Preparing for the New Normal: Effectively Managing a Remote Workforce

April 24, 2020
John Secor and Carson Christus of BBH’s Corporate Advisory Group provide advice to managers looking to increase productivity, communicate effectively and enhance corporate culture in the new work-from-home culture.

Almost overnight, working from home (WFH) has become the newest acronym to enter the corporate lexicon. Prior to the pandemic, remote working arrangements were considered a perk for certain employees and viewed by employers as a way to improve staff retention and maintain productivity. While these arrangements were certainly gaining in popularity and prevalence – roughly a quarter of Americans worked from home part- or full-time in 2018 – no one could have predicted the recent surge as a result of social distancing measures. With much of corporate America now settled into a remote working routine and offices staffed only with skeletal crews of essential workers, there is no doubt that workforce and workplace dynamics have been permanently altered.

While we are navigating the current circumstances together, it is important to acknowledge that every organization is different. Certain companies are inherently better suited to support a dispersed workforce, and many have had a better chance to “keep the engine running” and minimize disruption to day-to-day operations during the pandemic. While this is still a trial period because of the sheer number of employees involved in what was an unexpected transition, many employers seem to be recognizing their ability to function effectively remotely. Many are also realizing that developing a strategy to manage a remote workforce is not as simple as providing access via email and Zoom. Technology provides the foundation to operate remotely, but it is human behavior that is critical to effectively utilizing the infrastructure. In-person interactions are a key part of any business – not just to serve clients, but also to share knowledge and experiences among employees. It is important that leaders are agile and open to adjusting managerial styles in order to take what has worked in an office setting and translate it into supervising remotely. In particular, managers should consider reframing their approaches to measuring productivity, communicating with teams and building a strong corporate culture.

Productivity

Employers are understandably most concerned about ensuring that productivity remains high while employees work remotely. The office often acts as a built-in productivity tool, as employees can work free from distractions, interact freely with co-workers and feel motivated by teammates and supervisors. However, success is ultimately measured by actual output and whether targets are achieved, not by face time. In addition to ensuring employees have technological support to keep the home office up and running, managers can try to replicate a shared office environment by establishing near-term team and individual goals, setting clear expectations for deliverables and deadlines and routinely evaluating the prioritization of various projects. On a related note, remote working arrangements tend to be more effective when employees already have the skills needed to perform. Training and professional development can be a challenge when employees are WFH. Wherever possible, virtual training and development should be complemented with hands-on coaching or mentoring over the phone or videoconference, simulating what a manager would have done in the office. A manager’s flexibility and trust, when provided in the right way in-person or remotely, can empower employees, leading to greater ownership, creativity and higher quality output.

Communication

Communication is the most tangible aspect of managing a remote workforce when face-to-face interactions are no longer possible. Every interaction is different, and selecting the right tool – instant messaging, email, telephone or video – to best communicate is important. For example, brief daily check-in calls may be best handled over the phone, while longer, more detailed presentations may benefit from a videoconferencing/shared screen tool such as Zoom. Certain tools may be new for some employees and result in a fair share of struggles, and managers should acknowledge these difficulties and offer training where appropriate. Promoting good practices for virtual communication – similar to the way many companies promote good presenting or public speaking skills – can also make a difference. For example, it is tempting to try to multitask when alone in a home office, but managers should lead by example, modeling respectful workplace habits such as listening without distractions when communicating with other employees. Establishing a regular cadence for communicating is also important to developing a sense of routine and giving teams the chance to regularly check in. Lastly, an open-door policy isn’t as apparent in a remote environment, and employees should be encouraged to reach out to managers to get the support they need to perform. Prioritizing communication and making use of all methods and technologies available can help companies and teams overcome the lack of in-person interaction that they have grown accustomed to.

Corporate Culture

Corporate culture is an easily overlooked yet important aspect of a remote work environment. Given that employees spend most of their waking hours in the office, the transition to an isolated home office can be difficult. With the current backdrop of a pandemic and looming global recession, engaging and motivating employees and finding ways to maintain a sense of camaraderie are more important than ever. Establishing team, office or company goals and building a sense of pride and alignment around these can help build a sense of community and collaboration, even from afar. Encouraging team-building activities – like virtual team lunches or happy hours with a designated “host,” celebrations for work accomplishments or personal milestones like birthdays or friendly competitions – can also help to bridge the culture gap for remote workers. Managers should occasionally allow calls to digress away from work topics and morph into more casual conversations, like they might in the office. One-on-one calls can give employees the chance to speak up if they wish to raise any issues and offer the opportunity for managers to check in on employees and co-workers outside of work tasks. Taking a moment to think about the specific needs of a group of employees and how best to convey a sense of solidarity from afar can go a long way.

The pandemic has forced many employees out of the corporate comfort zone of a shared office space. Remote working arrangements will be the norm for many companies until the pandemic has subsided, and even then, many firms are likely to continue incorporating WFH arrangements more extensively than before. Encouraging managers to adapt their approaches to measuring productivity, communicating with their teams and building culture will pay dividends in this new corporate environment.

Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. (“BBH”) may be used as a generic term to reference the company as a whole and/or its various subsidiaries generally.  This material and any products or services may be issued or provided in multiple jurisdictions by duly authorized and regulated subsidiaries. This material is for general information and reference purposes only and does not constitute legal, tax or investment advice and is not intended as an offer to sell, or a solicitation to buy securities, services or investment products. Any reference to tax matters is not intended to be used, and may not be used, for purposes of avoiding penalties under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, or other applicable tax regimes, or for promotion, marketing or recommendation to third parties. All information has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy is not guaranteed, and reliance should not be placed on the information presented.  This material may not be reproduced, copied or transmitted, or any of the content disclosed to third parties, without the permission of BBH. All trademarks and service marks included are the property of BBH or their respective owners. © Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. 2020.  All rights reserved. PB-03546-2020-04-23

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