Going Remote: A Q&A on Helping a Newly Virtual Workforce

Employee working from home

One of the enduring questions in the work-from-anywhere era has been whether wholly remote workforces could function effectively.

At many organizations, that’s being put to the test.

Companies across the country are temporarily turning out the lights, sending employees home to keep operations moving from their living rooms. It’s no doubt that such a thing is even possible because of the benefit of modern technology. 

But technology is just part of the operation.  

Our VP of Consulting Jennifer Vena has helped employers around the country maximize their workforces during normal times. I sat down with her to find out what it will take for remote workforces to stay in business as usual during this highly unusual time.

What’s the biggest challenge about going to a wholly remote workforce? 

For many people, working effectively at home can be harder than it looks; they’re not prepared for the distractions of home or the loneliness of being isolated from colleagues. Some employees, especially the extroverts among us, prefer the social setting of an office. Remote employees can also be a challenge for supervisors, who now, with little time to prepare, need to develop ways to manage teams remotely.  

How can employers help them? 

Companies may not realize it, but most have available mentors right in their workforces – people who’ve been working remotely for years and who can have open conversations about how they manage workdays; how they access things remotely; how they communicate work hours; and how they manage families who are in the next room. These people can also provide best practices for maintaining social connections for people newly sequestered at home. 

Speaking of families, many schools are closed, too. 

They are. And one of the surprises about working from home for the first time is how hard it is if you’ve got a family. People who have younger kids are absolutely going to need child care. But you’re also going to need strategies if you have older children or a partner at home, such as setting guidelines like -- if the office door is closed, I am not to be disturbed. I’ve been remote for years. One strategy I used when my children were school age was to block 30 minutes on my calendar to greet them when they got home from school, make them a snack and get them started on homework before I returned to my home office to continue my day.

Don’t boundaries in general become a problem when you’re working at home? 

That is absolutely true, even more so in this situation. One Washington Post writer said in his current quarantine in northern California, work never quite goes away. Without commutes and other daily events to naturally start and end our collective days, the lines between work and personal lives become even more blurry than they were before. It will be up to us as managers to be very deliberate about supporting our people in setting boundaries. The last thing you want is people burning out. 

What about new hires?

Onboarding right now is tricky. Yet it’s really important to take care of these new hires so they don’t feel at sea. In normal times, companies assign new-hire buddies to get people acquainted – show them around the physical space. But now, instead of touring the cafeteria or the mailroom, new employees need a new set of facts – how to access the VPN, use the WebEx software, or troubleshoot problems. That will require a different kind of buddy. Perhaps more important, it presents a socialization challenge. Remote new hires are going to miss out on the organic meet-and-greets that come from stopping in the kitchen or standing around the coffee machine. Managers will have to mindfully create those opportunities virtually to connect them to their new colleagues.

That’s important for veteran employees too, no? 

No question. My consulting team has always been 100% virtual and we work hard to stay connected. We use web cams to have virtual lunches, similar to the way we would have lunch occasionally in an office, where we catch up informally on work and also just chitchat. We have holiday parties that way, baby showers, bridal showers. It’s basically social time, but instead of it happening organically in an office it requires deliberate effort to schedule it and make it happen. I have also found that using web-cam technology to have team meetings, one-on-one check ins, and collaboration sessions increases the social connection for remote workers. Seeing each other’s faces brings a higher level of connectivity than just hearing voices over the phone. 

Anything else? 

Mental health is a big issue. Keep an eye out for performance changes. A great employee experiencing dramatic productivity swings may be grappling with anxiety – a real risk in this current situation. Check in with people. Ask how they’re doing; point employees to support groups and other resources. This is an unprecedented moment, and no two people are going to deal with it the same way. The last point is critical for your entire workforce. Even as many people begin working remotely, it’s important to remember the many frontline employees who are still required to be on the job in person. And it will be critical to continually check in on their mental well-being as well.

A final note: Jennifer says supervisors managing a large remote workforce for the first time will have to be very deliberate about communication, setting clear expectations for employees, and holding regularly scheduled check-in calls. Just as important, make sure some of that check-in time is spent on personal lives and not just deadlines. “You can’t just launch into, ‘where are we on that proposal?’” she says. “Your interactions have to be more personal than that.” The time devoted to chatting with your employees has valuable underpinnings. “It keeps you in tune with employees,” she says, “builds trust and enables you to see how they’re coping.” 

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

March 17, 2020

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.