By: Amie Lawrence, Ph.D., Director Global Innovation, PSI Services
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was estimated that around 18% of full-time employees worked remotely, while surveys conducted after the pandemic hit reported 75% of businesses with employees working from home. Despite this unexpected shift, 83% of employers and 71% of employees agree that the move to remote work was successful and 75% of employees want to continue working remotely in some capacity.
As countries work to safely open office buildings, businesses are grappling with remote work options and office space issues. A recent survey of executives suggests that organisational leaders support hybrid work schedules, have plans to restructure their real estate, and are reimagining their current office spaces to be used for more communal and meeting purposes. These survey results all point toward the conclusion that remote work is here to stay.
Remote Work Challenges
With this shift toward remote work and potential restructuring of the workplace, it is important to consider how this change in work design affects employees, their effectiveness, and well-being. While the survey results suggest some success, there are both positives and negatives to the arrangement.
A different work environment can significantly change the job design in ways that are less satisfactory to the worker and the employer. The most common remote work challenges reported by employees are lack of motivation, reduced productivity often due to work/family conflict, difficulties communicating and collaborating, and loneliness/isolation.[i]
How Managers Contribute to Effectiveness
Not all employees experience these challenges, and many thrive in a remote environment. Which begs the question of what leads to remote work effectiveness – and how can managers help? There are four main factors that contribute to remote effectiveness, and within each of these there are specific actions that managers can take to mitigate the challenges and maximize the productivity and well-being of their team members.
- Worker Characteristics
Employees’ capabilities contribute to how they react and the behaviors they demonstrate when working remotely. Remote workers are physically distanced from their colleagues and are often working out of their home. Because of this, they must have the self-discipline to be able to establish boundaries between their work and home lives.
Without others around, workers must have the planfulness, initiative and drive to motivate themselves to complete tasks and objectives. Additionally, remote workers are performing their job autonomously. Even if workers are members of virtual work teams that communicate regularly, many issues and decisions arise that must be handled independently, which takes decisiveness, flexibility, and resilience.
One-way managers can help is to assess each employee’s capabilities around these remote competencies to develop a personalized approach to coaching and development. This approach provides employees with insight into themselves and managers guidance on where they can focus their efforts. These remote competencies should also guide managers as they hire and promote individuals within the team, especially if remote work will continue to be the norm within the organisation.
- Job Design
The fit between a person and the characteristics of the job has been well-established as relevant to employee attitudes such as job satisfaction, organisational commitment, and engagement.[ii] Moving someone from an office environment to a home environment fundamentally changes some aspects of the job design, most specifically the amount of autonomy and feedback that is built into the job. Remote environments are autonomous by their very nature, for most professional jobs.
As noted, some people have the discipline and organisational skills to handle the independence, while others will struggle. On the other hand, when it comes to feedback, remote environments make it more difficult for individuals to consistently receive it. When surrounded by colleagues and leaders, employees are more likely to ask for input and reactions to their work, both formally and informally. Employees who want less autonomy and more feedback are not likely to thrive in a remote environment. When there is a poor job fit, individuals are more likely to become disengaged and turnover.
An issue that can arise with remote leaders is their acceptance of the increased autonomy afforded to their team. Some leaders prefer to have closer communications and observation of their team members. However, if remote managers attempt to deploy this same management style in a remote setting, it could easily backfire and send a strong message of distrust to their team.
Research studies have consistently shown that autonomy and trust motivate employees and lead to more positive attitudes and behavior.[iii] Remote managers would benefit from embracing this opportunity to trust their employees and interact with them in ways that support and guide them. Additionally, managers can mitigate the negative effects of reduced feedback by taking extra steps to communicate and offer opportunities for feedback. Not every individual needs the same amount of feedback, so a personalised approach would be more effective.
- Social Support
A common complaint of remote workers is the social isolation that is inherent in the design. Humans are social creatures who want to interact and connect. Additionally, many organisations are collaborative and require individuals to be active members of virtual teams. Remote work environments make it more difficult for individuals to build relationships and connect with others interpersonally. Remote workers often have the burden of reaching out and initiating conversations with others within the organisation. For those who have difficulty relating remotely, the isolation can lead to negative job attitudes and well-being, which in turn can lead to lower job performance, disengagement, and withdrawal behaviors (e.g., absenteeism, turnover).
To lessen the effects of social isolation, managers can work to identify ways of increasing communications within the team. Many have used technology to create formal and informal ways to enhance interactions. In addition to increasing the quantity of communications, it’s important for managers to consider the quality of their communications.
Especially during the pandemic, employees have been dealing with a multitude of issues in addition to adjusting to a remote work environment. Showing empathy and understanding and offering flexibility to help workers navigate their work and personal lives can greatly reduce work stress and increase satisfaction and commitment.[iv] Managers should make an effort to connect regularly with each team member to ensure they feel seen and understood.
- Work Context
The final factor to discuss is work context. This is the physical workspace in which employees are working. The pandemic sent countless employees home to work with little to no warning. Because of this, many are not set up with an ideal workspace. It is recommended that remote workers have as close to an office set up as possible. Ideally, remote workers would have a separate room with a door to be able to reduce distractions and have a physical boundary between work and home.
Many pandemic remote workers do not have the same equipment and resources available to them as they did in the office, which can hinder productivity. Additionally, due to security, access to files is often limited to those outside of the office. As such, some workers find working from home challenging because they cannot complete their work efficiently.
While managers cannot add a separate office to their employees’ homes, they can work to ensure they have the software, equipment, and access they need to be effective. They should find out more about each team member’s home set-up and identify options that can aid their work. Managers cannot fix all the context issues, but they can help to coordinate with IT and inform employees of their options.
Profile of an Effective Remote Manager
Considering these suggestions, what is the profile of an effective remote manager? The competencies required for successfully managing remote work fall into three broad areas: Agility, Achievement, and Affiliation. Used in combination, these competencies describe the skills and behaviors needed to successfully manage remote workers and be an effective manager whilst working remotely.
Agility is how managers respond to change and help people handle challenges independently. Remote managers need to be agile in several ways. Because communication is often technology-enabled and they are not surrounded by co-workers for support, remote managers are likely to need to adapt their processes and procedures for communication and other tasks. They are also likely to find themselves learning new skills and/or using new programs to overcome the extra barriers they face and will require a positive attitude to stay focused and productive while overcoming those obstacles. Agility is a key theme in remote management which entails these concepts of adaptability, learning agility and resilience.
Achievement is how managers adapt their work practices to drive action and ensure accountability. Driving and achieving results as a remote manager requires independence, ownership, and action-orientation. Remote managers are likely to find themselves in situations where they need to gather data, analyse information, and make decisions more independently. As previously noted, unstructured work environments often lead to distractions and reduced productivity and, like their employees, managers need to self-motivate and stay focused despite the context. Furthermore, remote managers are responsible for managing any additional barriers to performance introduced by distance and holding themselves and their team accountable to achieving goals and objectives.
Affiliation is how managers overcome the physical distance required to coach others and build a supportive team. Relationships are essential for information to flow throughout an organisation and for employees to collaborate and work together toward a common goal. How managers interact with their team members and colleagues has a direct impact on their relationships, communication, and effectiveness. Therefore, it becomes even more important to identify remote managers who create a climate of teamwork, provide the coaching and development their team needs and appropriately show compassion despite their distance.
Effective managers adjust their behavior, keep the team focused on achieving goals, and establish a climate of teamwork, trust, and respect. Organisations that invest in their remote managers and ensure they are providing the support needed, will have happier and more productive remote employees.
[iii] Gajendran & Harrison, 2007.