How to manage employees working from home during the coronavirus scare

Coordinating with remote workers can be challenging, especially if you're not accustomed to it. Here are some best practices.

As the deadly coronavirus continues to spread worldwide, organizations are looking to keep employees healthy and businesses running. With China at the forefront of the outbreak, many Chinese businesses are mandating employees either not work or work from home

SEE: Managing remote workers: A business leader's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

However, the coronavirus isn't limited to China. Confirmed cases of the disease have been identified in Australia, Canada, India, Singapore, the US, the UK, and more, leading businesses around the world to institute travel restrictions and special working conditions of their own

The CDC's interim guidance for business response recommended companies encourage employees at risk of exposure to take sick days; perform routine environmental office cleaning; and institute more flexible work arrangements. 

One of the most popular options tech companies in particular are using is remote work

"We're definitely seeing people go to remote work as a way to hopefully keep their employees safe and healthy, stop the spread of this virus, and maintain business continuity at the same time," said Brie Reynolds, career development manager and coach at FlexJobs. 

While this option is both viable and valuable on the health front, it can be difficult for managers unfamiliar with managing remote workers.   

The lack of face time in the office matters, especially for individuals who have only worked in office settings, said Brian Kropp, chief of research in Gartner's HR practice. 

"When you're in the same physical space as someone, the amount of knowledge that's shared over the water cooler with people you happen to bump into goes away," Kropp said. "There's no virtual office cooler." 

"We don't realize how much emphasis we place on people being physically present as evidence that they're working," Reynolds said. "So when you're managing a team that's working from home, you can't actually see people at their desks, presumably working."

Working from home does not equate to not working, but it does cause people to work differently. This difference is something managers need to recognize and adjust for, Reynolds added. 

3 tips for managers

1. Communicate

From the beginning, managers must communicate their expectations for remote workers or employees working from home, Reynolds said. 

"You have to be proactive about your communication and, as a manager, really set the stage for people to be able to communicate openly so that people don't shut down and assume that they shouldn't bother other people," Reynolds said. 

The manager should begin by establishing how they want to communicate, if there are organized times they want to communicate, and what they expect each day. 

Managers must intentionally design ways to communicate to all of their employees, but especially the employees they don't normally see every day, before working from home was ever in place, Kropp said. 

SEE: Working remotely: A professional's guide to the essential tools (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

"There's a second group of employees who you manage but you don't interact with every day," Kropp said. "When you're in the same office, you'll naturally bump into them and chat with them while you're getting coffee or while you're leaving, whatever it might be."

But if those individuals work from home and you stop bumping into them, you might let them slip through the cracks. It's up to the manager to create set times to speak with those individuals and catch up, Kropp added. 

2. Trust

Building upon the misconception that working from home means you aren't working, managers must trust that their employees are doing their jobs, even if they can't see them, Kropp said. 

"One of the things that often happens when you're managing employees who are working remotely for the first time, is that your assumption is if I can't see them working, then they're probably not working," Kropp said. 

If an employee takes a little longer to respond to an email, the manager shouldn't automatically assume it's because they aren't working. They need to think the best of their employees and consider that they could be working on other tasks, Kropp noted. 

3. Include

Just because a part of your workforce might work from home, that doesn't mean they aren't a part of the team. Managers should make an effort to include remote workers, Kropp said. 

With this unexpected virus outbreak, the employees asked to work from home probably never expected to be remote workers. While remote work has its benefits, it can be lonely

Reynolds suggested including remote workers on in-office meetings via video call. Managers could even make a point to schedule weekly meetings that include a video call with people in-office and people at home, she said. 

If managers decide to allow video calling on normal in-office meetings, Kropp said to be sure and give those on the phone a chance to speak. This inclusiveness makes the employees working from home feel like they are still involved. 

"The overarching theme for all of this is that if you're a manager and you're starting to manage remote employees, either because there's a pandemic or your work is changing, you can't rely on chance to build a relationship," Kropp said. 

"You have to be intentional about building a relationship and you have to dedicate the time and space to make sure the relationship is occurring," he added. 

For more, check out Coronavirus: How companies can handle employee travel in wake of deadly virus on TechRepublic. 

Also see 

Businessman working remotely from a cafe

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