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A leader’s guide to managing remote employees: Empathy and flexibility key

Lots of staff are working from home for the first time, which means some managers are in new and uncharted territory


March 17, 2020
By Todd Humber


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Photo: Laurence Dutton/Getty Images

These are extraordinary times, and employers have responded with extraordinary measures.

Many offices have shut down entirely, others have gone to a “remote first” model and some have expanded working from home to employees who previously did not have the option.

Plus, there’s a better chance than not you’re dealing with employees in self-quarantine. Let them work from home and you’re not losing their productivity while they do the right thing for their communities and co-workers.

All this is posing challenges for staff who have never worked from home, and for managers who have never had the pleasure (or is that headache?) of managing remote workers.

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For managers, there are some best practices to follow when managing employees remotely.

Work from home is not a day off – and you don’t need to say it

Your employees know working remotely is not a sick day or a vacation day. As managers, don’t hammer them over the head with this mundane fact.

The only message it sends to your employees is “I don’t trust you.” If you don’t trust the professionals on your payroll, your organization was in trouble long before COVID-19 reared its head.

This is not to say you don’t have low-performing employees that will continue to need micromanaging, but avoid using a sledgehammer. Most people are committed, and will perform regardless of location.

Hours of work may change – be OK with that

While employees have dedicated workspaces in your office, that may not be the case in their homes. They may have to setup at the kitchen table surrounded by barking dogs and screaming children.

If they have young children home — and many do because of March break and the closing of schools in many jurisdictions across Canada into early April — they may have far more distractions.

Or, to quote Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who this morning said “let the kids run around a bit in the house. Things will get better.”

Workers with elderly parents may have to rush off to help them.

Be forgiving if someone can’t check email immediately. There’s a good chance they’ll be back at it again later at night when the kids are tucked into bed. Remote working is not always 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Recognize this is not ‘business as usual’

All communication from management should be authoritative and reassuring, but sprinkle in a dose of reality.

Your employees are watching and reading the news. The coronavirus is a non-issue to some and a frightening prospect to others. Be understanding of all views, and don’t mock people who are overly concerned.

Discourage managers from making side comments about “overreacting” and how silly people are being — stay factual and empathetic.

Remember that empathy is the most admired trait in leaders. Being a bully, or acting in a condescending manner, won’t get you far.

Check in with your teams – daily

Make sure you touch base with everyone on your team at least once per day during this crisis. This is important for a variety of reasons.

First, you have an obligation as an employer to ensure the safety and well-being of your workforce. Ignoring them does not satisfy this obligation.

Second, a lack of communication can breed fear. Communication is reassuring: Everything is OK and business is proceeding.

Third, you undoubtedly have employees who live alone. The social isolation can be more crippling to some than others.

While introverts are sharing memes online about social isolation, joking they have “been in training for this for years” other employees may find the lack of interaction unsettling.

Don’t be afraid to use video chats in addition to phone calls and emails. Seeing a familiar face on screen can help ease isolation and reduce cabin fever. And don’t show up to video call in a soiled sweatshirt. Continue to be professional.

Ensure you ask staff who are reporting symptoms of COVID-19 to keep you in the loop, especially if they test positive.

Let staff come in to the office if possible

If your office remains open, and it’s set up to allow proper social distancing, encourage employees to come in — even if it’s just to pick up some documents or a missing piece of technology.

For many, it would be a welcome opportunity to get out of the house and see some familiar faces. Just bear in mind the current recommendations from professionals on social distancing. Ottawa Public Health has published numerous tips, including keeping the windows open if you have to travel by taxi or rideshare and maintaining a physical distance of one to two metres (three to six feet) from each other.

Ensure your cleaning staff — and staff who are coming in to the office — disinfect as much as possible.

These are extraordinary times. But how leaders manage people says a lot about the organization, and it will pay dividends when things return to normal. Your employees will remember how they were treated during this crisis, for better or worse.

Todd Humber is a group publisher at Annex Business Media. He looks after multiple publications, including Talent Canada. For more information visit www.TalentCanada.ca.