The biggest mistake managers make with remote workers

More employees are working remotely because of the coronavirus. Get tips on managing telecommuters so productivity doesn't decline.

More people are working remotely unexpectedly as companies deal with travel restrictions and business interruptions due to the coronavirus. This means managers and employees have to adjust their daily habits and communication styles to adjust to this new routine. Technology makes it easy to stay in touch, but losing the benefits of unplanned interactions can have a bigger impact on productivity than managers realize.

When a person starts working remotely, managers lose the visual transparency that built trust in the first place. Managers have a tendency to assume employees are doing the wrong thing until they prove they're doing the right thing. 

Chief of research for Gartner's HR practice Brian Kropp said there is one critical shift managers have to make when working with remote employees.

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"If you're managing employees who are remote, you have to trust them more without asking them to be transparent with everything that they're doing," he said.

If a manager asks a remote employee to start reporting on every daily task, that comes across as micromanaging. Kropp said this approach is not worth the required level of effort and implies a lack of trust.

The right way to manage remote workers is to focus on accomplishments, outcomes, and goals rather than processes and workflows.

"Managers should talk about what you've accomplished rather than how you're accomplishing it," he said.

Everyone should share video

Nick Barber, a senior analyst at Forrester, said employees who feel disconnected from their employer are less likely to provide good customer service. To avoid that, companies should invest in  robust, reliable, and high quality tools for video conferencing and team messaging. 

"These are two applications that allow for real-time, persistent collaboration and communication," he said.

Employees also should receive quick training sessions and clear documentation on how to use these tools to be comfortable using them. This should include tips on how to look good on video, such as making sure that the camera is at eye level, using natural light when possible and having a background that isn't too distracting. 

Barber said people who are new to video conferencing may need some time to get used to the medium. 

"This can be overcome by making video feel natural and expected, so everyone should enable video, not just the remote employee," he said.

Another key to success is having policies and technologies that support remote work in place before a disruption occurs.
"That means the lift required for change management won't be as great amidst an already highly disruptive problem," he said.

New communication tactics for remote work

When a team is all present in an office, there are plenty of unplanned, informal check-ins among workers and managers--in the break room, over lunch, or after a meeting. When a team member moves to remote work, all those spontaneous opportunities disappear. One of the biggest mental shifts that a manager has to make is to start planning those interactions instead of just letting them happen naturally.

"The most important thing is having intentionally designed interactions for people that you used to have unintentional, bump into interactions with before," he said. "It's super awkward, but you have to do it."

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Another factor to consider is the difference between face-to-face communication and communication via email and chat. It is much harder to determine a person's intent from an email because there is no tone or facial expression to provide context.

"When you're talking face-to-face, you are listening to body languages and facial expressions, and you learn as much from those cues as you do the words," Kropp said. "When you switch to email, you lose a lot of the other ways you learn about intent."

Managers and employees should both resist the tendency to overanalyze every word in every email and to read negative intent into brief written replies.

Kropp said that everyone also has to adjust to a lag in response time that doesn't occur when everyone is in the same office. Managers and employees have to realize that and appreciate that the timing of communication will be different.

When face-to-face time is ideal for your team

Over the next few years, Kropp said he thinks companies will start to be more deliberate about flex hours vs. face-to-face time. Kropp predicts that managers will start setting office hours when everyone has to be in the same place at the same time.

"There's a lot of moments where you have to be in the same room with other people to generate ideas and solve problems," he said.
 
Managers should be intentional about capturing productivity boosts as well as creating opportunities for personal interactions.

This article was updated with additional information on February 18, 2020.

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