How to help someone who is struggling with remote work. Hint: Don't be a jerk

Now is the time to channel your inner guidance counselor, not drill sergeant, and make these adjustments for colleagues having a hard time with telecommuting.

Worried businessman working online

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

If an employee is struggling with remote work and your first impulse is to find a productivity tracker, hit the pause button. Instead of scolding or yelling, take a minute to consider other tactics. In times of high stress and uncertainty, you'll build a stronger team if you lead with empathy and kindness. You won't lose your credibility if you make allowances instead of newer, stricter rules. 

Tim Macek, director of technical operations and infrastructure at Sterling Trading Tech, said he prioritizes empathy and trust for all of his 15 remote team members. 

SEE: Life after lockdown: Your office job will never be the same--here's what to expect (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

"I trust they will get their work done regardless of their location," he said. "By offering trust and empathy during these times I feel confident they can operate (remotely) to their best ability daily."

Building strong relationships with employees and providing clear guidance will help the individual and the company the most in the long run.

Nadine Malek Sarraf, CMO of Prodoscore, said managers should make career growth a priority, particularly for remote employees. 

"Managers who consistently provide guidance and training ultimately help develop stronger team members and establish better relationships," she said.

If your frustration with poor performance is getting the best of you, consider this advice for managers and executives who have first-hand experience in managing successful remote teams. 

Find new ways of working 

Kirsten Hopstaken, founder of Gybo Marketing, said her team makes sure to have a backup person on client phone calls, to help people with little kids at home. The company has made other accommodations as well to preserve morale.

"We lowered the expected amount of work to give a team member some more breathing room, while keeping his pay consistent, to not add additional concerns to the situation and to keep him focused and motivated on the tasks at hand," she said.

ringDNA's CEO Howard Brown said, "Coaching is one of the most important and underrated aspects of a leader's role in an organization. Done correctly it can boost the productivity of employees and provide them with the type of nurturing environment that helps retain talent."

Do a gap analysis

There's a good chance that part of the underperformance problem is a lack of information or understanding. Kenny Trinh, the CEO of Netbooknews, an online review publication with 100% remote staff, suggests asking these five questions to assess the situation: 

  1. Does the person know what is expected of him or her?
  2. Does the person have the tools and training to do the job?
  3. Does the person feel connected to the company and the team?
  4. Is the person's work meaningful or simply busywork?
  5. Is a lack of coordination causing frustration or wasted work?

"All of these could lay responsibility on the employer or the employee—it's both sides of the equation," he said.

Paul Burrin, a vice president of Sage People, said managers need to look for the underlying root cause and understand why the employee is struggling by listening carefully and thinking about what is being said and what isn't.

"It's also good to get wider input from colleagues if necessary to determine if this is this a one-off situation, a short-term recurring, or long-term recurring issue," he said.

Don't rely on email alone 

Jon Mattingly, cofounder of Kodable, a computer science education company for kids, has a good rule of thumb for selecting the right communication method.   

"Anything that takes more than five messages to discuss should be a video call," he said.  

Sunny Ashley, founder and CEO of Autoshopinvoice, said that it's also a good idea to over-communicate when everyone is working remotely. If you spent 30 hours working on a presentation, no one will know unless you tell them.

"Solicit feedback, ask questions, and send updates more than you would when working in a physical office," he said. "Act like you're working in a vacuum; because you are." 

Think about morale

Thibaud Clement, CEO of Loomly, a social media scheduling tool, has led his company as a fully remote team since the company was founded. He suggests managers figure out whether the person is struggling with performance, morale, or both. 
"Keep in mind that performance and morale tend to fuel each other, either to the top or to the bottom, so spotting a potential challenge on one front is generally a signal to anticipate a potential difficulty on the other front as well," he said.

Clement said there are three general reasons people have trouble working in a remote environment:

  • A lack of work organization due to a lack of guidance or feedback
  • Agenda conflicts, such as having to deal with work and kids at the same time in the same place 
  • Fatigue due to loneliness or burnout 

Be flexible with work hours

Nadine Malek Sarraf, CMO of Prodoscore, said her company's research found that people working from home were most productive from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m on any given workday

"Flexibility enhances creativity and makes employees feel appreciated, which typically leads to a boost in productivity whenever they're in work mode," she said.

Loomly's Clement said his company temporarily allowed some team members to work earlier shifts (from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m.) or non-traditional hours (6 a.m.-8 a.m., 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., 6 p.m.-8 p.m.) to ease the stress of clashing schedules.  

Think about workload 

Sarraf of ProdoScore recommended keeping track of to-do lists and making sure no one is overloaded. 

"When you're not seeing employees day in, day out, it's harder to be in tune with their workload," she said. "Combined with the fact that remote employees typically work more hours than in-office staff, understanding capacity is really important."

This article was updated on June 11, 2020 to correct a quote from ringDNA's Howard Brown and to correct the spelling of ringDNA.

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By Veronica Combs

Veronica is an independent journalist and communications strategist. For more than 10 years, she has covered health and healthcare with a focus on innovation and patient engagement. She led AIR Louisville, a three-year digital health project focused ...