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Over the past several months, most of us have been faced with the reality of a remote workforce. This may be limited to self-management or management of a team of employees. Some of you have managed remote workers for some time; this is not much of a struggle for you. However, for many companies, such as privately held distributors, this is a strange and foreign mode of operation.
COVID-19 changed the very definition of work for many of us; I believe it will leave an indelible mark. In a time of vast uncertainty, I think I can be certain of this — a portion of our workforce will have adapted to, and now prefer, working from home. Given this potential, how do we adapt our management strategy to maintain productivity outside the four walls of our businesses?
In my practice, I have the tremendous good fortune of interacting with, and listening to, the strategies and ideas of distribution managers in various roles. Recently, I was facilitating a discussion of managers dealing with this very question: How do we manage a remote workforce? Throughout this column, I want to share some of the challenges and solutions discussed in this group.
Again, these folks had never dealt with remote team members and found themselves wrestling with protocols, group cohesion and performance issues. Early on, they were thrust into this remote environment. Today, a new challenge has come forward. What if some team members do not want to return to the office? Is it really a choice?
As the mandatory closure restrictions have eased in some areas, managers are struggling with how to bring people back while maintaining safety protocols. Do we need to put up Plexiglas extensions on the cubicles? Do we require masks in private offices? There are several different opinions and standards out there. I don’t judge one way or the other.
As restrictions are lifted, interior staff seem to fall into one of two camps: those who are going stir crazy at home and can’t wait to get back to the office, and those who are very comfortable working from home and prefer the solidarity of remote work. Before my email box gets flooded with disgruntled readers, I will acknowledge that the stay-at-home camp also may be concerned with their health and safety.
The cynic in me must also acknowledge that some of them have become one with their sweatpants and slippers. OK by me. This is a judgment-free column.
Remote Work as Reward
One of the more interesting lines of discussion came around the idea that remote work might be viewed as a privilege or reward, as opposed to an ongoing right. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to those who are itching to be back at the shop, but it is an option for those who are asking to remain at home.
It’s a sticky area. Should we allow some to make the election to stay home? What if the person is constantly on the performance bubble? You know who I am referring to. These are the folks who do just enough not to get fired but clearly don’t perform above the minimum. By working from home, will their performance continue to disappoint?
Without clear standards of performance, it’s a subjective evaluation based on personal bias. If the decision to work from home is going to be a reward for performance, managers must create clear and consistent measurements for these positions.
Top performers can come from either the in-office or remote work camp. One of the consistencies with this group is they tend to self-manage. You can give them a set of expectations, or a specific project, and they bang it out.
Lesser performers tend to need more guidance, coaching and if I can be honest — monitoring. Therefore, the thought of allowing poor performers to work remotely is causing heartburn in most managers. I am not telling you which way to lean on this issue, but my discussion group came to the consensus that poor performers needed to be in the office.
Remote Work Agreements
If you are going to allow for remote work, it is important to set up expectations. During the height of lockdown, a friend shared that his company had to put out a memo on “appropriate dress” during Zoom meetings. It seems people got a bit casual while at home.
My group leader shared some thoughts on creating agreements with those who wish to work from home. He shared three crucial areas:
1. What are the expected work hours?
2. What is an appropriate response time to requests from other team members?
3. How do you communicate that you will be unavailable or taking time off with your supervisor?
The dividing line between work and home can become blurred in a remote situation. These agreements help both sides become more comfortable in a remote environment.
One of the other interesting suggestions from the group was about team interaction. When you have a spread-out team with little interpersonal interaction, cohesion and inclusion can become strained. It is essential to have scheduled meetings over some form of video conference. Make them show their face. Team members need to be present.
One group member shared that his team had organized a nonwork happy hour during the lockdown. It may seem a bit odd, but they were trying to allow people to connect. I can just imagine this Zoom screen filled with all sorts of individuals consuming their favorite libation. I guess that is one way to have an office party without worrying about alcohol liability.
In a time of uncertainty, I can tell you with some degree of certainty that remote work is here to stay. You will be faced with the challenges that my group discussed.
As you are working through this new organizational opportunity, take the time to create policies that reward performance while still maintaining your company culture. Create measurements that allow both the manager and the worker to become comfortable in this environment. Although the employee is not physically there, make sure he/she doesn’t feel isolated or disconnected. This is a sure-fire way to get workers looking for greener pastures.
At the risk of being redundant, I know one thing for sure: Distributors are a resilient lot. You will figure this out and come out better for it. If you need some help or an unbiased ear, you know where to find me. Good luck.