Coronavirus: A short guide to managing employees in remote locations

Managing remotely or remotely managing?

Some of 208 employees participate in a Zoom video conference this week (photo credit: Courtesy)
Some of 208 employees participate in a Zoom video conference this week
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The coronavirus has spawned a situation that is the precise definition of an "organizational crisis" – a situation in which an unexpected challenge threatens high-priority values of an organization (profits, innovation, customer service), thus forcing organizations to (re)assess the changing environment and develop optimal responses in a restricted amount of time. 
Many have found solace in the fact that we live in an era in which technology enables many jobs to be performed outside the physical workplace. Indeed, it is not necessarily a novel situation to have employees work – at times – remotely. However, it is almost unheard of for an entire organization to "go virtual," certainly not instantly. But that is exactly what is happening now. Whether organizations will be forced to go totally virtual, or "only" have to operate without large segments of their workforce working remotely, organizations are undergoing a fundamental change. 
While much has been written concerning how individuals can make their "home office" experience more pleasant and more effective, less information exists to help managers best manage employees in this new, novel and challenging reality.
What follows are some ideas that will help managers "to learn on the go" and help their organization optimally navigate these rough and unchartered waters they have entered.
Finding an appropriate technological solution may likely be the easiest part of the transition to a remotely operating work group. There are abundant technologies available that are easily discernible. Finding a technological arrangement to allow employees to continue to execute their jobs will likely be the simplest and easily measurable aspect of the matter. 
Managers must remember that locating and accessing technology in the current situation is a necessary, but hardly a sufficient part of a successful transition to remote work.
Usually, only employees deemed suitable are allowed to work remotely. Clearly, many employees are not particularly suitable to – nor even necessarily interested in – working remotely. Above and beyond concrete technological skills, the degree of success that an employee will have in remote work will be directly related to personal attributes such as: independence, self-motivation, judgment and self-discipline.
KNOWING EMPLOYEES, managers must develop individual plans for the transition to remote work, taking into account: 1) their specific skills and attributes; 2) the tasks performed; and 3) the skills and attributes of those with whom the employees need to interact. 
Related to these considerations is the importance of remembering that people are social animals, and work organizations are social networks. Research has pointed to the central impact of workplace relations on: 1) individual-related outcomes such as job satisfaction and effort; 2) group-related outcomes such as interpersonal trust and communication and knowledge sharing; and 3) organizational-related outcomes such as efficiency and outputs and their economic expressions: revenues and profits. 
As the quality and accuracy of interpersonal communication and subsequent employee relations may be particularly susceptible to the vagaries of remote, less frequent and growing impersonal interactions, it is important to schedule work processes to create opportunities for regular and predictable interactions among individual employees and the group as a whole. 
While simple technological solutions and communication channels such as email and shared programs offer simple solutions to communication, they also tend to decrease the sense of actual interaction and teamwork. Further, the simpler and more asynchronous modes of communication have been shown to be associated with both miscues regarding work procedures as well as interpersonal misunderstandings.
So, in line with the suggestion that managers create opportunities to maintain regular and constructive interactions among employees, it is suggested that they "curate" these relationships through a judicious blend of the technological tools available, with a preference to "face-to-face" options (such as Zoom, Skype and WhatsApp).
Accurate assessment of employee performance is always a challenge. Clearly, this challenge is much greater in a situation in which employees work remotely, out of sight, and perhaps even at different times than the managers themselves. It is critical that the managers communicate very clear expectations regarding: 1) task performance; (2)  communications among the employees themselves and with the manager; and 3) how and which outcomes will be considered when assessing employee performance.
Managers must realize that the transition of any employees to remote work may impact the work processes and outcomes of all employees, and the prospect that the organization can continue to achieve desired outcomes as it may have previously.  
In the best of times, managing employees requires vigilance and a variety of personal and professional skills in order to provide quality feedback that keeps employees motivated and productive. In the context of the coronavirus crisis, managers must continuously actively engage their employees, while assessing how to leverage existing technological and human resources to optimally traverse this unknown terrain that has become our reality for the unforeseen future. What is clear is that to manage remotely, one cannot afford to be remotely managing.
The author is a professor of business adminsitration at the Lev Academic Center.