With a significant uptick in remote working, resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, many companies and employees are navigating the challenges of a distributed workforce for the first time. According to a recent HBR article, “Although it is always preferable to establish clear remote-work policies and training in advance, in times of crisis or other rapidly changing circumstances, this level of preparation may not be feasible. Fortunately, there are specific, research-based steps that managers can take without great effort to improve the engagement and productivity of employees, even when there is little time to prepare.”

Among the challenges associated with remote working in the best of times is lack of access to information, social isolation, and distraction. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated these issues for many people, as they are already feeling cut off from friends and extended family and likely working from home with spouses and children present as well. The HBR piece stresses that it’s important for managers to recognize that the sudden transition to virtual work will create some “suboptimal” situations, but also take some immediate steps to ease the transition. These include:

  • Establish structured daily check ins: Depending on the nature of your team and your employees preferred working style, these check ins could be scheduled for a specific time each day or be ad-hoc conversations daily as warranted. As HBR puts it, “The important feature is that the calls are regular and predictable, and that they are a forum in which employees know that they can consult with you, and that their concerns and questions will be heard.”
  • Establish ground rules: Letting employees know your expectations for the frequency, means, and ideal timing of communication can help them feel more comfortable with remote working, and also prevent issues arising from miscommunication. It’s important to establish these and other “rules of engagement” as early as possible, ideally during the first online check-in meeting, and also ensure that these expectations are consistent for all employees.
  • Provide opportunities for remote social interaction. The HBR piece states, “One of the most essential steps a manager can take is to structure ways for employees to interact socially (that is, have informal conversations about non-work topics) while working remotely.” This is particularly true for people who are newly working from home due to the coronavirus, as they have suddenly transitioned from the social aspects of the office environment and may be feeling isolated as a result. Remote social interaction can be as simple as allocating the first five minutes of a conference call to discuss non-work topics or a planned event such as a virtual pizza party.

According to HBR, “Research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion tells us that employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations.” Managers that appear stressed or helpless will communicate these feelings to their staff; those that find ways to acknowledge feelings of anxiety while still conveying confidence will help employees feel more supported and confident in their own abilities. As such, a key part of encouraging your employees to be comfortable working remotely is ensuring that you yourself are positive about the change and your ability to remain productive in a new working environment.