With over 20% of the global population on lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities are not alone in having transitioned unprecedented amounts of staff to remote work rapidly. Education leaders therefore can learn how to effectively manage remote employees from both one another and private industry exemplars.
To support successful remote employment both now and in the future, EAB has gathered essential do’s and don’ts in four key areas for managing remote workers. By deploying these principles during this crisis, campuses may emerge from the pandemic to discover new opportunities to hire geographically diverse employees while reducing their administration’s on-campus footprint.
Do: Make clear which software, tools, and devices you want your team to use to complete their work (and consult with your IT department). Many universities require employees to use campus-issued devices to conduct work remotely to protect sensitive data. Others mandate the use of such tools as a VPN to increase security, or forbid the use of unsecure tools. Familiarize yourself with your department’s policy and go over it with your employees.
Do: Assess your employees’ technological readiness for remote work. Make sure every member of your team has the equipment they’ll need to be successful at home. Do they have university laptops, if needed? Are they familiar with policies and processes for using required technology? Finally, check with your department head to find out official policy on reimbursing employees for professional equipment before your employees make any purchases, and communicate that policy to them.
Do: Offer training to your employees on how to use the necessary technology for their work. Teams and departments should regularly review remote work tools so every employee is familiar with them, but during a crisis, a refresher may be necessary. Your IT division can help you plan and conduct trainings.
Do: Discuss communication expectations with each of your employees individually. Some example questions to ask might include:
- How often will you be available?
- How often will you expect them to be available, and through what methods?
- Will you hold regular virtual meetings over a video conferencing platform? What about phone calls?
- Should employees forward their office calls to their personal phones?
- Will everyone hold regular working hours, or will there be different policies for each team member?
- How will your team members notify you and each other if they have an emergency that interferes with their work?
- Where should your employees seek help if they experience a technological failure?
Don’t be afraid to be specific about things that may seem obvious under normal circumstances, such as office hours. When you and your staff are coping with a sudden change, it’s better to be overly thorough about expectations and know everyone is on the same page.
Do: Embrace structure. As part of your communication plan that you develop with every employee, set clear performance expectations and err on the side of over-communicating at first. Additional structure is necessary for both the report and the manager to adjust to remote work, so be specific about the goals and tasks you have for your employee, and encourage them to do the same when they report their progress to you. Check in frequently by email, phone, video chat, or another medium you both like to make sure everything is on track.
Do: Check in with your employees often. Frequent person-to-person contact via phone or video is the antidote to the isolation and lack of structure of remote work—especially during a pandemic. Schedule more occasions to touch base with your reports than you would if you were all in the office. Even a brief phone conversation can help your employees stay connected to you, each other, and their work.
Do: Support your employees –and yourself –in maintaining work-life balance while they’re remote. When workers are no longer commuting to an office, their professional and personal lives can easily bleed into each other. This is especially problematic for employees who do not have a separate physical space to work in at home, and who cannot work in other physical venues due to shelter-in-place orders. Establish regular office hours for each of your employees, depending on their situation and your strategic goals, and encourage them to be fully “off” outside of that time. Ultimately, the entire team will benefit from maintaining this balance.
Do: Be mindful of the nuances of non-verbal communication. Remind your team that without the visual and audio social cues people give in person, it can be easier to misinterpret remarks. If your team will be relying mostly on written communication, such as email or instant messaging, you and your employees should get in the habit of double-checking that your meaning is clear, and minimize opportunities for others to guess at your tone by keeping things straightforward. As a manager, continue to hold sensitive or nuanced conversations via video-chat or over the phone whenever possible; don’t settle for sending an email about something you’d ordinarily discuss in-person just because everyone is away from the office.
Don’t: Overschedule meetings to compensate for the change in routine. While frequent use of video or phone meetings can help keep your team together in isolation, think about how much of your team’s time you really need. Don’t schedule long meetings simply to compensate for the fact that the team isn’t physically together; in addition to being a drag on productivity, not every employee will have constant access to high-speed internet, and others may need to step away frequently to care for children or other family members. Keep check-ins frequent, but brief.
Do: Work with your employees to make performance management expectations clear. If your team suddenly went remote to accommodate a campus closure, you may not be able to perform all of your usual tasks in the usual way. This may require revising your employees’ usual workflow or short-term goals. Revisit existing performance management policies and adapt them as needed to the circumstances, making sure that both you and your reports are clear on what’s expected of them as they work remotely.
Do: Get creative to fill gaps in your reports’ workloads. If your employees have extra capacity due to being unable to perform certain aspects of their jobs remotely, have them spend time on learning and development. EAB has an extensive library of archived webinars on a range of higher education topics, and your university’s HR department may also have courses employees can complete from their computers.
Don’t: Suddenly stop trusting your employees. While some of your reports might need more supervision away from the office, remember that your best workers will still be your best workers even if they are remote.
Do: Be mindful of the extraordinary circumstances. This is a difficult time for many—even seasoned remote work professionals. In a late March interview with the New York Times, Marc Benioff, CEO of customer relations management (CRM) software Salesforce, shared that over one-third of his workforce was experiencing mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic. Employees may be living with family, caring for children or elderly relatives, dealing with a sick household member, or feel stressed and worn-out from the tremendous change to life. Be compassionate, and give employees as much flexibility as possible when it comes to time off, staggered working hours, or productivity. You’ll ultimately get much more from your team if you support them as much as you’re able, rather than punishing them for not being at 100% during a crisis.
Do: Adapt your remote work policies as needed. Especially if you or your team is new to remote work, you won’t figure out what works perfectly at first—and even if you do, circumstances may change. Check in with your team regularly about what’s working and what isn’t, and be open to amending decisions.
Sources: “8 Tips for Managing Remote Teams.” University of North Carolina System Human Resources, 2020; “Accommodation and Compliance: Telework.” Job Accommodation Network, United States Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2020; Ron Charles. “Working from home was supposed to be heaven. It’s hell —and the author of ‘Eat Sleep Work Repeat’ knows why.” The Washington Post, March 31 2020; David Gelles. “Logged On From the Laundry Room: How the C.E.O.s of Google, Pfizer and Slack Work From Home.” The New York Times, March 23 2020; “Guide to Telework in the Federal Government.” United States Office of Personnel Management, 2011; “Managing Remotely.” The George Washington University, 2020.