Before the pandemic forced companies to send everyone to work from home, many leaders were concerned that home-office will make employees less committed and therefore less productive. A recent Harvard Business School study for the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research looked at more than 3 million employees in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. It found that, on average, employees were working almost 50 extra minutes a day, participating in 13% more meetings that lasted 11% less time than in pre-pandemic times.
This new virtual world created several people challenges for companies and managers: How to monitor progress? How to motivate employees? How to create a sense of one company/team when everyone is sitting alone behind a screen? How to build trust? How to evaluate performance? How to handle bad performance issues? How to manage your own and employees’ psychological state and avoid burnout?
Continuing my series with lessons from the best remote-first startups, I’d like to share two more insights explaining the role of managers and the importance of establishing clear rules of engagement for remote work.
Managers need to put extra effort and time to build relationships and communicate with teams
During a recent engagement, a leader shared that he inherited an underperforming team. He spent his 1-on-1s with them on performance management, either training basic skills or checking their work. When I asked if they also discussed development goals, team building, the company’s new vision and goals or future projects, he said that he didn’t have time for this at that moment.
It is easier for virtual managers to focus only on “results” and forget the role of human connection and team development in building highly effective teams.
In a remote setting, communication requires extra effort and employees are more likely to feel lost, disengaged and overwhelmed because they don’t have the luxury of daily interactions or water-cooler moments.
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Moreover, with the pandemic, people are dealing with a lot more issues in their personal lives: getting sick or having to take care of sick family members, tensions in the relationship with a partner or kids’ remote schooling, psychological costs of isolation, stress over losing their jobs, etc.
An employee may fail to deliver or show up for a meeting, but are they slacking off, or is there something else going on? Do they have access to all the information they require to get their job done well?
This is why managers are so important in bridging the knowledge and emotional gap in the relationship between the company and its employees.
One way to achieve this is through regular check-in time with employees. At Trello, for example, managers check-in at least every two days. There is a weekly standup meeting with the team, 1 hour 1-on-1, monthly skip level (boss’ boss) 1-on-1, and other interactions, both formal and informal.
Not all managers are created equal and some may require additional coaching or training to help them deal with the softer issues that come up with this increased scope.
Beware of M&M
Basecamp founders warn of M&M (Managers and Meetings) unnecessary overhead. Some managers love to “brainstorm” or have “status report” meetings that consume a lot of time. Yet, most meetings could easily be replaced by an e-mail or a chat. They argue that only about 5% of issues are complex enough to require an actual meeting to resolve them. Read my prior article for tips on how to improve productivity via asynchronous meetings for more on this.
Giving up control is one of the big psychological barriers of transitioning to remote work, yet it is a prerequisite of working effectively. The role of a manager should focus on allocating tasks, providing context and removing roadblocks instead of chasing down people to do their work (aka micromanaging). If you can’t trust employees to deliver, you should let them go.
I know. I know. It’s easier said than done. But this is some food for thought.
Clear rules of engagement are essential for remote employees
In the pre-pandemic world, “Home Office” evoked the image of rolling out of bed at 12 pm to go to work from a trendy coffee shop or a beautiful beach. Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek and numerous followers certainly helped popularize this aspirational view.
Yet those who quickly had to transition to working from home soon realized that it can be a big readjustment. The boundaries between work and home are suddenly erased. We lose the routine of preparing mentally and physically to go to work as well as the schedule of meal and exercise times.
To this are added distractions from our new “co-workers”: family members, roommates and/or pets who compete for our attention and assume that if one is at home, he or she is available to focus on their needs. Not to mention my two favorite procrastination tools: a comfy bed and a TV with Netflix.
It takes time to develop new work-from-home habits and some employees may struggle to make this transition effectively. Companies, therefore, need to explicitly address this by creating clear rules of engagement for remote workers.
Trello, for example, requires employees to have a dedicated room (with a door!). If they don’t have a dedicated space at home, Trello will pay for a desk at a coworking space.
Collabora requires employees to have a physical separation between leisure and work spaces- i.e. you cannot work from your bed or couch.
Expensify gives employees a work-from-home budget to ensure that they have the right ergonomics and pays for their meals and coffee up to a certain amount. Most remote-first companies I interviewed send their employees a welcome kit with some work-from-home accessories like a water bottle or a stationary stand as well as give them a budget to set up their home offices.
Running a remote company effectively is not trivial but it’s certainly doable with the right leadership behaviors, hiring practices, systems, processes, and rituals.
What are some of the remote practices and rules of engagement you’ve seen at your companies?