For many businesses, COVID-19 will bring about a new way of doing business as normal. An increase in employees working from home (or other safe out-of-the-office location) is one example. What was initially a short-term measure to accommodate social distancing for pandemic mitigation will, for many businesses, result in a long-term increase in remote work to keep staff healthy and productive. With this change in workforce structure come potential management challenges but also potential benefits. Businesses that are undergoing a long-term shift toward remote work should adopt strategies for making sure that they have the right people in the right positions, for maintaining important connections with (and for) employees who will no longer go to the office (or customers’ locations) on a regular basis and for fully capturing the potential advantages of remote work; and they should include employee input in the planning processes.
Business owners who had not previously embraced remote work might worry that if the company office, other employees and customers are out of sight long-term, they will be out of mind and that, as a consequence, work ethic, performance, collaboration, dedication to the company or dedication to the company’s clientele will decline. “Out of sight, out of mind” worries, however, can go in both directions; and employers should also be thinking about how they can let their remote employees feel seen and valued without micromanaging them. Other fundamental questions are to what extent job descriptions need to change, whether the right people are still going to be in the right jobs, and how employees can be set up for success rather than failure in the transition.
Improvements over the existing way of doing business can also come from a shift toward more remote work. If the right people are in the right jobs and managed well, employees can be more productive (e.g. because they have more ability to focus on critical tasks) and more engaged (e.g., because they are appreciative of having more flexibility with their schedules). Remote work broadens the available labor pool, can be used as a recruitment incentive and creates more potential to hire employees in other time zones which might increase coverage area (e.g., for sales or customer service). It can also help companies cut costs on company offices. Moreover, it might inspire a business to develop new products or offer new services.
Tips for Successful Transition
As a company considers shifting long-term toward increased remote work, the business owner/management should evaluate job functions and their suitability to be performed remotely.
- What functions remain as is with remote work?
- What functions go away with remote work? (Are there functions that need to be kept on location?)
- What new functions can arise with remote work?
- What are the physical, technological and other needs to support those functions remotely?
- What metrics are appropriate for evaluating remote job performance?
In converting positions to remote work, it is important to have the right employees performing the right remote job functions.
- What skills and personal characteristics does an employee need to possess in order to perform remotely in general and as well as to perform specific functions?
- Which employees are capable of transitioning to remote work based both on ability to perform the job functions and also capacity to thrive in a remote work environment?
- Who needs what physical, technological or other support in order to perform well?
It is important to help employees understand what the changes mean to their place in the company.
- Utilize employee input in setting goals and objectives.
- Define any new roles and responsibilities as well as delineate ones that no longer exist.
- Be clear about why the changes are important and why the employees are still important.
- Anticipate and help mitigate undesirable challenges employees new to remote work might encounter, e.g., by providing training to assist with new technological needs.
- Agree upon the benchmarks against which they will be evaluated, time frame for adjustment and resources available to assist them.
Recognize that a change to long-term remote work may also necessitate changes to management style in order to avoid micromanagement and to keep employees connected, engaged and feeling valued.
- Figure out what communication channels work best for various purposes ranging from quick questions, to emergency situations, to lengthy discussions, to sharing a funny story about the day.
- During team meetings – in person or online – create opportunities for participation and allow some unstructured time for team members to interact.
- Authorize team members to take leadership when appropriate or needed.
- Put in place professional development and advancement opportunities. Feeling stuck in a position can undermine motivation especially if employees feel disconnected.
- Don’t treat remote employees like they are invisible. Make a point of seeing and acknowledging their contributions and achievements.
- Be aware of the potential for burn-out and find ways to reduce the risk. One of the common characteristics of people who are suited to be remote employees is that they are highly self-motivated. This, in combination with working days that don’t have a set ending time, can result in a habit of working excessively long hours.
- Take time to get to know new employees and to learn how existing employees are doing in new roles.
After the transition to increased remote work, it will be important for businesses to assess how it is affecting them, learn from experiences, and continue to improve.
Since the initial increase in remote work was for many businesses a rapidly implemented response to keep their people healthy during the pandemic, it was not thought through as a long-term option. Now that the immediate response has taken place and more is understood about the evolving global situation, businesses should acquire employee input and think through the potential benefits and challenges of the transition to increased remote work. If it is right for them, they can then develop and implement a plan for remote work and be in a position to pursue new opportunities that it can create.
About America’s SBDC Iowa & the Author
Dr. Laurie Pieper is Amercia’s SBDC Iowa Tech Director. She leads the Rural Iowa Development Initiative and works with clients and resource partners around the state to develop opportunities for the successful commercialization of business technologies, products and services. Originally trained as an analytical philosopher, she has a Ph.D. from UCLA and has held faculty appointments at University of Oregon and Kansas State University. Dr. Pieper was a business owner for many years and enjoys using her background in education and in entrepreneurship to help small businesses set and reach their goals.
America’s SBDC Iowa is an outreach program of Iowa State University’s Ivy College of Business and the Office of Economic Development and Industry Relations. Funded in part through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration, America’s SBDC Iowa has 15 regional assistance centers located strategically across the state. Since program inception in 1981, the SBDC has helped Iowa businesses and entrepreneurs through no fee, confidential, customized, professional business counseling and practical, affordable training workshops.