FAQs for Managing Teleworkers

With more employees than ever working at home, there are new issues for employers to consider. These include burnout, maintaining an office culture at a distance and identifying characteristics of successful teleworkers. The following FAQs provide much-needed information on this important topic.

December 15, 2020

With more employees than ever working at home, there are new issues for employers to consider. These include burnout, maintaining an office culture at a distance and identifying characteristics of successful teleworkers. The following FAQs provide much-needed information on this important topic.

FAQs for Managing Teleworkers

Staying motivated and engaged in a remote world can be challenging. With distractions and the double burden of home and work responsibilities, employee engagement can suffer, and the pressure to be always “on” and available can become daunting. To combat these issues, communicate the need to properly unplug during nonwork hours. This example should be set from the top down. In the European Union, where approximately one-third of people are now working from home across the 27-nation bloc, lawmakers recently voted in favor of a “right to disconnect” from the internet and email to allow people to take time out from the pressures of working from home. Other approaches employers are taking include implementing a no-meeting day, quiet hours or mindfulness breaks.

Managers can also help by encouraging employees to:

  • Avoid multitasking, stay focused on top priorities and set and meet deadlines;
  • Establish clear boundaries and transitions “to and from work,” such as changing clothes or replacing commutes with a morning or evening walk;
  • Create a dedicated workspace, if possible;
  • Dedicate, or even schedule, time to socialize with coworkers; and
  • Practice self-care and take regular small breaks.

Telework influences overall well-being—for the good and the bad--and the pandemic has thrust that fact into the limelight. Take social connectedness and isolation, for example. It’s clear that teleworkers are at risk of feeling lonely and miss the informal interactions they used to have in the office. Still, research indicates that teleworking allows employees to preserve positive relationships and distance themselves from negative aspects of the office. Employers need to prioritize implementing solutions, practices and policies that mitigate risks and ensure that the employee experience is a positive one for their holistic well-being, including physical, mental and financial. Business Group on Health’s Telework & Well-being Integration guide offers a variety of recommendations for leaders and teleworkers.

A strong culture helps employees combat loneliness and maintain positive relationships, as well as facilitating successful collaboration throughout the organization in a virtual setting. A simple but effective practice is to dedicate a few moments at the beginning of meetings for casual, nonwork conversations or schedule regular check-ins (e.g., having each member share what’s new and different in their work and/or personal life). Virtual coolers, creative team-building exercises, celebrations of team successes and peer-to-peer recognition can also build camaraderie within remote teams. A Harvard Business Review article suggests that finding ways to involve others in leading the team (e.g., getting members to coach others in their areas of expertise, assigning team members as mentors or asking them to run a virtual team-building exercise) can be valuable in fostering a shared sense of leadership and taking some burden off a busy manager’s shoulders.

It’s also noteworthy that large, multinational companies have been building culture across work locations for years, so this isn’t new for everyone, especially not for those in global roles. A tip for managers who are inexperienced may simply be to consult with those who have been working this way for years to find out what has worked for their teams and what hasn’t.

The qualities that make for a successful teleworker are similar to those of a successful office worker. This includes a strong ability to be self-directed, focused and goal-oriented, as well as the ability to communicate effectively over various channels. Trust is an integral part of any work relationship, and many first-time managers of teleworkers have concerns because they can’t see an employee working. What a manager should focus on, however, is an employee’s work accomplishments, as indicated by their time stamp. When managers do so, they often find they become better at communicating clear expectations, which improves productivity, output quality and job satisfaction. And employers can help employees succeed by ensuring that they have the right equipment and home office setup.

To offset expenses associated with home office equipment and furniture, as well as to ensure company security and employee productivity, many employers provide remote workers with standard equipment required for the job, such as a laptop, headset and mouse. Providing employees with the equipment they need to be successful working from home can signal the company’s genuine commitment to telework. Additionally, 25% of large employers provide a stipend to purchase at-home office equipment, which can support an ergonomic friendly at-home environment, according to the Business Group’s July 2020 Telework Stipends Quick Survey. Of those, a majority (60%) provide a stipend under $500, and 73% pay out the stipend through reimbursement. Other recommendations to integrate financial health and telework are available in Telework & Well-being Integration.

