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  • InsideTrack
  • May 14, 2020

    Managing Remote Workers: Build New Management Muscles

    Melodie Wiseman

    video conference

    May 14, 2020 – Working from home is not new, but working from home during a global pandemic is not normal. However, remote work in some form may be the new normal for a while, for many employers, even without safe-at-home orders. Managing employees to meet or exceed standards under these conditions is equally difficult, but there are tools to help stay the course.

    The first step is to define what success looks like now. For me, success involves healthy employees, ensuring business continuity, and meeting goals. In order to reach those goals in this moment, managers must adapt to changing operational conditions.

    Determine which standards are flexible. Look at your employee’s office hours, projects, and deadlines. Speak with your employees about their challenges.

    Many employees, like managers, have been juggling work pressures, deadlines, social isolation, and work schedules. They have also been juggling childcare, or home-schooling duties too. Employers with remote employees typically have policies prohibiting employees from providing care to children during work hours for a reason.

    It is hard and distracting. Although these challenges are an inevitable part of this pandemic, those of us who manage can help our employees. Businesses and managers can relax some business formalities like defined working hours, and professional office attire.

    One employee may need to juggle their schedule with their spouse’s schedule. Can you accommodate an earlier start time? Business professional attire is needed for Zoom court appearances, but might be unnecessary for your one-on-one manager – employee videoconferences. If you can be flexible now, do it.

    Melodie WisemanMelodie Wiseman is a Wisconsin-licensed attorney, and a Marquette Law alumna. She is a 15+ year veteran of the EdTech space with ten years in compliance roles; six years as a manager of people; and compliance experience in K-Doctoral public, private, for-profit, and charter schools. She has focused on compliance and regulatory issues in corporate operations, marketing and advertising, and human resources.

    Adapt your management style. Managers should personalize their approach managing employees. Some employees thrive with a lot of freedom, but others need more accountability. Managing people remotely requires trust in your staff, which is hard when we are ultimately accountable for their work product.

    But think about this – you already knew who your high performers were before this pandemic. You already knew who needed more support. You already knew that new employees need more guidance than seasoned staff. So, manage to the person, their performance, and their experience. Focus your energy on developing and coaching staff who need it. You may have quick project-focused one-on-one meetings with self-sufficient employees, but provide them with opportunities to take on new projects.

    Have regular check-ins with your staff. In the past, one of the challenges of managing people remotely is the inability to see non-verbal reactions to information, projects, and learning opportunities. Now that videoconferencing is more reliable, that is less of an issue. But no one wants to be on camera all the time, so creating guidelines for when and how you decide to use videoconferencing with employees is helpful. In my own work, I use the following guidelines for videoconferencing:

    • Use videoconferencing for wider group meetings, presentations, learning, coaching, and feedback.

    • Use phone meetings for quick 15-20-minute meetings with a small audience.

    • Use instant messaging (IMs) for quick project updates, or questions. IMs are the remote employee equivalent of walking into someone’s office.

    • I follow the preference of a client, or vendor when scheduling meetings with them.

    • One-on-one meetings vary. I hold some of them via phone, Skype calls, or Zoom. I am more likely to hold videoconferences when meeting someone for the first time, though I may switch to phone calls or email updates in subsequent meetings depending upon the project and the person’s preferences.

    Your preferences may vary depending upon your industry, and your workload needs. If you are managing a temporary remote workforce, you still need to have regular check-ins with your staff. Confer with them. How do they want to meet? How are they doing?

    Do they need any support from you? If an employee is struggling, can something be shifted? How are projects going? Is s/he on track to meet deadlines?

    What are his or her big challenges? Ask these questions periodically. And provide the support an employee needs, or help them find a way to get it.

    Measure productivity. Now is not the time to buy spyware, or have three daily meetings with each of your staff members.

    After all, if you need to check in with an employee three times every day, why is that person on your team? Productivity is measured by providing deliverables and meeting goals. It is not measured by hours worked (unless you have billable hours), or a defined work schedule. My work has always been project driven.

    In the past, I have worked with staff to personalize measuring productivity. Ask staff, ‘how would you, or the team, like to provide me with updates about your work?’

    Provide suggestions, though some employees appreciate control over the measurement tool. I might need an update on a major project by Thursday mornings, but I am okay with an email, a quick IM, or an update to a project plan on a shared One Drive folder.

    Watch your budget. Many organizations are experiencing a significant loss of revenue. Departmental or division leaders must evaluate budgets and revenue.

    Those involve difficult conversations about staffing needs, organizational and operational continuity, and expenses. Managers must work with their leaders to understand how business conditions impact their teams.

    Ask yourself: What kind of performance do you need from your staff to meet financial and operational goals? Are these metrics reasonable given business conditions?

    You must actively communicate with your leader about these challenges to find solutions. Communicate constraints, such as limits on overtime, to your employees when you can. Some business may be thriving under these conditions. In that case, managers must still evaluate expenses against their budgets.

    Remote Work Location Policies. Allowing employees to work remotely from other states, counties, or cities triggers additional employment law considerations.

    Does your employee want to work remotely from their cabin in another state? Do you know what city, county, or state employees are in now? You may be subject to different rules about overtime, paid leave, minimum wages, exemption rules, and a host of other issues. Your organization should have a work location requirement that it communicates to employees, or it needs to monitor regulations in other jurisdictions.

    If your organization does not have a work location policy, perhaps it is time to discuss the risks with your organization’s leaders and implement a policy.

    Be aware of different socio-economic challenges. Many offices have lower wage staff who may be uncomfortable sharing their homes in video conference calls, or struggling more to meet their needs right now. Consider these staff members when making decisions. For instance, if you are making an across the board wage cut, try to avoid cutting the wages of your lowest paid staff. If your staff uses public transportation, review your local transit availability before launching a return to work date.

    Finally, take these lessons with you as you work remotely for the next few months, and upon your return to the office building. Offices will still require social distancing for a while, so managers still need these tools. Expect, however, that we will experience a longer-term change in working environments.

    This pandemic has done more to promote working from home than technology has. It forced companies to create the largest remote workforce in history.

    This emergency has been challenging; however, working remotely under normal business conditions is not this chaotic. And do yourself a big favor . . . do not judge your employee’s ability to work remotely based upon these circumstances.

    Employees were impacted by circumstances unseen in our lifetimes, and many are still exceeding the goals set for them.

    This article was originally published in the Coronavirus & the Law Blog from the State Bar of Wisconsin. To be notified of updates to the blog, subscribe to the Coronavirus & the Law Blog's RSS feed via this link at

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