PEAKS ISLAND — In this new era of “social distancing,” many businesses, schools and other organizations are asking their employees to work at home. But will just sending staff home result in effective collaborative work, with staff accountable, supervisors confident and family and home life still intact? I’ve spent years as a consultant addressing exactly these issues, and can offer some suggestions for the many of us who are now working at home, or are managing employees who are working remotely.

• Managers may need to let go of their “management by proximity” style. Just seeing James or Martha sitting in their cubicles was never reason enough to believe that they are doing productive work, but when employees are offsite, there is even more need to manage creatively. Supervisors and staff can achieve goals by “contracting” together to agree on specific project objectives, to meet regularly (in person or remotely) to assess progress and schedule and to determine any need to revise the work plan, timetables or performance metrics.

• Staff will benefit from a formal work-at-home agreement, with a clear understanding of how and when they can be reached by other staff. This doesn’t have to mean that 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. is always the work time, but there must be some times that the employee is accessible.

For several years as I ran an international consulting group, my workday was 5 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at home (that’s about 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in Europe), and then 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at our main office. This schedule worked for me, and it offered better communication with our European partners during the prime part of their workday when other American staff would typically still be asleep. U.S. staff could have contacted me during those early hours, but they never did.

This agreement might also address issues like confidentiality, how privacy and confidentiality are being maintained and how personal and corporate work data are kept separate. Such matters are an important part of staff accountability, and cannot be ignored for long.

• It’s a myth that you can work at home and be fully responsible for young children. This becomes more challenging today, with so many schools closed, but it’s an extremely important issue to address.

• Work-related information flow among remote workers will typically be addressed. But what we called “water cooler” conversations, where staff stay abreast of what’s happening in other departments, and with other staff is also important  We want to know that Mary’s mom is in the hospital recovering after a heart attack, and that the company is building a new gym and weight room down the hall. The flow of such news nourishes the work community and keeps staff connected. Somebody on staff needs to broadcast such news to remote staff, even though it may not appear to be essential information.

• Exceptional work by remote workers can easily go unnoticed. Supervisors need to spotlight such performance, ensuring that other staff, and particularly higher management, are aware of and can reward such successes.

• Virtual conferences, conducted with staff at multiple (often home) locations, can be essential both for information flow, and also to renew staff cohesion. Those conferences can enable supervisors to stay aware of how the whole work team is functioning and sees itself as a team.

Management and employees who continue to work in the office should never doubt the work that colleagues are doing at home, perhaps in the mistaken belief that accountability and a quest for excellence may be lacking. When both managers and work-at-home staff carefully document their contributions, everybody can recognize the dedicated and important work that all are doing.

 

 

 

 


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