Engaging with remote workers is one of the greatest challenges of our time

Robin Nicholson
Director: Corporate-911

One of the greatest challenges of our age is how we respond to the growing demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the influence that technology is having on the future of work.

For BRPs, this is particularly challenging because of the nature of what we are dealing with. Companies are already in distressed under normal conditions, now try and resolve a possible management vacuum that has to deal with remote workers. Common sense says that if you cannot engage employees when they are present at the workplace, you will not be able to engage with them remotely.

The Covid-19 Pandemic has forced the worlds hand by creating a perfect storm that has accelerated the world of remote work. We are now basically forced to sit with our clients to figure out how they engage with remote workers. I recently read a fascinating article by the Harvard Business Review which discusses this in more detail.

Common challenges
There are a few challenges that are associated with remote workers.

  • Lack of face-to-face supervision. The article points out that 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 information: Newly remote workers are often surprised by the added time and effort needed to locate information from co-workers. 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 co-workers. Research has found that a lack of mutual knowledge among remote workers translates to a lower willingness to give co-workers 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 co-worker, with no understanding of their current circumstances, you are more likely to take offense, or at a minimum to think poorly of your co-worker’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 belonging to their organization, and can even result in increased intention to leave the company.
  • Distractions at home: 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.
Managing remote workers will prove challenging
Photo By: Christina @ wocintechchat.com via Unsplash

How Managers Can Support Remote Employees
How do BRPs work with their clients to create effective management structures to overcome these challenges?

  • Establish structured daily check-ins. The Harvard Business Review article points out that 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 a “richer” 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 co-workers 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 communication. 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. If your company doesn’t have technology tools already in place, there are inexpensive ways to obtain simple versions of these tools for your team, as a short-term fix.  Consult with your organization’s IT department to ensure there is an appropriate level of data security before using any of these tools;
  • And then establish rules of engagement. The article adds that 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 interaction: One 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 (e.g., “We’re going to spend the first few minutes just catching up with each other. How was your weekend?”). Other options include virtual pizza parties (in which pizza is delivered to all team members at the time of a videoconference), or virtual office parties (in which party “care packages” can be sent in advance to be opened and enjoyed simultaneously). While these types of events may sound artificial or forced, experienced managers of remote workers (and the workers themselves) report that virtual events help reduce feelings of isolation, promoting a sense of belonging;
  • 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’re 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. Research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion tells us that employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations. If a manager communicates stress and helplessness, this will have what Daniel Goleman calls a “trickle-down” effect on employees. Effective leaders take a two-pronged approach, both acknowledging the stress and anxiety that employees may be feeling in difficult circumstances, but also providing affirmation of their confidence in their teams, using phrases such as “we’ve got this,” or “this is tough, but I know we can handle it,” or “let’s look for ways to use our strengths during this time.” With this support, employees are more likely to take up the challenge with a sense of purpose and focus.

Its about protecting people, not jobs
One of the new contributors of distress is the fear that technology will replace certain jobs over time and that companies will embark on massive retrenchment drives in an attempt to align their companies with the growing requirements of being a major player in the Gig Economy.

However, a recent article by Forbes points out that the future of work is about protecting people over jobs. Effective engagement with remote workers will make them feel as if they are part of the company and not just an employee earning a salary.

As BRPs, we preserve jobs as far as possible as this is what is at the heart of the business rescue process. Technology has a lot to offer distressed companies as it simplifies processes and decreases the margin of error. However, we cannot jettison our main objective of preserving jobs.

In our next article, we will focus on reskilling employees as this is a major part of the future of work and working towards a situation where technology augments jobs rather than replaces them.

Robin Nicholson is the Director of Corporate-911 and is a Senior Business Rescue Practitioner