Working from home – it seems so innocuous. Certainly more relaxed and enjoyable, right? After all, when you meet virtually no one needs to know you’re still wearing your PJ bottoms or already have your riding breeches on so you can head to the barn after the meeting is over.

I hear from leaders that managing employees who work from home is much more of a challenge than they thought it would be. In fact, it’s created its own business disruption and employee angst. Why?

woman Managing employees who work from home

It was sudden. For most employees recently asked to work at home because of COVID-19, there was little time to adjust emotionally or physically. Practically overnight, our work environments, schedules, routines, and responsibilities shifted in significant ways.

Isolation. Humans are hardwired to be in social and work groups. It is important for us to be together to experience a sense of connectedness. Even if you’re surrounded by family at home, that doesn’t replace the relationship synergy and energetics of our work teams. After a couple of weeks, many employees begin to feel disengaged.

In fact, a joint study conducted at UT Austin, Yale, and NYU found that remote workers who feel isolated experience a sharp decline in performance, feel a decreased sense of “belonging” to their organizations, and have an increased desire to leave their companies altogether. That’s not good news.

Virtual doesn’t replace personal interaction, period. Many leaders thought that switching to technology-based interactions would be a seamless experience. Of course, there are real benefits to virtual meetings: efficiency, speed, less travel for the team. However, there are also problems.

The bonding that typically occurs when people meet face-to-face is lacking. Combined with the growing sense of isolation many of us feel, virtual meetings seem more unsatisfying than before.

In virtual meetings, it’s harder to read the body language and social cues of others. Body language helps the brain remember our interactions by attaching emotions to them. We get far less of the emotional information available to us in face-to-face interactions. The result is that we don’t remember as much from virtual meetings.

Distraction, discouragement, disruption are real. Business and life are pretty upside down these days. This pandemic has provoked an ambiguous anxiety from which not even the savviest work-at-home professionals are exempt. We have even more on our shoulders to balance than ever before. We are responsible for ourselves, our teams, and for delivering results for our organization during the most uncertain of times. It’s time to pause and reflect on what you as a manager can do to help improve your leadership skills towards employees working from home.

Most people are cooped up in their houses right now. Working at home has many distractions, especially for those not used to it. Children, spouses, pets, the TV and social media, unread books, undone chores staring you in the face – all are major temptations and/or frustrations. There’s often an inexplicable pull to pay attention to these things precisely because you’re there, in that environment, along with your family.

These common distractions aren’t the only reason why it’s difficult to maintain a work focus. For many, their workload has changed abruptly and drastically. Many work events and activities have been canceled outright. Time seems to have slowed to the consistency of molasses. The past weeks seem to have had an endless quality, with days and weeks elongating like silly putty. The rhythm of the business, which often provides its own motivation, is lost. Employees can feel adrift.

I’ve talked with leaders who also share what their employees have admitted to and asked how to handle racing “what if?” thoughts. Some continually grapple with what’s safe for themselves and their families. Others are thinking ‘I’ve got a job today. Does that mean I have a job tomorrow? Or six months from now’?

6 Tips to Help Your Employees Work from Home

Don’t expect the same level of productivity. It won’t happen. Let your team know you know it won’t happen. Acknowledge that for many, work-at-home means there are just things that won’t get done – because you must be in the office to get them done!

Many employees feel pressured to be at the same level of productivity while working at home. Some may think they’ll get fired if they don’t demonstrate they’re working the same number of hours. Others will work too much, past reasonable hours and burn out.

Keep employees present and grounded in the here and now. This is not the time to fight reality. Take the pressure off. Concentrate on major issues only and take one issue at a time. Skip secondary tasks. Set core hours for your team that are shorter than the regular workday. If they aren’t fully present, you aren’t getting their best anyway.

Acknowledge the current emotional landscape. Show interest in what your employees are feeling and what matters to them right now. Open your meetings with a check-in. For example, ask ‘What is one thing you’re doing to cope with working at home?’ Or, ‘What made you smile today?’ Listen and acknowledge without trying to fix it. You can also appropriately share your own feelings and coping strategies.

Do your best to stay focused on the positive. Celebrate the small wins. Conduct a brainstorming session focused on how to retain your customers, reduce costs, or personalize aspects of your business online. Ask ‘What can we do to help our customers (or each other) today?’

Use virtual meetings wisely. If you’re scheduling more virtual meetings to fill the void of not being in the office, stop. Be judicious in the frequency and length of your meetings. Keep the meat of the meeting on the agenda. Get rid of everything else and handle it another way. Encourage your team to check in, react to what’s being discussed, and express emotion. Some virtual software has reaction icons for teams to use.

Manage yourself. You’re a human and stressed like everyone else—probably in ways you may not even realize. Don’t let yourself get to the end of your rope. Take the time to make sure you yourself are as prepared and focused as you can be.  Stay balanced: get your exercise, eat properly, and make time for the people who are most important to you.

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