How to Approach Remote Workforce Management in 2021

Managing remote employees can be challenging, but with the right strategy, remote and hybrid teams can bring important benefits to companies in nearly all industries. With a thoughtful approach, a distributed team can be equally if not more productive than a fully in-office workforce.

 

How COVID-19 changed remote workforce management

The ubiquity of remote work arrangements has been on the rise for more than a decade. Between 2005 and 2018, regular at-home-work grew by 173%. The COVID-19 pandemic greatly accelerated this growth in a matter of weeks. As governments around the world implemented lockdowns and other restrictive measures to protect vulnerable populations, companies were forced to adapt quickly.

In March 2020, 88% of organizations encouraged their employees to work from home, and 97% canceled work-related travel. Meanwhile, technology platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet grew in importance, evolving quickly to accommodate the swelling numbers of remote workers. 

While these trends have receded somewhat as the pandemic progresses, it is unlikely that all remote workers will eventually return to the office. Many companies have considered making COVID-19-related work-from-home policies permanent, while others are itching to get employees back into the office. What is likely to happen is that hybrid teams, composed of in-office and remote workers, will become more common.

Some workers may never return to the office. Others will adopt flexible schedules that allow them to work from home several days a week. And there will always be a percentage of the workforce that either prefers to work at the office or whose work requires them to remain on-site.

As COVID-related restrictions ease, organizational leadership, with support from HR, will need to clearly communicate policies and expectations.

What are the challenges of managing remote workers?

For anyone who has never managed a hybrid or fully virtual team, it may seem like a daunting task to lead a geographically disparate group of employees. Before we explore how to maximize a remote team, let’s examine some of the most common challenges associated with remote staff. These will be key considerations for most companies moving forward:

Manager Training

Managing virtual teams requires a unique mindset and a new set skills. Managers who were used to overseeing in-office teams will certainly be able to migrate a significant portion of their experience to the “new normal,” but they will also need to learn how best to support employees whom they might never actually meet in person.

Managers may need additional training to help them discover the best methods of communicating with their remote employees, for example. Because they can’t just stop by a teammate’s desk to ask a question or get a status update, they’ll need to learn the most effective ways to check in on their team members without becoming overbearing. Generating employee engagement in a hybrid environment won’t be the same as when everyone is in the same room. Return-to-office, hybrid management, remote communications, and remote leadership training can help managers understand how best to support their teams during the transitional period.

In-office layout

As COVID restrictions ease and employees are allowed to return to the office, it’s likely that in-office attendance will fluctuate. But that doesn’t mean video conferencing technology will disappear. That means offices may need to be rearranged in order to benefit hybrid teams.

For example, a desk pod might include a workstation meant to be shared by two employees who work opposite schedules. Or, a desk may need to be reserved specifically for video calls with a remote team member.

Technology needs

With the right tools, hybrid teams can be highly productive. However, determining what tools are essential to employee productivity will require some research. Chances are the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed gaps in employee technology needs. For example, employees who lacked webcams at the beginning of the pandemic may have felt left out during Zoom happy hours. 

Going forward, organizations will need to determine what technology a virtual employee needs to be most productive. This might be as simple as a laptop, or it could include specialized equipment. Managers will have to determine if personal devices can be used for work purposes, or if employees will require company-owned devices. That can introduce further complications — such as how to retrieve technology when employees leave the company.

Employers will also need to consider how best to support employees who may lack adequate internet access, or have other accessibility issues.

Work-life balance

There are two sides of the coin when it comes to work-life balance. On one side, managers may feel like certain employees are distracted at home and not getting enough done in a day. On the other side, some employees may not be able to separate their work and personal life, leading to burnout and increased attrition rates. 

And there’s the question at the top of everyone’s mind: “How do I know if my remote employees are actually working?”

In part, the answer to this question comes down to trust. If employees are turning in their deliverables on time and meeting deadlines, managers should allow a certain amount of flexibility. Some companies are experimenting with allowing employees to work any eight hours out of a 12-hour period or condensing a 40-hour workweek into four weekdays. Every company will have a unique approach to promoting a healthy work-life balance.

Out-of-state talent sourcing

Remote working arrangements may inspire employers to hire talent from anywhere in the world. While companies may choose to hire only within their own timezone, there’s still the potential to seek out pockets of talent out of state. For example, a company might centralize its technology team in a city with a high number of computer scientists.

This means that companies will need to examine their compensation strategy for employers in higher or lower cost of living areas. A company based in NYC might have a separate salary matrix for its employees in the Midwest, for instance. Meanwhile, the company will also need to be aware of all unique regulatory requirements across the jurisdictions in which it operates.

Organizational culture development

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many organizations to reconsider how their company culture manifests itself. With employees spread apart and unable to meet in person, it becomes difficult to promote and develop a company’s unique culture. This will be an ongoing challenge moving forward.

Remote managers will need to devote more time and resources to building relationships among employees. Part of these efforts will need to involve ensuring that cliques do not form between in-office and remote employees. Employers should consider how best to include remote workers when discussions occur on-site, such as through strategically placed TVs and monitors for video calls and training managers to encourage hybrid communication.

