How managers can support virtual and remote employees
As more companies shift to hybrid work arrangements in which virtual employees can work both on-site and remotely, many advantages are quickly materialising. Companies are abandoning outdated assumptions that put more emphasis on where people sit than what they do and are no longer treating the “ability to commute to an office” as a key hiring qualification. Dr. Steven Hunt – an industrial-organisational psychologist and SAP’s chief expert on strategic human resources research – shared his thoughts on hybrid work and technology. A summary of those findings follows.
All in all, the arrival and acceptance of hybrid work is long overdue, but it also brings with it new challenges – ones that managers need to navigate effectively and support, such that organisations don’t revert to old structures and habits that run counter to employee effectiveness and well-being.
Fortunately, the technology that makes remote work possible – such as video conferencing and cloud-based HR tools – also makes it easier for managers to support their people. There are several highly effective, specialised technologies to support managers with ongoing role clarification conversations, listening to employee concerns, and helping employees manage work-life conflicts.
Six key ways companies can support virtual, remote, and on-site employees
- Provide goal clarity to reduce anxiety. Remote workers who lack clear job expectations report anxiety levels twice as high as those reported by employees who have well-defined goals. Remote employees with clear goals are typically more engaged than on-site employees, but those without clear goals tend to be more stressed. This is because remote employees can only show their value based on what they actually accomplish, not based on how long they sit in an office each day. This can make remote workers more prone to worry if their goals are not well-defined, which creates anxiety and unhealthy behaviour, such as working overly long hours. The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” can feel very real to remote employees, but the simple solution is for managers to meet with employees on a regular basis to discuss goals and other concerns.
- Promote supportive supervisory behaviour. Supportive supervisory behaviour is a psychological concept that involves managers demonstrating care and empathy toward employees’ work and non-work challenges. It is particularly relevant to remote work, which removes physical dividers separating employees’ personal and professional lives. On the positive side, working remotely can help people balance job and family commitments (for example, less time commuting means more time with family), but it also creates potential conflict (such as, working in a home with children). Remote employees who feel unsupported in dealing with these challenges have job stress levels up to 10 times higher.
- Change leadership mindsets. The Internet has largely eliminated the communication barriers that once forced employees to all work in the same building. The main barrier to remote work is no longer communication – it’s leadership. While there are jobs where being present at a physical location is necessary to perform tasks, there are plenty for which that is not the case. The question leaders should ask is not “Can this work be done remotely?” but “Why can’t this work be done remotely?”
- Change leadership behaviours. If getting leaders to rethink the importance of being on-site is the first step to creating an effective remote or hybrid workforce, the next step is changing how leaders interact with employees. This can be difficult. When you work alongside someone, you can “pop in for a quick chat,” but when people are remote, these chats must be planned and scheduled. Leaders must be very good at communicating what it is they want people to do and why it matters – and in a constructive and supportive manner, lest leaders come across as micromanaging.
- Manage – and create better – work experiences. First and foremost, employees’ technology has to work. Problems with a computer or phone are frustrating in an office, but they’re completely debilitating for remote workers, so people must have reliable technology support. Technology also has to enable responsiveness between people; no one should have to “electronically nag” their coworkers. This also feeds into the importance of maintaining a good social experience and setting up regular meetings to ensure good ongoing communication. Keep it short and sweet, and feel free to impart them with the non-work discussions we used to have in offices, since this forges important personal connections. It’s also important to take opportunities such as informal meetings to recognise and celebrate employees’ accomplishments – especially since when people are working remotely they likely won’t hear positive news through regular, in-office chatter.
- Appreciate the value – and cost of – in-person meetings. There are times and places when it’s important for people to get together in person. When working remotely, it is important to identify when it makes sense to get in a car or on a plane and come together physically. But in-person meetings should be highly intentional and focused. You are not coming together just to sit in the same room; you’re coming together to be fully present in the conversation. So make sure that, before scheduling either virtual or in-person meetings, there’s genuine value to be derived.
The most important thing to remember in our new hybrid work reality is that what people do matters far more than where they sit – something that should have been obvious prior to the pandemic but sadly wasn’t acknowledged as often or as openly as it is now.
Looking past the COVID-19 crisis, hopefully many companies will realise that remote and hybrid work arrangements aren’t just a means to an end; they’re an advantage. Well-thought-out hybrid work models improve access to talent, enable employees to have more productive and balanced lives, are more inclusive for people who have family care responsibilities or other issues that make commuting to an office difficult, and reduce the environmental impact caused by unnecessary commuting. Employees have known this for a long time, but leaders must be willing to embrace the concept that working together effectively does not necessarily require physically being together.
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