Address challenges, opportunities of remote work

Set expectations, develop staff’s skills, and model the norms you want to see.

April 29, 2020

Few were fully prepared for the closure of offices and branches as the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak intensified. With many employees working from home, challenges have presented themselves—but opportunities also exist.

Good leaders recognize the positive side of working remotely, says Matthew Meuleners, executive partner and leadership trainer, FOCUS Training. “We may not be particularly comfortable with it ourselves, but if we’re going to be effective leaders, we have to be ready to talk about what makes this good.”

Meuleners provided guidance during the CUNA eSchool session “Managing a Remote Workforce,” offered free as a CUNA member benefit.

Many employees experience fewer distractions and can work more productively from home, he says, and virtual tools can allow workers to act more quickly than if they were in the office.

With the right software for communicating and managing projects, “if I need to make a decision quickly, I don’t have to wait for three vice presidents to be in town for a quarterly meeting,” says Meuleners.

To work effectively, leaders also must overcome some of the challenges of working remotely, including:

  • Low visibility. “Because we don’t see each other, we can’t read some of the subtle, emotional subcontext that we might if we’re sitting in a conference room together,” Meuleners says. “That can make conflicts accelerate faster than they need to.”
  • Poor coordination of work. With less in-person touchpoints during the workday, team members might have their own assumptions about prioritizing work and responsibilities, which can lead to errors or redundancies.
  • Inconsistent culture. If some employees still work in the office and some work from home, disconnects can occur, leading to an “us vs. them” mentality and stakeholder confusion.

“When members reach out to your organization, are they hearing different messages from different people because you’re not together on a daily basis?” asks Meuleners.

To counteract these issues, Meuleners suggests that managers rethink their communication styles and expectations. Some best practices:

  • Set communication expectations. Establish clear standards for accountability with all team members. Avoid ambiguous language such as “keep me posted” and “this is a top priority.”  Use precise, detailed language instead.
  • Get face time. When employees aren’t face-to-face, it becomes difficult to read the nuances in others’ expressions or posture. Virtual tools can remedy this. “The good news is that the tools have come a long way,” Meuleners says. “The bad news is a lot of us are still not using those tools to their fullest.” Use video conferencing when possible.
  • Develop staff’s skills. Train staff on how to use virtual tools to the fullest and address soft skills. Encourage employees to hone their listening, writing, and productivity skills.
  • Balance inconvenience. Remote work comes with a host of challenges, such as dealing with kids, pets, or sick family members. Ask questions about others in the household and use the flexibility of virtual work to create balance.
  • Model norms. Consider what employees need and be the first to show up when people might not expect it. Determine where you could stretch yourself, so your employees don’t have to, or volunteer to take something off another person’s plate.

“Model the generosity of spirit that we all need,” Meuleners says. “That can go a long way.”