Mablene Krueger, chief operating officer of the Schaumburg Campus, standing in the grand stairs of the Auditorium Building

During this unique time in our professional lives, employers are faced with the challenge of managing a workforce remotely in order to continue meeting business objectives.

During my time as vice president of human resources at Robert Morris University Illinois, we created a policy for working remotely. We knew the opportunity for remote work wasn’t optimal for just any employee or position. Any quick Google search will confirm that key traits of successful remote employees include:

  • Self-motivation
  • Ability to prioritize
  • Creative problem-solving skills
  • Strong written & oral communication skills
  • Trustworthiness

Today amid the COVID-19 crisis, however, we do not have the luxury to pick and choose our remote employees. For many businesses, all employees must now work remotely. How, then, can business owners, managers or supervisors best manage a workforce in this remote environment?

Below is a compilation of best practices on managing your remote workforce in light of today’s unprecedented climate.

1. Engage in regular communication

Be aware of a sense of isolation for those who are not used to working remotely. Visually seeing teammates allows you to “break down” barriers and alleviate this isolation. Even those who often work remotely report “collaboration and communication” are some of the biggest challenges to working remotely (Buffer, 2020 State of Remote Work). Today’s technology allows for videoconferencing (via Zoom, GoToMeeting, Google Hangout, FaceTime, etc.) so that even the smallest businesses can communicate with individuals and groups.

This communication serves several purposes — social interaction, setting goals and meeting objectives. Encourage small-team members to meet on their own as needed.

2. Hold one-on-one meetings

Make the time to hold one-on-one meetings via video conference or phone call with each of your employees. Ensure each has a specific set of goals and objectives to meet, with a particular project or item to check off for a day or week. Employees not used to remote work may not be well versed in how to organize their day to get work done and can use the “push” of deadlines to assist.

It’s also important to build rapport with your employees to help them know you understand their challenges. Consider some of these questions:

  • How are you adapting to working from home, now that you don’t go into the office?
  • Are you working around any distractions or challenges? (If your employees need to use specific hours for childcare needs, it’s good to let them know that they can focus on work later in the day or evening.)
  • What is your workspace like at home? Do you need anything from me to help?
  • Have you scheduled meetings with any of your coworkers? What plans, if any, do you have to stay connected to your team members?
  • Is there anything I can do to help you feel more connected, or help you set your objectives for the week?

Learn more in the Harvard Business Review article “A Guide to Managing your (Newly) Remote Workers.

3. Consider unique ways to motivate your team during this challenging time

If you tend to be more of a formal manager or supervisor, you may not be one to send a smiley emoji to your team. You may need to get creative and rethink professional ways to motivate your team from a distance. Quick appreciation email messages or professional, positive gifs are just two ways to quickly share a positive sentiment with an employee who has accomplished a task or done well on a project during this unusual time.

Check out this Vantage Circle blogpost for more ideas.

4. Set timelines, expectations and objectives

Your employees need to know what you expect, when you want work completed, and the timeline and objectives by which they will be reviewed. Be clear with all of these to each employee. Set weekly goals, expectations and deadlines. Hold your employees accountable. By focusing on results, you can let your employees know that while working remotely, you are not tracking working hours or how work is done — only what the employee achieves.

Consider the timeline of work. What are your expectations for when employees answer emails and work? While remote work allows employees to be productive “on their own time,” it also assumes that between certain hours, the employees will be “available” to address calls and emails from you. Be specific upfront about what these hours are &mdash and respect what the end time will be. While many remote workers will take advantage of personal schedules to get work done, employers and employees must respect a reasonable working-hour window. That window should be specifically stated.

Learn more from the Harvard Business Review article “How to Manage Remote Direct Reports.”

5. Host a virtual social gathering

This may seem odd, but consider hosting a social gathering, perhaps every two weeks or so. Think about establishing a 4 p.m. virtual happy hour, where you invite your team to join you on a videoconference call with their favorite non-alcoholic beverage (or whatever you choose!) and host a 30-minute debrief of the week.

Consider asking the following questions of the group:

  • What one thing surprised you this week (work-related or not)?
  • Who has a joke to share?
  • Share an interesting story.

This short timeframe allows everyone to get together socially and interact in a way that is reminiscent of the “water-cooler” talk that usually happens in the workplace. It also allows for trust-building, relationship development and stress relief among coworkers.

If you feel this would be better served without you being a part of it, encourage a team leader to host the event instead of you. Loneliness is one of the most common complaints and challenges of remote workers. Social interaction (even virtually) can help create a sense of belonging among your team members.

Gain more creative ideas from Zoom’s blogpost “Ideas for Creating a Sense of Culture, Community Amid Social Distancing and Work-From-Home Mandates.”

6. Trust your team

Don’t micromanage. If you are able to keep up with your team and one-on-one meetings, holding your employees accountable to their weekly objectives and project deadlines, then they will be doing what they are supposed to do. There is no need to micromanage (unless that’s your normal style). You can trust that they are on top of their roles.

To help boost your level of trust, consider setting up certain guidelines during your remote work time:

  • Respond to emails within 24 hours
  • Use text for urgent matters
  • No phone calls between certain hours

7. Use a shared drive for files

Whether you use an internal electronic file system, Google Drive, Outlook OneDrive or another system, use a shared drive that allows your team to work collaboratively on projects, rather than emailing documents and spreadsheets back and forth.

At the core of all we do, our leadership will enable us to rise above current events and succeed beyond today’s challenges. If your business will allow your workforce to continue working remotely, you will help each of your employees find their “new normal” by being a trusting and supportive leader to your team.

This will take time. Be patient. Our employees didn’t choose this path, and many may not be the strongest remote workers initially. Through your leadership and mentorship, each can become better suited for this “new normal.” With your guidance, your team will learn how to redesign work in this remote culture, which requires flexibility, trust and belief.

Mablene Krueger is the chief operating officer of Roosevelt University’s Schaumburg Campus and former president of Robert Morris University Illinois; Ann Bresingham is the chief of staff to the chief operating officer of Roosevelt University and former vice president of human resources of Robert Morris University Illinois.

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