Here is an excerpt from an article written by Barbara Z. Larson, Susan R. Vroma, and Erin E. Makarius for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
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In response to the uncertainties presented by Covid-19, many companies and universities have asked their employees to work remotely. While close to a quarter of the U.S. workforce already works from home at least part of the time, the new policies leave many employees — and their managers — working out of the office and separated 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.
[Here are the first four steps they recommend.]
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 information: 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 “belonging” to their organization, and can even result in increased intention to leave the company.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Barbara Z. Larson is executive professor of management and director of partnerships at Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Her research focuses on the personal and interpersonal skills that people need to work effectively in virtual environments, and she works with collaborators in both academia and industry to develop training methods and materials to enable more productive virtual work. Prior to her academic career, Professor Larson worked for 15 years in international finance and operations leadership, most recently as Director of International Finance at R.R. Donnelley.
Susan R. Vroman is a lecturer of management at Bentley University. Her research interests include the impact leadership enactment has on organizational culture and employee engagement, with specific focus on supporting flexible work arrangements. Prior to her academic career, Dr. Vroman worked for over 20 years as an organizational effectiveness and strategic human resource management executive and advisor. She continues this work in a consulting capacity.
Erin E. Makarius an associate professor of human resources in the management department of the College of Business Administration at the University of Akron and received her Ph.D. from The Ohio State University. Dr. Makarius has several years of experience in human resources and management, including working at and consulting with a variety of companies in the financial, insurance, and consumer products industries. Her research interests include boundary spanning in the form of technological, international, and organizational boundaries, with emphasis on the role of relationships and reputation in these processes.