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Remote Workers - You Can Trust Them?

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By:  Dr. Jeffrey Belsky, NCU

It is true times that times have significantly changed over the last six months. What once was considered taboo to have a significant number of employees working remotely has dynamically switched to organizations implementing remote workplaces as a strategic course of survivability.  The norm has changed – organizations need to prepare!

The myths of remote workers being less engaged, less productive, and not outputting to an appropriate return on investment (ROI) is being tested by every organization in existence. In fact, these myths have quickly dissipated.  The COVID-19 crisis has stretched organizations to rely on these remote workforces to successfully maintain organizational stability, business continuity, production, business development output, and financial success.  Historically, there were two primary reasons why organizations refused to embrace the remote workplace mentality. The first being a trust factor whereas leaders considered employees working from remote locations to be less productive.  Research shows that managers who cannot “see” their direct reports sometimes struggle to trust that their employees are indeed working. When such doubts exists, leaders can start to develop unreasonable expectations that remote team members be available at all times, ultimately disrupting their work-home balance and causing even more job stress.  The reality is, leaders who have this mentality are essentially fearful of losing control and resist trusting the employees.  It is the “If I can’t see them doing the work, then they are not doing the work!” philosophy.  I hate to say this, but that historical mindset is long gone – and it is not coming back anytime soon.

Although this crisis has caused significant disruption in all sectors of the workplace, the timing was appropriate for the younger Gen Y and Gen Z population. No other generations could be more suitable to handle such a crisis where technology has become a mainstream and cornerstone for organizational success.  These generations are comfortable with communicating remotely, working independently, multi-tasking, and managing their time accordingly to successfully accomplish results. Organizations facing this crisis have essentially relied on the youthful generations to not only quickly implement appropriate technology, but to also lead organizations into a new reality surrounding the remote workplace.

What organizations are quickly finding is they can trust employees to work remotely. Additionally, workers are being productive!  Companies across the globe are seeing positive results in not only the quick adaptation and resilience to the unprecedented workplace transformation, but also realizing that output is the same, and in some cases, even better.  The question that remains for organizational leaders is now becoming how to manage the remote workplace. Although the current workforce has a significant number of Gen Y and Gen Z employees, there still exists a vast number of older generations who are not used to, nor comfortable with, managing remote workplaces. Even if older leaders gain the trust that remote workers will be productive, the dilemma is the appropriate method of leadership. For centuries, leaders have stressed the significance of face to face interaction and personalization as the only effective means to lead others. Now, the same leaders of today are confronted with leading their teams through various technological platforms.  It is not that these leaders cannot effectively lead from afar – they have simply never had to.  However, leadership is fluid and adaptable to most environments.  The techniques used for centuries to lead brick and mortar employees can be easily transferable to the remote workplace setting.  In most cases, the reluctance of implementing a remote workplace is built more out of fear than ability.   

There are some secrets to effectively managing a remote workplace where trust and accountability is in question. If leaders can successfully implement the following courses of action, they will experience higher levels of success.

Set Clear Expectations

Remote workers should have a clear set of expectations.  If a remote worker does not know the “rules of the game” then they cannot be expected to accomplish desirable goals. Leaders need to be very clear with work output expectations, time frames to be available, measurements of success, lines of authority, communication requirements, and whatever other qualifications necessary to ensure that the remote worker understands guidelines.  This is no different than leading workers in the brick and mortar workplace!

Communications and Engagement

Leaders need to communicate with remote workers on a continual basis and set specific timeframes for online meetings, one-on-one discussions, and periodic updates. With all the available technology and remote platforms available, online communication has proven to be very successful. Remote workers should not experience isolation from mainstream organizational communications.  The more a leader can communicate with remote workers, the more successful the employee will be.  Additionally, remote workers should be engaged in team meetings, ad hoc discussions, and decision-making conversations.  They cannot be left out nor ignored simply because they are not in an office cubicle.    

Technology

Organizations should provide remote workers with the essential technology to accomplish their goals. The investment in the technology is incidental as compared to what the proper technology will deliver in terms of reducing employee frustration, increasing communications, and boosting productivity. 

Concentrate on Output

Workforce outcome is always a concern regardless if workers are in a brick and mortar location or working remotely. If clear expectations are set for desirable goals, then a primary measurable factor of success would be output. If a remote worker accomplishes all stated goals, then leaders should consider this a major win.  In some cases, whether the work is accomplished at 8:00am or 8:00pm, the result is the same. The younger generations are very comfortable in multitasking throughout the day – even into the late evening hours. It is not uncommon for these individuals to be checking their cell phone, texting coworkers, completing spreadsheets and reports with their laptop, and watching TV all at the same time. Remote worker output has a direct correlation with trusting individuals to do what they are supposed to do and to produce what they are expected to produce.

Understandably, not all positions are designed around a remote workforce strategy.  I am sure we would all agree that it would be very difficult to have an auto mechanic working remotely. However, positions suitable for remote work should be strongly considered as a viable strategy of workforce planning. Inevitably, what has occurred over the last several months has created a precedent for organizations to consider a remote workforce strategy. If implemented correctly, leaders will understand that under the right guidelines and processes remote workers can be trusted to accomplish their goals, remain collaborative within the organization, and ultimately present a notable ROI.  Essentially, the success of having a remote workforce comes down to one thing – leadership!

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