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Managing remote workers –patience and leadership needed

Hastily implemented WFH arrangements are creating challenges for managers
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Managing remote workers –patience and leadership needed

Managing remote workers –patience and leadership needed

2 April 2020

Even before the coronavirus pandemic started to have an impact, there was a marked trend towards more and more employees working from home. So it may be regarded as having accelerated a trend that was occurring anyway. But there is a big potential downside to the way the latest arrangements have been implemented, and it will require patience and leadership from managers to eventually make them work well.

Further down the track it may also have significant implications for the techniques of performance managing employees. This article looks at both the short-term and long-term issues.

What can go wrong short-term

Best practice for working from home (or working remotely) arrangements requires careful planning, analysis of job requirements, and often a significant change in the mindsets of both the employee and his/her immediate manager. For example, there needs to be a shift towards measuring performance in terms of achieving high quality outcomes, with less focus on when and how the work is performed.

The problem, however, is that most coronavirus-induced work-from-home arrangements have been very hastily implemented and often forced on both parties. “Planning” will not have received sufficient attention and the mindset may be “work it out as you go along”. For that reason, both employees and their managers need to be conscious of the following potential problems:
  • Above all, remember that this is a very stressful time for both employees and their managers. Both may be very fearful of their own job security while trying to adapt to different work arrangements. Stress is likely to be compounded by various issues outside work, eg other family members also fearful of unemployment, the obvious fear of catching coronavirus, children unable to attend school, elderly relatives at greater risk, reduced face-to-face social contact with friends, etc. A great deal of empathy and patience may be required.
  • Short-term logistical problems can occur. For example, at-home technology may not be up to speed for work requirements, the home work station may have ergonomic and safety shortcomings, and distractions will be hard to deal with at first. Indeed, it is possible that a massive increase in employees and students working from home may strain the capacity of internet service providers.
  • Without the benefit of prior planning, employees may need to experiment in order to work out the most effective ways of organising and performing their work. This may require negotiating and managing around the needs of other people also more likely to be at home at this time, eg partners who also work, children and house/flatmates. Obviously this will take some time and involve some trial-and-error, so recommended practice is that managers regularly discuss these matters in the early stages and be able to provide extra support if required.

An additional challenge for managers may be that they will find it harder to notice some of the visual clues that employees are under stress if they don’t regularly see them face-to-face. Stress may be concealed by a carefully worded email and you won’t notice that someone “looks” tired, angry, depressed, etc if you can’t see them. Regular enquiries about an employee’s wellbeing are recommended, as is the use of technology such as videoconferencing or Skype to maintain at least some form of visual contact. If there are few scheduled work meetings or other opportunities for contact between employees, it may be a good idea to hold occasional informal “social” online meetings via technology.

What if problems continue beyond short-term?

There may unfortunately be some employees who simply cannot cope with working from home. For example, they may lack the mindset or self-discipline to adapt successfully and fail to put in the necessary hours and/or effort. Alternatively, they do give it their best shot but are thwarted by logistical problems not contributed to by the employer, eg unable to manage around having other residents at home.

It may be possible to return some employees to the employer’s workplace. Bear in mind that if most other employees are now working at home, compliance with “social distance” requirements may be easier than before, provided employees are made well aware of all the hygiene, health and safety procedures they need to follow. However, as government policy and rules that affect central workplaces are changing rapidly at present, check carefully what you can and cannot do.

Another option may be to look for another “off-site” location where an employee can perform work. This will not be easy when facilities such as public libraries are being closed, but it may be possible to find a “work hub” or similar that is still open. If so, investigate its hygiene, health and safety precautions before approving its use.

What if the employee is the “problem”?

If you have ordered an employee to work from home and no alternative arrangement is practicable, discipline and performance management can become a major challenge – particularly if the employee’s performance was satisfactory beforehand.

But if problems continue beyond a reasonable time limit to allow the teething problems of an unplanned and enforced new arrangement to be sorted out, some management action may become necessary.

Before implementing a work-from-home arrangement (whether or not voluntary), setting clear performance standards and ensuring employees understand them is essential. For quantity and quality of work, these are best expressed as outcomes, and for the most part it is up to the employee to work out when (but maybe subject to deadlines), where (but maybe subject to privacy/confidentiality issues) and how to achieve them.

Where there are genuine job requirements that require availability for work at specific times and contact with other employees at specific times, these need to be set out within the performance standards. For example, if customers may contact the employee “during normal business hours”, the employee must be contactable at those times. If there are scheduled online team meetings or videoconferences, the employee must be available to take part when they occur. Alternatively, a performance standard could be a specified response time, eg respond within one hour of attempted contact.

As with “on-site” employees, performance standards are the starting point for any performance management process. Assess the employee’s performance against the standards, identify shortfalls and investigate the reasons for them. If the reason is the employee’s capacity or conduct, discuss with the employee and give him/her an opportunity to respond – particularly important given the abnormal and stressful circumstances most people now face.

If you validly conclude that the employee cannot or will not perform the job to the required standard in the current work environment, you can consider taking action against the employee. However, you will have to be at least reasonably certain that having the employee return to working on-site was not feasible in the foreseeable future. You would also need to establish that the employee’s actions amounted to misconduct.

If the latter is the case, the following options may be available:
  • Low-level disciplinary measures such as a warning, or stand-down until on-site work becomes available again
  • Directing the employee to take leave (either paid or unpaid) until on-site work becomes available again
  • Redundancy that is justified by a significant downturn in business, plus the business no longer has an on-site job that requires the employee to perform it, and is unlikely to have one in the foreseeable future
  • In extreme cases of misconduct, dismissal. Bearing in mind the current employment and economic situation, err on the side of generosity when paying out.

A permanent arrangement eventually?

An interesting side effect of the short-term (hopefully!) impact of coronavirus on employment may be that afterwards demand from employees to continue working from home may substantially increase, assuming it proves to have worked well for both them and their organisations.

Written by Mike Toten

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