The reality is that some roles cannot be performed remotely, whether due to the nature of the work itself, security and data concerns or other business reasons. This can create disparities across workforces and teams. First, even in positions that can’t be full-time remote, managers should consider if certain job duties can be conducted remotely on a part-time or ad hoc basis. This can be particularly helpful in situations such as a weather emergency or personal temporary circumstance when employees cannot come to the workplace. By considering inevitable situations in advance, employees who don’t regularly telework will understand and be prepared to fulfill responsibilities remotely. For employees who cannot telework, employers should consider other flexibilities or practices, such as compressed work- weeks, flexible hours, predictable schedules or shift-swapping. While those employees may not be able to work from home, these types of supports can bolster their well-being similar to the flexibility of telework for others.

Trusting teleworkers is critical to their well-being and performance. A 2020 study of 1,200 people in 24 different countries found that anxiety at work is greater for employees experiencing high levels of close monitoring and a strong belief that their supervisor does not trust them. Forty-nine percent of employees reporting high levels of monitoring were often or always anxious when doing their job, in comparison to only 7% of employees reporting low levels of monitoring. Research also shows that telework can be notably more efficient when the right expectations, norms and communications practices are implemented. A commonly cited study of a 16,000-employee, NASDAQ-listed Chinese travel agency by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom found that working from home led to a 13% performance increase, was attributed to fewer breaks and sick days and provided a quieter, more convenient working environment.

How can trust be established? Action is needed at all levels. Organizational leaders must communicate a clear and a genuine commitment to making flexible work arrangements, like telework, while boosting managers’ comfort and ability to manage teleworkers through training and readily available resources. Managers can build trust in a team by setting clear expectations; focusing on results over process; providing employees with adequate resources, equipment and information; recognizing employees’ strengths and contributions; treating all employees fairly, including by providing equal opportunities and investments in career development; and being transparent with organizational information and their own feelings and well-being.

Leaders have the difficult task of striking a balance—overcommunication can dilute the message and be a step toward micromanagement, while under-communication can produce confusion and uncertainty. While the right approach will vary by organization and individual preference, there are a few universal principles for managers:

  • Use a variety of communication channels to provide flexibility and allow for formal and informal interactions.
  • Determine as a team how often to meet and define communication guidelines—such as what should be emailed, sent via chat or discussed in a team meeting.
  • Create communication boundaries by, for example, not sending emails outside of work hours, agreeing on reasonable response times and encouraging employees to block out time for focused work (and to turn off distracting notifications during those times).
  • Deliver difficult messages, such as performance feedback or complex instructions, via phone or video conferencing.

Additionally, when sharing messages, leaders can ask themselves a few questions: Have you asked your team about their communication preferences? What’s the right time and medium to share this? What value will the message provide the receiver? Will the message lead to follow-up questions? If so, can you provide additional clarity upfront?

Increased geographic freedom for employees is an evolving dynamic in employee mobility, and multinational employers are responding with agility to the needs of both the business and their workforce. Still, companies need to know in what country employees are based to meet employer obligations appropriately. Managers should talk to their team to identify where they are working from and how long they expect to stay in that state or country.

More broadly, employers must develop telecommuting polices that provide a framework that can be effectively managed and overseen, while putting in place parameters to mitigate any unintended consequences. Each country has its own application procedures and additional requirements – some quite complex – such that counsel needs to consider immigration, tax, employment law and benefit implications, among other things. Countries such as the U.K. released more flexible guidelines for individuals from other countries present there for “exceptional circumstances.” However, employees working long term in a foreign country could mean an increased likelihood of employer obligations and corporate exposure.

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