What are the benefits of remote and hybrid teams?

For many organizations, the benefits of hybrid teams will outweigh the disadvantages. Since telework first became possible in the 1990s, each new advancement in communications technology has made it easier and more efficient for employees to work from home. Newer platforms like multi-person video conferencing solutions will continue to evolve and become more dynamic, enabling staff to collaborate more effectively across distances.

Increased flexibility

Remote work arrangements reduce the overall time employees spend commuting to and from work, giving them more flexibility to be productive in the mornings and evenings. For example, when employees aren’t worrying about beating the traffic home, they can focus more on their projects in the late afternoon.

By giving employees these hours back in their day, they also gain more freedom to structure their day. Employees who feel more energized in the mornings won’t have to waste their most productive hours sitting in traffic — they can use the early hours of the day to plan and strategize. In addition, employees who are parents or care-givers will have more flexibility to balance their professional and personal obligations.

Cost savings

Reducing or eliminating commuter benefits is just one way implementing remote and hybrid teams can generate cost savings for employers. Another savings area is the potential of lower overhead of relocating to a smaller office space if your in-office head count has reduced significantly.

There are also benefits that come with increasing employee satisfaction. Allowing staff to work from home even part time can reduce turnover. In fact, 46% of companies with remote work policies say that it helps to reduce attrition, which is costly to employers. Over time, these savings can add up and be reinvested into the company.

But keep in mind that it’s not all cost savings. Employers may need to provide their employees with a stipend for high-speed interest and other necessary equipment such as laptops, microphones and ergonomic chairs. They will also need to budget for travel and meals to have remote employees visit offices, whether that’s monthly or yearly.

Competitive advantage

No longer are companies limited to the pool of talent within a commutable distance from the office. By removing artificial geographic barriers, companies can access pools of talent throughout the country. This can give companies a key advantage over their competitors that are resistant to long-term work-from-home arrangements. At the same time, it will fall to HR to ensure that the organization is compliant in all states and that all tax implications are fully understood.

In addition, a virtual approach to recruiting and hiring can support diversity and inclusion goals that would otherwise be difficult to achieve in a limited geographic area. For example, a Midwestern company may be able to hire more bilingual employees by expanding its talent pool to other parts of the country. However, there’s a risk here, too. For example, if a company hires people in a low-cost-of-living area and pays them less than employees who work in high-cost-of-living areas, it could inadvertently set a lower pay scale for employees who fall into a minority group.

Sustainability

Buildings and vehicles directly contribute carbon emissions to the atmosphere. By reducing office space and commute time, businesses can achieve their corporate social responsibility goals more effectively. Some estimates indicate that a 10% reduction in time spent at the office can reduce a single person’s carbon footprint by 15%. Multiplied over an entire workforce, even a small change can make a huge difference.

5 tips for managing hybrid teams

While the COVID-19 pandemic showed organizations that it is possible to maintain operations in a completely disparate environment, some workers will inevitably wish to return to the office. This means that the future of work isn’t fully remote — it’s hybrid. And that means greater flexibility for everyone. 

HR will play a central role in developing formal work-from-home policies and nurturing a strong corporate culture. As the country gradually moves past the pandemic, HR will need to work closely with managers to ensure they have the support needed to lead teams composed of in-office and at-home employees.

1. Set expectations

Employees who first went remote during the pandemic may have to adjust their behaviors in the coming months and years. During the crisis, many employers have been lenient when it comes to things like dress codes, or dedicated work spaces. As the broader economy returns to normal, there will be an adjustment period.

It will be crucial for managers to set clear expectations for their employees going forward. Managers should keep their employees up to date on policy changes and ensure everyone is set up for success. On the flip side, employees will expect their managers to model these behaviors for them. For instance, managers should dress the same way they expect their team members to appear on video calls with customers and clients.

To avoid misinterpretation, HR should work with leadership to update the employee handbook. The handbook represents a standard that all managers can turn to when addressing specific employee concerns. This reduces the risk that some managers may interpret policies differently than others.

2. Be flexible

During the first months of the pandemic, any productivity was considered a win for companies. Moving into a new normal, leaders will have to set expectations around performance and find ways to measure productivity in a meaningful way. During the transition period, managers should be flexible in how they approach employee interactions, while also staying firm to company policy.

There are two sides of the coin here: On one side, managers should be flexible enough to enable employees to manage their own workload; on the other side, managers need to provide clear standards and structure to give employees direction. Finding the balance between the two will likely be a learning process.

At the same time, remote employees do need rules in place. It’s not necessary to micromanage remote employees, and managers should demonstrate that they trust their team members. To employees, micromanagement can feel like getting punished for something they haven’t done. Flexibility ensures that employees have the support they need to be productive, as well as the space they require to engage fully in their work.

3. Maximize in-office time

On days when the majority of team members are in the office, it will fall to the manager to optimize this time. For instance, it may be a nice change of pace to get everyone out of their email inboxes and into the same room for a casual conversation about current projects. Likewise, this may be the best time to do some team building activities to develop the culture and help everyone feel more comfortable.

