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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    June 03, 2020

    Solutions: Managing Remote Workers: Build New Management Muscles

    How do law firm supervisors manage a remote workforce? In this article, the author – who has managed remote workers for nearly a decade – provides tips.

    Melodie Wiseman

    video conference

    Working from home is not new, but working from home during a global pandemic is not normal. Managing employees to meet or exceed standards under these conditions is equally difficult, but there are tools to help stay the course.

    Define Success

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

    Determine Which Standards are Flexible

    Look at employees’ office hours, projects, and deadlines. Speak with employees about their challenges.

    Melodie WisemanMelodie Wiseman, Marquette 2013, of K12 Inc. in Herndon, Virginia, is a veteran of the EdTech space with 10 years in compliance roles, six years as a manager of people, and compliance experience in kindergarten to 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.

    Many employees, like managers, have been juggling work pressures, deadlines, social isolation, and work schedules. They have also been juggling child-care or homeschooling duties, too. There are good reasons that employers with remote employees typically have policies prohibiting employees from providing care to children during work hours.

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

    Some employees might need to juggle their schedules with their spouses’ schedules. Can you accommodate an earlier start time? Business professional attire is needed for court appearances conducted via Zoom but might be unnecessary for one-on-one videoconferences between managers and employees. Be flexible now, if you can.

    Adapt Your Management Style

    Managers should personalize their approach to managing employees. Some employees thrive with a lot of freedom, but others need more accountability. Managing people remotely requires trust in your staff, and feeling that trust can be hard when managers are ultimately accountable for employees’ 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 members. So, tailor your management approach to individuals, their performance, and their experience. Focus your energy on developing and coaching staff who need it. You might have quick project-focused one-on-one meetings with self-sufficient employees but also 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 was the inability to see nonverbal 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 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.

    • Follow the preferences of clients and vendors 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; I might switch to phone calls or email updates in later meetings depending on the project and the person’s preferences.

    Your preferences may vary depending on 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 the employee on track to meet deadlines? What are the employee’s 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 staff member. After all, if you need to check in with an employee three times per 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 rigid work schedule. My work has always been project driven.

    Productivity is measured by providing deliverables and meeting goals. It is not measured by hours worked (unless you have billable hours) or a rigid work schedule.

    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 in a shared OneDrive 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 affect their teams.

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

    You must actively communicate with your leaders about these challenges to find solutions. When you can, tell employees about constraints, such as limits on overtime. Some businesses 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 which city, county, or state employees are in now? Your organization might be subject to different rules about overtime, paid leave, minimum wages, exemption rules, and a host of other issues. Every 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 Socioeconomic Challenges

    Many offices have lower-wage staff who might be uncomfortable sharing their homes in videoconference calls or struggle more to meet financial 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 staff members use public transportation, review 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, to experience a longer-term change in working environments.

    The COVID-19 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 an employee’s ability to work remotely based on these pandemic circumstances.

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

    10 Tips to Make Life Easier When Working From Home

    Companies across the globe are mandating employees work remotely because of COVID-19. The rest of the word is adapting to my norm. I have worked remotely for the last nine years. It is now my regular routine. The routine did not come easy at first, but I have a few tips to make your life easier.

    1) Set Aside Time to Monotask. Each of us has multitasked during meetings, but you will have more distractions now that you work from home. Laundry needs to be done. Spouses, partners, and kids clamor for your attention. But some projects need your full focus; you need to monotask.

    My biggest obstacle to monotasking is the desire to be hyper-available to my colleagues. I learned to build monotasking time into my calendar by blocking time off, starting work early in the day, or spending a few hours late at night when no one is online. It allows me to complete my projects.

    2) Claim a Space for Your Office. Find a distraction-free place in your home where you can take calls and become immersed in your work. Many of us have additional challenges now because we may have a family member or roommate who also needs to use the office space. Find a solution that works for everyone.

    I have a dedicated space in my home with an ergonomic desk – an essential for any full-time work-from-home office setup. If you do not have access to an ergonomic desk, avoid the temptation to work while sitting on the couch, which can make your body ache in new ways.

    3) Prepare for Your Day. Working in your pajamas sounds wonderful until 10 a.m. arrives and you realize you have not showered. I tend to dress more business casual for my day because we regularly use the videoconferencing platform Zoom.

    Dressing for your day will give you a sense of normalcy and more confidence. I also prepare for my day by meal prepping. It allows me to have “fast food” and avoid kitchen temptations.

    4) Set Clear Intentions for Your Day. I create a to-do list for each day. I have a rough sketch of my accomplishments for the week. This allows me to complete my projects but also avoid distractions such as morning internet surfing, watching the news, or using my cell phone.

    5) Set Expectations with Friends and Family. When I started working from home, I had to remind others that I could not take a mid-day break to go to the pool, or watch their sick kids, or leave early for vacation. Frankly, you have more distractions now than during a normal work-from-home situation. You may be homeschooling kids. You may be negotiating quiet time with your significant other so that each of you can focus on work projects. Work with everyone in your household to meet each of your needs.

    6) Use Technology. Ensure you have all the technology you need to work remotely. In addition to a secure laptop, you might need to upgrade to a faster internet connection. I have a separate phone dedicated to work, though you do not need one for a temporary office. I also have updated anti-virus software and secure ways of accessing work files.

    7) Maintain Connections. Working from home is isolating in the best of circumstances, but adding social distancing makes many of us feel lonely. Social distance means physical distance, not removing social connections with other people. I have built connections into my workday. Most of our meetings are held on a videoconferencing platform. I was initially reluctant to be on camera, but I like it now because I feel like I am in the same space as my coworkers. It also allows me to see nonverbal cues from my colleagues. I have periodic group FaceTime lunches with my friends, many of whom work remotely for other companies. So, invite your coworker for a 10-minute FaceTime.

    8) Avoid Distractions. Many of us are distracted by our text messages, internet surfing, news, and background noise. Extreme silence also can be disorienting. I use apps like Nosli or Coffitivity to mimic the noise of an office or a coffee shop. I also have a desk facing my window. I can hear birds chirping and see beautiful trees blowing in the wind. When I am in meetings, I change my environment. I hold many videoconferences standing by my bar-height kitchen counter. The ability to stand and move around allows me to concentrate.

    9) Be Patient. Many employers have activated crisis plans for the first time. You are experiencing the holes in that plan. I expect many companies will update those plans and their technology in response to these challenges. You might also be affected by your coworkers’ outside obligations to family and friends. Have some grace with those colleagues. If you lead a team, do not make any assessments about your staff’s ability to work from home regularly. Everyone is juggling multiple abnormal demands.

    10) Power Off for the Day. Working from home means that I am always in my office. I get incredibly absorbed in my work, and it is hard for me to stop. I am still working on setting boundaries between home and work. Creating a logical stopping point for the day helps me power down. I commit to cook dinner at a specific time, meet with friends, or exercise. These activities help me stop working and ensure I have a life outside my work commitments.

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