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Treat COVID-19 Remote Work as a Test Run

Dr. Cindy McGovern
Dr. Cindy McGovern

Remote work is becoming more popular with companies and employees. Treat the remote work trend during COVID-19 as a test run for what the future might hold.

  • Employees and managers who never would have chosen a remote work arrangement are finding that it works for them.
  • Some employees are far more productive when they work alone at home than when they are in an office, where routine distractions slow them down.
  • Business owners could consider extending telework as a permanent option to employees who excel during this pandemic-induced trial period.

As employees get used to working from home and supervisors get the hang of managing from afar, both may discover that the arrangement could work for them all the time, not just during an emergency.

Restrictions on businesses and their employees during the pandemic have forced companies of all sizes to become more flexible about when, where and how their employees work. Companies that never considered telework before and employees who once believed it would be impossible to get their jobs done in a house full of kids are finding ways to make it work.

And they like it. An April Gallup poll found that 3 in 5 U.S. employees who have been teleworking during the pandemic would prefer to continue working remotely after the crisis. Just 1 in 4 said they want to get back to their workplaces. In another survey, 1 in 3 federal employees said it's not important for them to be in their regular offices to get their work done.

Flexibility at work has been on the rise since the 1990s as more working parents have asked to stagger their start and stop hours, work from home when their kids are sick, work part time or even job-share.

Some managers believe their employees won't work as hard from home, and some employees simply don't want to telework. Still, your business might find the arrangement to be efficient and even cost-saving: Fewer people in the office means you need less office space and fewer supplies. Video conferencing among teleworkers saves on airfare and hotel rooms. Doing away with commutes reduces stress, lets employees get more sleep and makes them more productive.

To make telework work for your business on a permanent basis, consider selling yourself, your managers and your employees on a new way of working. Here's how to do that in five steps.

1. Plan.

Businesses had way too little time to plan their transition to whatever your situation looks like now: Maybe everyone is a teleworker, or your staff is half of what it used to be, or your products are available only online or for curbside pickup.

Businesses have had to make it up as they go along, figuring out what works and what doesn't and relying on the whole team to pitch in – even as they struggle with the personal toll of the pandemic, home-school their children, and figure out how to use the internet in place of face-to-face interactions and a physical workplace.

By now, you've got a flow going, and you're realizing that things probably won't be exactly as they were before the health crisis began anytime soon – maybe not ever.

So sit down and write a plan. What is working? Which team members are shining at which tasks? Which pandemic-induced business changes would you like to make permanent? Which do you need to get rid of ASAP?

The more detailed and specific your plan – complete with goals and strategies for meeting those goals – the easier it will be to sell your team on embracing change and giving their all to a new kind of job that they didn't sign up for.

Plans create confidence. It's important in times of uncertainty for your employees to understand exactly what is expected of them and what they have to do. And it's critical for them to believe that your business's leaders know what they're doing and will safely guide the team.

2. Look for opportunities.

As your team works remotely because there's temporarily no other safe or legal way to do business, your workers and managers could get a few surprises.

Some employees can actually work more efficiently from home than they ever did in the office. Someone who tends to stops to socialize with co-workers during every restroom and water cooler break, for instance, won't have as many opportunities to do that while working remotely – and might spend that extra time doing extra work. Other employees simply get more done when they work alone, without the routine distractions of the typical workplace.

Likewise, it might turn out that some processes are more efficient via telework. Online training, for instance, allows employees to log on to their virtual classrooms whenever they have downtime, which means they can spend their downtime more productively and won't have to interrupt themselves for training when they're in a groove with another project.

Staff meetings might run smoother – and shorter – online, and some employees might be more willing to speak up during a virtual meeting. The working parents on your staff might be more productive when they know they can put in their hours in spurts to work around their families' needs.

It's true that not every employee is suited for telework and not every task is better online than in person. But managers looking for permanent telework opportunities could wind up with a more productive post-pandemic staff.

3. Listen and establish trust.

Change rarely comes without some missteps. Expect mistakes – and take them in stride.

