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4 Areas of Focus for Managers of Remote Workers

June 16, 2021

We are dedicating this week to managers who are charged with leading remote teams. Whether this stretches across town, the country, or the globe, we recognize that challenges naturally arise no matter the distance between you and your direct reports. This is part one of a mini-series aimed at helping managers navigate this future world of work and hone their remote management skills.

18%: the estimate of full-time employees working remotely prior to the Covid-19 pandemic (Zeng, 2019).

75%: the number of businesses that, via a survey conducted following the onset of the pandemic, reported they had employees working from home (IBM, 2020; SHRM, 2020).4 Areas of Focus for Managers of Remote Workers

Despite this shift, 83% of employers and 71% of employees agree that the move to remote work was successful (PwC, 2020) and 75% of employees want to continue working remotely in some capacity (SHRM, 2020). Businesses are now grappling with remote work options and office space issues. A recent survey of executives suggests that organizational leaders support hybrid work schedules and are restructuring their real estate and reimagining their current office spaces to be used for more communal and meeting purposes (PwC, 2020). These survey results all point toward the conclusion that remote work is here to stay.

But that doesn’t mean that this shift will come without its challenges. With increased remote work and potential restructuring of the workplace, it is important to consider how this change in work design affects employees, their effectiveness, and well-being. While the survey results suggest some success, there are both positives and negatives to the arrangement. Many of us are thrown off if even one aspect of our routine is disrupted, so it isn’t shocking to learn that completely changing the location and available resources has some pitfalls. The most common remote work challenges reported by employees are lack of motivation, reduced productivity often due to work/family conflict, difficulties communicating and collaborating, and loneliness/isolation (PwC, 2020; Wang, Liu, Qian, & Parker, 2021).

But many employees thrive in a remote environment, which begs the question, what leads to remote work effectiveness – and how can managers help? There are four main factors that contribute to remote effectiveness: job design, employee characteristics, work context, and social support. When you take a deeper dive into each of these components, you’ll find specific measures that managers can take to overcome some common challenges while enhancing team member well-being and productivity.

Job Design PSI-Icon-Leading-Others

The fit between a person and the characteristics of the job has been well-documented as being relevant to employee attitudes such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and engagement (Hackman & Oldham, 1976). Motivational fit is defined as the extent to which an employee’s expectations of what they’ll get out of a job match up with what the organization provides. How closely these expectations align with the reality of the job play a major role in the employee’s commitment to the organization and overall job satisfaction.

One of the biggest changes when you switch from an office environment to working from home is in job design. Specifically, the amount of autonomy and feedback that is built into the job is different – remote environments are autonomous by their very nature for most professional jobs. Some employees have the discipline and organizational skills to handle this independence, while others will struggle. When it comes to feedback, remote environments make it more difficult for individuals to consistently receive it. When physically surrounded by colleagues and leaders, employees are more likely to ask for input and reactions to their work, both formally and informally. Employees who prefer more structure (and therefore less autonomy) and require consistent feedback are not likely to thrive in a remote environment. When there is a poor job fit, individuals are more likely to become disengaged and turnover.

Problems can arise with remote leaders if their acceptance (or perceived acceptance) of the increased autonomy afforded to their team seems lacking. Some leaders prefer the perks of a traditional office structure that allows them to have closer communications and observation of their team members. However, if remote managers attempt to deploy this same management style in a remote setting, it could easily backfire and send a strong message of distrust to their team. Research studies have consistently shown that autonomy and trust are large employee motivators and lead to more positive attitudes and behavior (Gajendran & Harrison, 2007). As a remote manager, it is in your best interest to embrace this pivot in traditional work structure – not only to demonstrate trust in your employees, but to also empower and guide them. One way of doing that is to make communication and opportunities for feedback a priority. It’s important to remember that not every individual needs the same amount of feedback, so a personalized approach would be more effective.

Employee Characteristics PSI-Icon-Value-Value-People

The capabilities of your workforce contribute to how employees react and the behaviors they demonstrate when working remotely. Remote workers are physically distanced from their colleagues and are often working out of their home, so they must have the self-discipline to be able to establish boundaries between their work and home lives. Without others around, workers must have the mindset, initiative, and drive to motivate themselves to complete tasks and objectives. Even if workers are members of virtual work teams that communicate regularly, many issues and decisions arise that must be handled independently, which takes decisiveness, flexibility, and resilience.

One way managers can help is to assess employees’ capabilities around these remote competencies and develop a personalized approach to coaching and development. This approach provides employees with insight into themselves and managers guidance on where they can focus their efforts. These remote competencies should also assist managers as they bring new individuals into the organization and promote within the team, especially if remote work will continue to be the norm within the organization.

