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How to deal with the challenges of working from home

Editorial Team
15/05/2020 3:50 PM

In response to the
uncertainties presented by Covid-19, many companies have asked their non-essential
employees to work remotely. Working out of the office and separated many
employees and their managers from each other for the first time.

Although it is
always preferable to establish clear remote-work policies and training in
advance, in times of crisis or other rapidly changing circumstances, this level
of preparation may not be feasible. Fortunately, there are specific, research-based steps that managers
can take
 without great effort to improve the engagement and
productivity of remote employees, even when there is little time to prepare.

Common Challenges of
Remote Work

To start, managers
need to understand factors that can make remote work especially demanding.
Otherwise high-performing employees may experience declines in job performance
and engagement when they begin working remotely, especially in the absence of
preparation and training. Challenges inherent in remote work include:

Lack of
face-to-face supervision:
 Both managers and their employees often express
concerns about the lack of face-to-face interaction. Supervisors worry that
employees will not work as hard or as efficiently (though research indicates
otherwise, at least for some types of jobs). Many employees, on the other hand,
struggle with reduced access to managerial support and communication. In some
cases, employees feel that remote managers are out of
touch with their needs
, and thereby are neither supportive
nor helpful in getting their work done.

Lack of access to
 Newly remote workers are often surprised by the
added time and effort needed to locate information from coworkers. Even getting
answers to what seem like simple questions can feel like a large obstacle to a
worker based at home.

This phenomenon
extends beyond task-related work to interpersonal challenges that
can emerge among remote coworkers. Research has
found that a lack of “mutual knowledge” among remote workers translates to a
lower willingness to give coworkers the benefit of the doubt in difficult
situations. For example, if you know that your officemate is having a rough
day, you will view a brusque email from them as a natural product of their
stress. However, if you receive this email from a remote coworker, with no
understanding of their current circumstances, you are more likely to take
offense, or at a minimum to think poorly of your coworker’s professionalism.

Social isolation: Loneliness is
one of the most common complaints about remote work, with employees missing the
informal social interaction of an office setting. It is thought that
extraverts may suffer from isolation more in
the short run, particularly if they do not have opportunities to connect with
others in their remote-work environment. However, over a longer period of time,
isolation can cause any employee to feel less
 to their organization, and can even result in increased intention to leave the

Distractions at
 We often see photos representing remote work which
portray a parent holding a child and typing on a laptop, often sitting on a
sofa or living-room floor. In fact, this is a terrible representation of
effective virtual work. Typically, we encourage employers to ensure that their
remote workers have both dedicated workspace and adequate childcare before
allowing them to work remotely. Yet, in the case of a sudden transition to
virtual work, there is a much greater chance that employees will be contending
with suboptimal workspaces and (in the case of school and daycare closures)
unexpected parenting responsibilities. Even in normal circumstances family and
home demands can impinge on remote work;
managers should expect these distractions to be greater during this unplanned
work-from-home transition.

How Managers Can
Support Remote Employees

As much as remote
work can be fraught with challenges, there are also relatively quick and
inexpensive things that managers can do to ease the transition. Actions that
you can take today include:

structured daily check-ins: 
Many successful remote managers
establish a daily call with their remote employees.  This could take the
form of a series of one-on-one calls, if your employees work more independently
from each other, or a team call, if their work is highly collaborative. The
important feature is that the calls are regular and predictable, and that they
are a forum in which employees know that they can consult with you, and that
their concerns and questions will be heard.

Provide several
different communication technology options: 
Email alone is
insufficient. Remote workers benefit from having technology, such as video
conferencing, that gives participants many of the visual cues that they would
have if they were face-to-face. Video conferencing has many advantages,
especially for smaller groups: Visual cues allow for increased “mutual
knowledge” about coworkers and also help reduce the sense of isolation among
teams. Video is also particularly useful for complex or sensitive
conversations, as it feels more personal than written or audio-only

There are other
circumstances when quick collaboration is more important than visual detail.
For these situations, provide mobile-enabled individual messaging functionality
(like Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.) which can be used for simpler, less
formal conversations, as well as time-sensitive communication.

And then establish “rules of engagement”: Remote work becomes more efficient and satisfying when
managers set expectations for the frequency, means, and ideal timing of
communication for their teams. For example, “We use videoconferencing for daily
check-in meetings, but we use IM when something is urgent.” Also, if you can,
let your employees know the best way and time to reach you during the workday
(e.g., “I tend to be more available late in the day for ad hoc phone or video
conversations, but if there’s an emergency earlier in the day, send me a
text.”) Finally, keep an eye on communication among team members (to the extent
appropriate), to ensure that they are sharing information as needed.

We recommend that managers establish these “rules of
engagement” with employees as soon as possible, ideally during the first online
check-in meeting. While some choices about specific expectations may be better
than others, the most important factor is that all employees share the same set
of expectations for communication.

Provide opportunities for remote social
of the most essential steps a manager can take is to structure ways for
employees to interact socially (that is, have informal conversations about
non-work topics) while working remotely. This is true for all remote workers,
but particularly so for workers who have been abruptly transitioned out of the
office. The easiest way to establish some basic social interaction is to leave
some time at the beginning of team calls just for non-work items.

Offer encouragement and emotional support: Especially in the context of an abrupt shift to remote work,
it is important for managers to acknowledge stress, listen to employees’ anxieties and concerns, and empathize with their struggles. If a newly remote
employee is clearly struggling but not communicating stress or anxiety, ask
them how they are doing. Even a general question such as “How is this remote
work situation working out for you so far?” can elicit important information
that you might not otherwise hear. Once you ask the question, be sure to listen
carefully to the response, and briefly restate it back to the employee, to
ensure that you understood correctly. Let the employee’s stress or concerns
(rather than your own) be the focus of this conversation.

Carl Tapi is a
Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and
human resources consulting firm.
https://www.linkedin.com/in/carl-tapi-45776482/ Phone +263 (242)
481946-48/481950 or cell number +263 772 469 680 or email:
carl@ipcconsultants.com  or visit our
website at www.ipcconsultants.com

Editorial Team

This article was written by one of the consultants at IPC

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