As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, corporate America’s reliance on remote workers has accelerated. Previously representing a small (if growing) fraction of the workforce, the coronavirus health crisis and associated stay-at-home orders have meant that over the past four months, as many as close to two-thirds of employed Americans spent some or all of their time working from home.
This is a major shift in the way workers and companies have previously thought about the workplace, but there’s plenty of evidence that suggests this is more than just a temporary blip, and that the changes we’ve begun to see will be long-standing. Major corporations including Amazon have said publicly that they’ll be offering work-from-home options to employees who want it for an extended period; Twitter, Facebook, and Nationwide Insurance have said they will allow some employees to work remotely indefinitely.
In practical terms, that’s meant that a growing number of managers and HR departments are, or will be, overseeing offsite employees alongside on-site staff, and in charge of the professional development of both. Setting those mixed teams up for success means addressing the opportunity gap — the familiarity, advantages, and opportunities that tend to disproportionately benefit the in-person workforce. Countering these disadvantages will take effort, thought, and preparation. But experts were clear: Doing the work to make your firm a place remote workers can grow and flourish will benefit everyone. Here’s how to do it.
To ensure that all employees are on a level playing field, it’s essential that supervisors and managers have clarity on what each position’s essential functions are — and what they aren’t. Todd Davis, EVP and Chief People Officer at time management and training company FranklinCovey and author of Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work, said managers need to check their implicit biases as to what constitutes “work.”
“You’re breaking down old paradigms,” Davis said. “[Managers] might think, ‘I always saw him or her at their desk, and that’s what I based my belief on that they were doing their job.’ But that’s not a helpful assumption. We need longer conversations about the results someone is producing.”
Making job performance metrics clear and measurable helps counteract tendencies to micromanage, he said. “We pay for results and performance,” Davis continued. “Do you have metrics in place to really measure people’s results?”
Taking steps to formalize the ways opportunities are distributed and other business decisions are made helps ensure that all eligible employees — even the ones who aren’t in the boss’s direct eyeline — are considered.
“What we’ve seen work well is when you bring structure to processes to reduce bias in decision-making,” said Jacqui Maguire, Director of Talent Acquisition at recruiting platform Greenhouse Software. For Greenhouse, that has meant a consistent set of questions asked during interviews for the same role, regardless of who is doing the interviewing and whether it’s over Zoom or in person.
At a different firm, it could mean a standardized process to put together project teams or assess who takes the lead with new accounts.
“You have to be intentional around assigning projects and initiatives, since those impact careers and can trickle into who gets promotions or who is going to have more opportunities,” Maguire said. “It’s about being really delineated and intentional in decisions you make. And it’s a little bit easier when everyone is on the same playing field.”
You can also ensure that offsite workers won’t hit an artificial career ceiling by making sure that it’s already been smashed.
"One way to ensure remote workers have equal opportunities is to devote several managers and supervisors to remote status as well,” said David McHugh, Chief Marketing Officer at personal finance website Crediful. “Remote managers will not only be able to respond to and better understand other work-from-home employees, but they'll also be likely to focus their attention on giving opportunities and promotions to those work-from-home employees.”
When your team isn’t all in the same room (or even necessarily in the same time zone), channels of communication are critical. But setting up different pathways for employees to seek out information, ask questions, and bounce ideas off each other doesn’t just support work-at-home staff — it facilitates everyone’s work.
“Often, remote workers face the challenge of the ‘knowledge gap’ or lack of access to information. Working remotely can be isolating, especially when you can't get answers to simple questions,” said Tim Reitsma, HR business consultant and cofounder of the People Managing People community and podcast.
According to Reitsma, making sure that employees have more options to get answers, rather than just relying on the phone or email to try to reach their boss, gives at-home workers welcome autonomy to get their job done. “Using various platforms like Slack, Teamwork, and Asana helps users get answers faster,” he said.
Another way to find out what your employees need to be successful is to simply ask them.
“Ask for feedback in a structured way — have a simple survey, on a regular cadence, so people are expecting to be asked,” Greenhouse’s Maguire said. Periodic check-ins with employees (or even prospective candidates you may be hiring remotely) about their experience lets you uncover issues before they become more serious problems, and can give you the necessary data to create consistency across the board.
There may not be a water cooler, but that doesn’t mean your offsite employees have to be left out of the company’s social ecosystem. Communication networks can also help foster those critical relationships — both supervisor-to-supervisee and peer-to-peer — that working in proximity builds almost by accident. And being intentional about connecting employees will benefit everyone.
Maguire said adding a “people to meet” list to the onboarding process, for example, helps bring offsite employees into the fold from the get-go. Other options could be pairing work-at-home staff with longtime employees for mentoring and advice, or setting up regular Zoom check-ins for the team. Davis said he counsels managers at FranklinCovey to schedule dedicated catch-up time into each call or conference. And for a recent lunch meeting, he said, the team sent out coupons to all attendees so they could order lunch to eat together on the call.
“It’s little things,” he said. “It’s not so much the amount, but taking a chance to tell people, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of you and you matter.’”
Offering your remote employees the same or similar perks that reward on-site employees can go a long way toward establishing company culture. Manbir Kaur, executive leadership coach and coauthor of Are You the Leader You Want to Be?, said that firms should consider offering allowances for ergonomic work equipment, health and fitness resources, and job-site perks that sync with the office amenities.
“The inclusivity that the HR teams and management can demonstrate through simple gestures can make a huge difference to employee morale,” she said.
Working at home has become the norm during the current coronavirus pandemic, and as time goes on, companies are continuing to embrace a more expansive vision of what the modern office can look like. As employees and employers alike settle into a newly untethered work life, that’s good news. The evidence is clear: With the right structures and policies in place, remote workers can succeed and thrive alongside their on-site counterparts.