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Features Working Remotely
Insights for making working at home work

May 19, 2020
By Julio Zelaya and Dave Ulrich

As a result of social-distancing measures, many Canadians have adjusted to a new routine of working from home. (Visual Generation/Adobe Stock)

The global coronavirus has jolted the entire world. At a personal level, we are most concerned about health and safety, and we mourn with those who mourn for lost or isolated loved ones.

From this pandemic, new realities shape work: social distancing, online (virtual) work, self- isolation, lockdowns, shutdowns, quarantine, shelter-in-place, essential businesses, etc. These concepts reinvent where and how work is done by exploring and requiring working remotely (called working at home, working virtually, telecommuting, etc.). A few years ago, the SOHO (single office, home office) was emerging as a novel place to work. Now, it is a dominant reality for nearly every organization.

So, how can business and HR leaders manage this new work reality of working at home?

Many have offered helpful administrative and logistics tips for working at home (e.g., using technology, finding a space for work, and managing distractions). We have examined the telecommuting literature, interviewed business, and HR executives, and adapted insights from future of work literature. We supplement tips on administrative logistics to offer guidance on how to overcome four challenges and to pay attention to three key success factors for working at home. By so doing, we demonstrate that working at home can strengthen talent, leadership, and organization responses to today’s crisis.


Four challenges and solutions to working at home

Drawing on work by thoughtful colleagues and through recent interviews, we heard work at home challenges such as: How do I manage my time at work vs. time with family? How do I connect with others? How do I build trust and relationships? How do I make sure my work gets noticed? From this work, leaders should pay attention to four challenges with remote workers.

  1. Finding the right work/life balance. Working at home removes traditional boundaries of going to and from work, creates pressures of doing work while managing children (especially when children face school closings), and requires discipline to avoid other distractions (e.g., television, internet, food, and family matters). Leaders encourage working at home employees to set work norms and routines (e.g., respond to calls within a time frame, find private space to work) and to prioritize tasks that have to be done.
  2. Overcoming workplace isolation.  Social isolation is a leading cause of mortality and working at home often distances employees from each other. Leaders can promote interactions among team members with frequent contacts (email, video calls), provide coaching and mentoring by personal “check-ins” on how employees are doing, and encourage employees to connect with each other.
  3. Compensating for the lack of face to face communication. Cognitive and emotional trust often come from face to face interactions which are more difficult when working at home. To compensate, leaders can do video contacts where employees can show their personalities by wearing hats, setting backgrounds, or sharing personal moments.
  4. Compensating for lack of visibility. Employees want to know how they are doing and to have their contributions recognized. These celebration moments often occur though simple and casual comments in the office. Leaders can be conscious of celebrating success in remote settings by sharing stories of success, offering personal comments to remote employees, sharing best practices, and giving credit to employees who deliver results. Positive performance conversations can occur remotely and frequently to help employees feel visible.

When leaders recognize and deal with these four challenges, remote workers feel less isolated, experience more connection, and increase productivity and well being.

Three key success factors for finding opportunity in working at home

Colleagues have studied companies who have managed telecommuting (e.g., Best Buy, the US Government, Yahoo!, Automattic), and found three common key success factors to ensure that employees are receiving what they most value from work, what we have called believe (meaning), become (learning and growing), and belong (feeling part of a community).

  1. Coordination. Coordination focuses on specific tasks. By breaking down an overall project into specific tasks, a remote worker can focus on a unique task, then combine that task into the overall project to feel more connected. We have called this worktask planning that evolves workforce planning. Coordination also comes when sub-teams are assigned a task and work together to report out to a larger group. Leaders can consistently probe, “how are we doing at making sure we work together as a team?”
  2. Communication. Without doubt, leaders need to communicate even more. This means developing protocols to stay in touch with remote employees, to have virtual meetings at times that work for remote employees, to share even more information, and to engage in both formal and informal communications.  Leaders can continually ask remote employees, “how well do you know what is happening to the organization and how you fit in with it?”
  3. Culture. We have defined the “right” culture as the identify of the firm in the mind of key customers. This means that culture starts by defining an organization’s brand, identity, or reputation with key customers. For remote workers, this means making sure that customer promises (e.g., for innovation, service, relationships) are showing up in how remote workers are treated. Leaders can monitor how the external promises show up in internal working relationships by asking “how well are we modeling what we promise our customers?”

Companies that thrive have a holistic approach to working at home. Through attending to coordination, communication, and culture, employees find more belief (meaning and purpose), becoming (learning and growing), and belonging (feeling part of community).

Implications of remote work for talent, leadership, and organization

We believe that the challenges of remote working can turned into opportunities to improve talent, leadership, and organization — keys to responding to this immediate pandemic crisis. At RBL (www.rbl.net), we have recently done HR and leadership academies for employees working at home to improve personal skills and create organization capabilities that help organizations succeed in these perilous times. We have also done consulting projects where we can collect data and solve problems virtually. Finally, our state of the art pulse checks with information collected via remote methods prove valuable to navigate these complex times. We hope we can share how we can improve talent, leadership, and organization for those working remotely.

The Corona pandemic will eventually abate, but the insights about working at home will endure. By facing the challenges and recognizing the opportunities, we envision a new normal for where and how work is done.

 Julio Zelaya – Principal The RBL Group, Principal LATAM, jzelaya@rbl.net, and Dave Ulrich – Rensis Likert Professor, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan; Partner, The RBL Group, dou@umich.edu

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