By Kate Russell

The global pandemic accelerated the work-from-home trend as millions of people quarantine to prevent infection.

Remote work has grown consistently over the past decade. A survey conducted by Global Workplace Analytics found that nearly half of employees worked at home part time in 2017.

The rapid unveiling of public health guidelines set forth by governments across the US required businesses to transition to an entirely remote environment expeditiously. According to a CNBC survey, the number of remote workers doubled in April 2020.

While remote work has been on the rise, the consequences of a global pandemic is an external circumstance that few businesses could’ve predicted.

Businesses may need to manage a remote workforce for the foreseeable future. This remote work norm comes with a set of unique challenges.

1. Streamline Communication with Remote Workers

Businesses should establish a communications strategy to support efficient remote operations.

A remote environment eliminates the natural encounters that occur in an office. As proximity encourages collaboration, a remote workforce risks fragmentation.

To support cohesion, set times when employees are expected to be online. Similar to working in an office, establish a 9–5 schedule for remote employees.

The only change in expectations is that employees are expected to be accessible by digital means. This will ensure that colleagues can collaborate to support productivity.

It’s important to plan communications with your newly remote employees to maintain alignment. Scheduled communication should be more frequent than it was in office as casual interactions are lost in a remote workplace.

One way to mitigate disconnection is to establish daily calls with your remote employees. This offers employees a forum to discuss questions or concerns regularly, which allows you to address any challenges before problems arise.

An office makes quick collaboration easy as colleagues are only desks away. To maintain a similar level of accessibility in a remote environment, invest in mobile-enabled communication platforms such as Zoom, Trello, or Microsoft Teams.

Mobile-enabled collaboration platforms support greater accessibility. This will help employees remain responsive throughout the day.

Businesses should establish frequent communication to streamline the flow of information between teams in a remote environment.

2. Set Clear Expectations for Performance

Businesses should establish expectations for employees in the new remote environment to support a productive workforce.

It’s difficult to track employees’ productivity when they aren’t visible. To hold employees accountable, set expectations for employees’ early in the transition into a remote environment.

Make quality standards, deadlines, and measures of success clear. This will help to build an effective team outside of the office.

OKRs (objectives and key results) is a popular framework for teams to define goals, track progress, and assess results. Check the OKR business examples here. The framework makes expectations, goals, and achievements explicit.

You can create individual OKRs as well as OKRs for teams. By making them visible in a team project board or worksheet, you help your team keep themselves on track. You also encourage the team’s investment in a successful remote environment.

Performance management platforms provide greater visibility into employees’ remote work.

For example, Culture Amp offers a holistic performance management product. The platform allows you to collect feedback, perform objective evaluations with standard templates, and assess employee performance.

To customize performance reports, you can filter data based on characteristics such as department and seniority. You can share reports with employees to encourage productive conversations about performance.

You can also establish and track employees’ goals through the platform. You can comment on progress and note areas in need of attention.

Performance management software offers opportunities for you to remain connected and aligned with your employees remotely.

Businesses should leverage digital tools and create demonstrable expectations for remote employees to encourage and track productivity.

3. Use Technology to Create a Remote Culture

Businesses should double-down on engagement activities to maintain a positive work culture remotely.

A common fear is that employees will be less productive in a work environment. However, remote employees are more productive outside of a traditional office setting according to a study published in the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

This presents management with unexpected challenges.

Remote workers are more likely to work longer hours and experience greater levels of stress. Buffer’s annual report, The State of Remote Work, found remote employees’ greatest challenges to be unplugging after work, loneliness, and collaborating and/or communication.

Stay at home and social distancing regulations in response to COVID-19 only serve to exacerbate feelings of isolation and disconnect.

Businesses can foster community even in a remote setting by structuring ways for employees to interact socially.

You can post daily prompts on your primary communication platform for employees to discuss. Use prompts that are unrelated to work topics such as: what’s your favorite feel good song? The nature of the questions should be amusing as the goal is to reduce stress.

For example, if you use Slack, post in an open channel with the greatest number of members. Request that employees post responses to the channel rather than the thread. This will send notifications to users, keeping the conversation top of mind and encouraging greater engagement.

The easiest way to promote employee engagement is to reserve time at the beginning of team meetings for casual conversation. To create a greater sense of community, supplement phone calls with video calls. Video holds peoples’ attention and reduces the sense of distance.

You can begin calls by telling employees that the first five minutes of the meeting is dedicated to catching up. Encourage conversations beyond work items such as weekend plans or mental health and participate in these conversations.

The abrupt shift to a remote environment compounded by the global pandemic makes emotional leadership especially important. Your moods and behaviors influence those of your employees.

You should acknowledge employees’ stress, anxieties, and concerns to set a tone of support as well as a standard for remote work engagement.

Businesses should leverage digital platforms to encourage social interactions between employees to maintain culture remotely. 

4. Adapt Your Processes to Fit a Remote Environment

You can conquer the challenges of a remote workforce by adapting your procedures to the environment.

Schedule frequent meetings and provide mobile-enabled tools to streamline communication between you and your employees.

Communicate your expectations to employees and leverage performance management platforms to hold them accountable.

Invest time to connect with employees personally to build a supportive and engaged remote work culture.