemic began, people are working three hours more each day as remote employees. While some companies, those who prioritize profit over people, can see this as a good thing, it’s important to set boundaries to prevent burnout.
For many people, working from home means there’s no clear boundary for when work ends and personal life begins — it all just coexists simultaneously. This can be draining and dramatically decrease morale.
Companies that want to decrease this propensity for burnout should take a firm stance on encouraging breaks and setting explicit work hours. To make employees feel even more supported, tell them not to send any emails after working hours and encourage regular fifteen-minute breaks, too.
One company enforced a Deliberate December, which required employees to put a 30-minute ‘meeting’ on their calendar every day during which they were not allowed to do any work. They had to use the time to relax, which could include taking a walk, reading a book or chatting with a friend. It kept their people from becoming overly stressed during the busy holiday season and concurrently increased creativity and morale.
5. Help With Dedicated Workspaces
The reality of working from home, especially with little forewarning or preparation, is that many people don’t have a dedicated remote workspace — add to the mix that many parents have to homeschool their kids right now, too. As a result, they’re often stuck working from the kitchen table while simultaneously juggling childcare and school duties.
This type of situation is a quick formula for employees to feel overwhelmed and unmotivated. Companies should do what they can to help their people create a dedicated area for work. If organizations are already checking in with their people regularly for non-work chats, they should be able to get a good idea of their needs.
Consider providing all necessary tech and office equipment to help employees get started on the right foot. Additionally, urge them to be innovative with their space and give recommendations or how-to guides for turning unconventional areas (like walk-in closets) into remote workspaces. Companies can use online guides for inspiration or set up times with individuals to see their spaces and help brainstorm ideas.
6. Focus on Goals, Not Tracking Tasks
Many employers’ first assumption is that remote workers aren’t working if they aren’t being supervised all day. However, data suggests this assumption is wrong. As previously mentioned, remote employees actually tend to work more at home than they do in the office. However, because of these false assumptions, supervisors tend to micromanage their remote employees.
Micromanaging has the propensity to make employees feel frustrated — constant emails, calls, chats and video conferences consume their valuable time. Plus, it makes people feel untrusted and unvalued. This doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t check-in, of course, but it’s about finding that synergistic balance where everyone feels confident.
Some companies solve this dilemma by reorienting their focus. Rather than have their people report each completed task, they collaboratively set up goals and trust their employees to reach those set objectives. Allowing employees to be accountable for their contributions provides them with the opportunity to spend their valuable time achieving, perhaps exceeding expectations. By decreasing micromanaging tendencies, companies increase motivation, confidence and trust for their people.
7. Support & Recognize Your People
Remote employees need to know their supervisors see their efforts and work from afar. In an office setting, employees receive immediate acknowledgment for doing their jobs. However, at home, there’s no one around to acknowledge their hard work.
Companies should make an effort to support and recognize their remote employees. They can acknowledge their people publicly on a shared communication channel or provide them with customized lifestyle benefits, so they’re sure to feel seen, recognized, and supported.
Final Thoughts on How To Support a Remote Team
The most significant piece of advice regarding supporting and motivating remote teams is this: Listen to remote employees. Ask them what they need, listen to them and this will provide the space for them to express exactly what they need to feel supported now and as they continue to navigate the future of work.
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