Work Context PSI-Icon-Remote-Worker

Work context is the physical workspace in which employees are working. The pandemic sent countless employees home to work with little to no warning, many of whom have living situations that are not equipped with an ideal workspace. It is recommended that remote workers have as close to an office set up as possible. Ideally, remote workers would have a separate room with a door to be able to reduce distractions and have a physical boundary between work duties and home responsibilities. Many workers who were thrust into remote setups do not have the same equipment and resources available to them at home as they did in the office, which can hinder productivity. This can be further complicated by security precautions that can present access limitations to files for those working outside of the office. Combining all or even some of these logistical difficulties adds up to some employees viewing working from home a more challenging environment to efficiently perform their job.

While managers cannot commission building an addition to their employees’ home so that they have a separate office, they can work to ensure they have the software, equipment, and access needed to be effective. They should make it a point to find out more about each team member’s home set-up and identify options tailored to them that can aid their work. While managers cannot fix all of the context issues, they can help to coordinate with IT and make sure that employees are educated on all of their options.

Social Support PSI-Icon-Connection

We humans are social creatures by nature. We enjoy the interactions and personal connections that come from the office setting. When that work is taken remote – even when planned and not spurred on by a global pandemic – social isolation can be a major side effect. Virtual work environments make it more difficult for individuals to build relationships and connect with others interpersonally. Remote workers often have the burden of reaching out and initiating conversations with others within the organization. For those who have difficulty relating remotely, the separation can lead to negative attitudes about the job and cause their overall well-being to suffer. This can then turn into lower job performance, disengagement, and withdrawal behaviors (e.g., absenteeism, turnover).

So how can managers lessen the effects of this social isolation? The keys are communication, compassion, and connection.

  • Compassion: Especially during the height of the pandemic, employees were forced to deal with a multitude of issues in addition to adjusting to a remote work environment. Demonstrating empathy and understanding and offering flexibility to help workers navigate their work and personal lives can greatly reduce work stress and increase satisfaction and commitment (Bentley, Teo, McLeod, Tan, Bosua, & Gloet, 2016).

  • Connection: Managers should make an effort to connect regularly with each team member to ensure they feel seen and understood. This can be as simple as a quick instant message or email – or actually picking up the phone and having a conversation. And as previously mentioned, this is all done in moderation so as not to present the illusion of micromanagement or mistrust of the employee.

Stay tuned for part two of our mini-series tomorrow that focuses on three main characteristics that remote managers possess. 

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Bentley, T.A., Teo, S.T.T., McLeod, L., Tan, F., Bosua, R., & Gloet, M. 2016. “The role of organizational support in teleworker wellbeing: A socio-technical systems approach.” Applied Ergonomics 52, 207-215.

Gajendran, R. S., & Harrison, D. A. 2006. “The good, the bad and the unknown about telecommuting: Meta-analysis of individual consequences and mechanisms of distributed teams.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, Atlanta, GA.

Hackman, J.R., & Oldham, G.R. 1976. “The job characteristics model.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 16, 256.

IBM. 2020. “IBM Study: COVID-19 Is Significantly Altering U.S. Consumer Behavior and Plans Post-Crisis Personal Mobility, Retail Shopping, and Event Attendance Are Among the Areas Most Impacted.” Retrieved May 14, 2020 from: https://newsroom.ibm.com/2020-05-01-IBM-Study-COVID-19-Is-Significantly-Altering-U-S-Consumer-Behavior-and-Plans-Post-Crisis.

SHRM. 2020. “COVID-19 Research: How the pandemic is challenging and changing employers.” Retrieved May 3, 2020 from: https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-news/pages/new-shrm-research-on-how-covid-19-is-changing-the-workplace.aspx.

Wang, B., Liu, Y., Qian, J., & Parker, S.K. 2021. “Achieving Effective Remote Working During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Work Design Perspective.” Applied Psychology: An International Review 70(1), 16-59.

Zeng, J. 2019. “Workers cite productivity and focus as tops reason to work remotely.” American Marketing Association. Retrieved August 1st from https://www.ama.org/marketing-news/global-state-of-remote-work-survey/.

Amie Lawrence, Ph.D. Amie Lawrence, Ph.D. is the Director of Global Innovation at PSI and an expert in the design, development, and validation of psychological assessment tools. She runs an innovation lab that is responsible for establishing PSI’s assessment technology roadmap and strategy. An integral member of PSI since 2000, Amie has led the development of numerous global assessments, including personality, situational judgment, cognitive, and interactive work simulations.