Managers who show their employees some empathy during the transition from the office to home will get better productivity out of them than supervisors who berate, blame or lose patience with teleworkers struggling with the new workplace format. Not everyone was born knowing how to share a document with a group during a Zoom session or even how to join the meeting. 

Make a point of touching base with as many employees as possible – one at a time – on a regular basis to ask what they need help with, what they like about telework and what suggestions they have for improvements.

Listen for clues that some employees are struggling because they don't usually work much on computers, because someone in the house is sick, or because of isolation and boredom. Try to find solutions based on those conversations – for example, a week off with pay to care for a sick spouse, a virtual meeting with a mentor to get up to speed with home-office tech, or a video game that the team can play together for half an hour a day.

Most of all, lend a friendly ear. Employees who live alone or are introverted might not have anyone to talk to. Right now, everyone needs someone to talk to.

Helping employees feel comfortable in their new roles as teleworkers is an important step in selling them on the arrangement or making it long-lasting.

4. Ask for what you want.

The worst thing you can do when your employees are in a brand-new situation is to assume they know what you want and how to give that to you. Even experienced employees need to know what their supervisors expect of them.

You and your managers should meet with your teleworking subordinates every few days. Use that time to discuss goals and expectations, and follow up with written instructions, deadlines and assignments.

Supervisors who are not clear about their expectations often are surprised when their employees don't meet those expectations. They assume that an employee who was on top of things in the office will perform equally well online. That may not be true.

Don't make assumptions. Instead, ask employees to meet specific outcomes, deadlines and quality goals. Employees might assume that, because they are working from home, they do not have to be available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. as they did in the office. If that is the expectation, you need to say so.

A supervisor who does not come right out and ask employees for specific deliverables may or may not get them. One who does ask ups those odds considerably.

Once the teleworker has the hang of things, then the manager can ask to make the arrangement permanent.

5. Follow up with gratitude.

Sure, you pay your employees to do quality work, meet their deadlines and put in the number of hours it takes to get the job done. You might assume there's no need to thank them for doing what they're paid to do.

There is.

Especially at a time when so much is up in the air, jobs are not guaranteed, and stories of loss and illness dominate the news, good managers let their teams know they are appreciated, needed and doing a good job.

Celebrate every success, even small ones. If someone who has struggled to join Zoom meetings in the past finally figures it out and shows up on time, make a big deal out of it. Single out employees who excel each week, who offer ideas that help the company make money, who pitch in when others have trouble getting their work done, or who otherwise go a little further than their position description requires.

At a time when sadness, death and confusion dominate the headlines, create some good news for your team to cheer about. And if it works out that telework becomes a permanent arrangement for your business, continue the celebrations so employees feel like part of a team – even if it is remote.

Image Credit: nortonrsx / Getty Images
Dr. Cindy McGovern
Dr. Cindy McGovern Member
Known far and wide as “Dr. Cindy,” the First Lady of Sales, Dr. Cindy McGovern holds a Doctorate Degree in Organizational Communication and a Master’s Degree in Marketing. She earned her reputation by building (and rebuilding) entire sales programs from the bottom up. Dr. Cindy, who is CEO of Orange Leaf Consulting, has helped hundreds of companies and individuals around the world from small to huge create dramatic and sustainable revenue growth. She has also authored, Every Job is a Sales Job: How to Use the Art of Selling to Win at Work, scheduled for release in September 2019 by McGraw Hill Professional. Dr. Cindy is an expert in the areas of sales, interpersonal communication, leadership, and change management. She can quickly figure out what an organization or individual needs to be more successful, and her current knowledge of many industries helps leaders implement new behaviors needed to succeed. One reason for her success is that she serves as both teacher and coach, working together with individuals, regardless of their role or where they are in their career to co-create their future. She doesn’t tell her clients what to do—she listens, learns about their successes and challenges, and then helps them create strategies designed to be effective long after her visit has ended. An in-demand speaker, Dr. Cindy has presented at both national and international conferences on the topics of Sales, Management, Leadership, Sales Management, and Interpersonal Communication, Organizational Change, Conflict Resolution, and Collective Bargaining.