Homework: Managing COVID-19’s newly remote workforce

For those who are new to supervising remote workers, management and supply chain professors offer a few pointers for helping them feel noticed, acknowledge, valued, and informed.

By Betsy Loeff

This past April, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) released results from a survey of some 2,200 HR professionals. Almost three-quarters — 71% — said their organizations were struggling to adjust to having a remote work. Another 65% claimed that maintaining employee morale had been challenging in the early days of COVID-19, and one-third reported issues with employee productivity and corporate culture.

For those who are new to supervising remote workers, management and supply chain professors offer a few pointers. Behind each of the ideas presented below is this unspoken truth: The rules of good management haven’t changed. Workers still need to feel noticed, acknowledge, valued, and informed.

Falling apart at the seems

Moving office workers from the company site to home may seem like a simple switch, but it has its built-in challenges, particularly because COVID-19 forced this move when many companies and their employees weren’t prepared for it. “I have yet to talk to anybody who’s got school-aged kids who is doing really well. They’re all wondering how to do it all: work, homeschooling, and babysitting,” says Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship Blake Ashforth, who’s the Horace Steele Arizona Heritage Chair.

Meanwhile, managers have doubts, as witnessed by the 33% of survey respondents who worried about corporate culture. Ashforth says the rapid move from office to home unveils cultural problems that already existed pre-COVID-19.

To the extent you had a strong culture — widely shared and deeply held — it will tend to remain robust. Weak cultures may result in less motivated homeworkers because those employees don’t have strong bonds with the company, which means they may be thinking about what they can get away with and still make the boss happy.

He adds: “Weak-culture companies are more likely to have had a command-and-control way of behaving because they substituted directed supervision for a strong culture that liberated people.” In the absence of direct supervision, this might create issues.

“If you’ve got a weak culture and people suddenly have to work from home, you are going to notice things like employees not being productive, employees making excuses, employees not doing the small citizenship behaviors that make the world go ‘round, like helping coworkers in trouble. These things add up to performance indicators in the long run.” Still, these negatives have a positive: They show management that cultural changes must occur.

Driving with no commute

So how do companies address weaknesses remotely? How do they motivate employees and drive performance? Ashforth says you address these tasks the same way you’d tackle them in the office: with social support, frequent feedback, a celebration of achievements, and clarity of expectations.

Those expectations should be on the positive side, according to Professor of Supply Chain Management Kevin Dooley. “If you start with the assumption that because people are at home, they’re going to slack off, you’ve already lost the game,” he says. This is because those managers who expect employees to take advantage of being at home “are going to implement some kind micromanagement or oversight techniques because they’re not trusting workers. They’ll lose employee trust, too.”

Dooley points to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which maintains that people are motivated to fill their needs along a consistent path of development, starting with physiological needs — those that ensure our survival such as food, water, and shelter &mdash then progressing to safety, love, and belongingness, esteem and, finally, self-actualization.

If we want our workforce to aspire to self-actualization and do the kinds of things that make the company good, that makes society better, that makes customers happier, then employees’ lower-level needs have to be attended to.”

At a time when nearly 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment, meeting safety needs is a little iffy, and Dooley thinks it may take a toll on employee loyalty. But, he also maintains that the stress of the times leaves people more sensitive to both good and bad treatment, so small actions can have a large impact. Here are a few pointers Dooley and others offer for building team spirit, loyalty, and motivation.

Socialize despite social distancing. “Consciously attend to the need for socialization that isn’t occurring because we’re not at the water cooler,” Dooley says. “Morale is critical, so you need to create online opportunities for things that would otherwise be achieved by going out to lunch or celebrating somebody’s birthday to make those informal connections that make our workplaces socially valuable.” Such activities address the need for belonging that Maslow cites.

Communicate often and correctly. “Employees want leaders to be up-front with them,” says lecturer Taylor Carr, who specializes in leadership communication. “They want honesty, clarity, and real direction: Here’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. They don’t want a leader trying to candy-coat the situation and make it look better than it is.”

Carr says ASU President Michael Crow is offering a good example of effective communication. He’s using multiple communication channels to appeal to different learning styles, such as email and video. He’s also handing off the mic to others “so that people hear the message from the right person to hear that communication from.” Also, communication is “keeping people up-to-date on things that are happening or not happening at Arizona State.”

Carr says the result is that “employees feel like we’re being included in the process and not being kept in the dark.” He also says it’s OK to say “I don’t know” when you don’t yet know an answer to a question.

Reinforce core values. Values guide behavior says Associate Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship Jonathan Bundy, who teaches students about organizational values, especially those related to ethics. At the workplace, there are plenty of ways to reinforce the core values designed to shape corporate culture, he says. “A lot of companies will have signposts — what we call organizational artifacts — around the campus.” Some reinforce their values routinely in meetings, too.

When Bundy worked at Sandia Labs in Albuquerque, he recalls that the weekly meetings always started with a talk about the values of the organization. “Of course, at a nuclear science laboratory, the most important value was safety, so we discussed how we were working in ways that ensured we were being safe. There was a lot of concern about information security, as well, so we’d talk about working securely.”

At home, however, Bundy thinks values may sometimes take a hit. “If those values aren’t front-and-center, you might start making decisions that aren’t prioritizing them,” he says.

Bundy also says values must be authentic and presented with targeted communication.

A lot of companies will say they value putting customers first but, in practice, it’s a little more cutthroat. If you’re on your own at home and you don’t have people around you to discuss how these values might play out, you may be a lot more focused on your numbers or other metrics that get rewarded.

Along with swag and signage, values get communicated in training sessions, hallway chats, and the informal banter that makes offices hum, Bundy says. Remotely, it probably won’t work to send blanket emails and hope you’re getting your values across. “How many emails have you gotten from business telling you what their COVID-19 response will be?” he asks. “And how many of those have you just deleted? Values need to be conveyed in a way that is specific to the relationship, to the work an employee is doing.”

Take care of the basics. Managing newly home-bound workers may take a little more management attention. Dooley says managers need to keep an eye out for employee needs. Do they have decent broadband access? Are there real-life distractions in the home environment? Do they have the right tools … like that huge monitor your company’s graphic artist needs … at home? “Managers should acknowledge the constraints that people might face now and compensate for them accordingly,” he says.

Ashforth says managers can’t assume employees are OK on their own if they’ve never worked from home before. “Managers may need to mix in a fair amount of conventional supervision,” he says. “That means monitoring performance, giving frequent feedback, celebrating achievements, and having frequent Zoom calls just to stay in touch.”

Despite the demands of managing a home-based workforce, Ashforth thinks that once people are settled into their routines, the trend will continue and be of value. “Companies are usually surprised to see that productivity doesn’t suffer, and employee well-being goes up,” he says. “By definition, your employees are far more empowered because they have to be at home, but that’s quite liberating.”

He adds, “When employees are well-trained and have an aptitude for autonomy, it frees managers up to think more strategically.”

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