Ready or not, remote work has become an enduring reality for organizations and their management teams nationwide. Increasingly sophisticated technologies and the COVID-19 pandemic have fueled the widespread acceptance and adoption of telecommuting.
The abrupt shift at the onset of the pandemic in early 2020 to a largely homebound, geographically dispersed workforce has been a struggle for many on both sides of the equation. Gartner reported in March 2020 that 88% of organizations surveyed had either encouraged or required their employees to work from home, regardless of their symptoms, and nearly all organizations surveyed had halted business travel altogether.
Now that employees have acclimated to their new-normal work life, many prefer the revised reality. According to collaborative tech company Owl Labs, 80% of full-time workers expect to work from home at least three times per week after COVID-19 guidelines are lifted.
Hard hit are leaders with limited experience in managing remote employees. But, armed with tips and strategies and a strong foundation in human resource management concepts, professionals serving in HR roles can help employees adapt to their virtual work environments.
Remote Work at a Glance
Where work takes place is changing. Remote work is defined as work that is conducted outside a traditional office setting, according to Remote Year.
Remote work has gradually increased over the past decade due to technological advancements. Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 4.7 million U.S. employees were working remotely at least half of the time, according to a FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics report. Typical work locations have included home offices, coworking spaces, and coffee shops or cafes. Once the COVID-19 pandemic took root, primary workspaces shifted to home offices, dining room tables, spare bedrooms, or even closets, according to Owl Labs.
We are seeing a seismic shift in how work is performed. This makes managing remote employees a vital skill for human resource leaders. Our primary meeting places have become tools such as Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams, and our work management tools are likely similar to Asana, Miro, or Trello. Thanks to cloud applications, corporate resources are more accessible to employees, which in turn helps them maintain their productivity.
The ongoing pandemic is proving to be a catalyst for a permanent transition to remote work. According to a Gartner survey, 74% of companies plan to shift some of their employees to remote working permanently after the pandemic.
Benefits of Remote Work
Remote work has some unique benefits for both employees and organizations:
- Wider pool of talent and opportunities. Human resource managers are able to broaden their talent searches to new geographic markets. Employees can consider positions in areas where they can’t afford to live.
- Lower overhead. Downsizing or eschewing offices altogether for remote workplaces saves companies money on expenses including rent, office furniture, and utilities.
- Lack of commute. Pre-pandemic, remote workers spent about 200 fewer hours commuting than their on-site counterparts, according to CNBC.
- Less expensive. The work-from-home savings for employees during the pandemic equates to nearly $6,000 per year on average vs. working in an office environment, according to Owl Labs.
- Flexible scheduling. Remote workers can pinpoint the perfect time for doctor’s appointments and other potential schedule-busters by managing their own workdays from home, according to Statista.
Strategic Management of Remote Employees
No longer tethered to a corporate office and committed to round-trip commutes, newly remote workers are settling into their home workspaces. A primary role of human resource leaders is to make sure employees are connected, productive, and thriving.
Tips for Managing Remote Employees
Human resource professionals seek to maintain dynamic workplaces, which can be compromised by remote work. Following are some helpful tips:
- Build camaraderie through virtual community. Remote team-building activities such as production-based contests or online trivia games can boost engagement among virtual teams, according to Owl Labs, particularly when prizes are awarded.
- Create goal-based performance tracking. Rather than focusing on the hours required to complete a project or task, concentrate on the results.
- Establish rules of engagement for communication. Teams should determine core workday hours when employees must be available to collaborate. Leaders can identify certain virtual communication tools as appropriate for quick questions and those to be used for more complex issues.
- Maintain a positive mindset. Others can quickly pick up on a negative tone, so keep communication and intent positive and constructive.
- Encourage one-on-one interaction. While many remote employees are in virtual meetings for a large portion of their workdays, setting aside time for a separate video call or phone call for important conversations is paramount. Inflection and tone can easily be misconstrued in text, chat, or direct message communications.
- Promote positive behaviors and coping skills. Enlisting the help of a professional speaker to discuss the importance of a healthy work-life balance, the benefits of regular exercise and meditation, ways to reduce stress, or coping skills to deal with loneliness can benefit employees who do not otherwise have these resources.
- Scheduled check-ins. Regular communication with each team member creates opportunities to maintain a strong connection and share feedback and accolades.
- Maintain training. Even during a pandemic, employees seek to develop their careers. Offering additional training on an existing system or new area encourages aspiring professionals and deepens their loyalty.
Overcoming Common Remote Work Challenges
For human resource professionals, overseeing and managing a distributed workforce poses unique challenges. These can be overcome with fine-tuned strategies in human resource management.
Challenges of Remote Work
Working outside an office represents a shift in the traditional business dynamic and, at times, managing remote employees can have its difficulties:
- Waning camaraderie. Remote workplaces provide no opportunities for impromptu post-meeting hallway conversations, team building events, happy hours, team lunches, or one-off huddle meetings for project prep. Because all interactions are virtual, bonding with co-workers is more difficult.
- According to Buffer, 20% of remote workers report that loneliness is their biggest struggle.
- Dissolving office culture. Remote work can dilute or even dismantle previously strong corporate cultures.
- With teams working around the clock and using multiple communication tools, communication issues can intensify.
- Unplugging after work. One in 5 people report that they are working more during COVID-19, according to Owl Labs.
- Lapses in trust. The relationship between employer and employee is a delicate one and can be tested, particularly during times of stress, by lack of trust on either side.
- Not all broadband access is the same across work groups. Lack of high-speed broadband internet access can conspire against productivity for even the most talented employees.
- Nagging distractions. Employees working remotely typically do not have library-like work environments. Families, pets, and live-in parents can undermine productivity and focus.
Minimizing Potential Issues
Management professionals apply their leadership, interpersonal, communication, and decision-making skills to help employees and other managers minimize potential issues. Those who serve in human resource roles are the stewards of an organization’s workforce. As part of this position, managing remote employees involves supporting, empowering, and nurturing off-site workers to ensure they remain motivated, stay engaged, and produce quality work.
Remote workforces will continue to be a growing facet of human resource management. Prior to the pandemic, 99% of remote workers said they would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers, according to Buffer. After working remotely well into 2020, 70% of those polled by Owl Labs said they would be less happy if they were unable to work from home post-pandemic, and nearly half would seek new positions that were remote-work friendly.
What began as a safer alternative to office work in the face of a pandemic has become essential to workers’ happiness and job satisfaction.
Discover More About Managing Remote Employees
Students interested in navigating the issues inherent in a massive virtual workforce should consider Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Human Resource Management, with a curriculum that includes human resource management, human resource systems and technology, interpersonal management skills, and a workforce management and strategic leadership capstone. Explore how Maryville can help you develop strategies to meet the demands of an evolving work environment and pursue your professional goals.