It’s best to coordinate employee schedules so that there are regular times when everyone can meet in person. Whether that’s one or two days a week or less frequently, managers can plan ahead to make the most of everyone’s time. For example, coordinating schedules so that team members can come together at the beginning of a new project will help set everyone up for success.

4. Prioritize communication

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, communication between managers and employees will be crucial moving forward. Email and video conferencing are effective ways to check in with team members and give them a chance to express their concerns, ask questions, and share their ideas. 

Chat tools like Teams and Slack present another opportunity for teams to communicate. However, it’s important to stress that employees aren’t expected to reply to messages at all hours of the day. HR should work with managers to set clear expectations around asynchronous communication. Giving employees the time and space to decompress after a day of work will ultimately help to mitigate the risk of burnout and attrition.

5. Solicit employee feedback

Nearly every organization in the world is going through a cultural or operational change as the pandemic subsides. That means there is no one correct way to manage hybrid teams. Everyone is still figuring it out. 

By asking for employee feedback, managers can get a better understanding of what works for their unique team and culture. Conducting surveys and one-on-one meetings are great ways to keep a pulse on what employees are thinking and feeling. This data can then be used to inform policy updates and workflows. Topics for employee surveys should include:

  • Do employees feel comfortable returning to work?
  • Have employees moved during the pandemic?
  • What technology do employees have access to at home?
  • Do employees have an ergonomic office environment at home?

But remember, it’s not worth asking questions that you can’t follow up on with actions. For instance, HR shouldn’t ask employees if they would prefer to work from home five days a week if the organization has no intention of offering that arrangement. Surveys should be used to get a feel for employee sentiment and how it might influence intended operational plans.

How a return-to-work taskforce can benefit your organization

After an unprecedented shift to fully remote work, companies around the world are looking for the best (and safest) ways to return to the office. Establishing a return-to-work taskforce is a highly useful way to ensure the process goes smoothly.

The taskforce can help to answer questions like:

  • When will we return to the office?
  • Who is required to return to the office full-time?
  • What is our work-from-home policy?
  • What safety protocols do we need to implement?
  • What technology investments do we need to make?

Answering these and other questions will take time and careful consideration. Here are some topics the taskforce should expect cover:

Employee communication

Once the organization’s task force is assembled and ready to get to work, it’s time to start communicating with employees. This isn’t to say that the company needs to make decisions immediately; rather, employees should be aware that a taskforce has been created and that it is actively planning for the return to work. Letting employees know that their input will be considered is a crucial way to curb any potential fears before decisions have been made.

The task force can develop communications around the return to work and what that means on a practical level. This might include drafting emails and memos about who is expected to return to the office, when that will occur and in what capacity.

It will be crucial to keep the lines of communication open throughout the transition period. The taskforce should anticipate common questions and develop resources employees can use to better understand the new expectations. For instance, an online FAQ, video series, or infographic could explain a phased approach for the return to work.

Manager training

Managers will need increased support from HR as they transition from fully remote to hybrid teams. The taskforce should work to identify skills gaps and look for solutions to close them, such as custom, company-specific training around hybrid team communications, measuring performance and delivering feedback for remote employees, and improving hybrid/remote productivity.

Project management

Managing the return to in-person work will be one of the biggest challenges HR has faced since the beginning of the pandemic. The taskforce should be prepared to facilitate the transition by establishing timelines, drafting communications, ensuring other stakeholders hit their deadlines, and handling any necessary paperwork. Strong project management could mean the difference between a successful transition and one that is confusing and chaotic.

Employee handbook updates

Making updates to the employee handbook will be an essential part of the return to work. The handbook will serve as a source of consistent information about the rules for remote work moving forward. This is important because different managers may have different interpretations of company policy, and they may communicate these in a manner that is inconsistent with the intent of the policies or that results in the policies being inconsistently applied. The handbook takes those variables out of the equation, ensuring everyone gets the same message and receives the same treatment.

It’s crucial for everyone within the organization to be unified in their messaging. The more definitive and specific the messaging is as it relates to roles within the organization, the less likely managers will get pushback from employees and the more employers will mitigate their risk.

The taskforce will be instrumental in ensuring the handbook reflects the new shape of the organization. In addition, the taskforce will be responsible for ensuring that employees receive and read the handbook. This step will help employees understand their expectations fully.

Compliance checks

Throughout the pandemic, some employees may have moved across state lines, or the company may have hired new employees in new locations. The taskforce will need to make sure that the company is in full compliance with all relevant federal and state laws. At the very least, the taskforce should perform assessments to uncover and fill compliance gaps before they create legal or monetary risk.

There are many state-specific rules that HR may not be familiar with. For example, states have different requirements for pay periods, tax withholding, or leaves of absence. Corporate tax implications are another major consideration. Before committing to out-of-state work arrangements, HR, accounting, legal, and other stakeholders should perform their due diligence to ensure the company is compliant.

 

Whether you’re still developing your organization’s remote work policy or you’re looking for ways to maximize your existing virtual team, the experts at OperationsInc are here to help. Get in touch with us today to learn more about how we can support your transition to a hybrid workforce.