Remote work is a term that was barely known and rarely used before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Working from home seemed a great luxury and was limited to only a handful of specialised roles or individuals that were employed by international companies. Now that the world is gradually moving from the ‘new normal’ back to the true norm we knew before, many companies still allow employees to work remotely – but not without challenges.
One of the greatest challenges of managing a team consisting of remote workers, is ensuring that everyone delivers the same quality of work and displays the same ability to meet deadlines as they would have while working in an office environment. Companies have had to find creative ways to not only stay in touch with workers, but also to ensure that they remain motivated to deliver high-quality work, meet deadlines, and keep within regular company policies regarding attendance and working hours.
Note that, in the context of this article, motivation does not refer to how excited or inspired workers are to complete their tasks, but to the extent of which workers remain punctual, dedicated, and disciplined in starting and completing their work.
So, how can a company motivate employees to remain productive?
1. Provide the necessary technological tools
When working from home, companies may (within reason) expect employees to have the necessary technology to remain in touch and complete their tasks. However, companies are still legally responsible for providing workers with the tools they inherently need to complete their tasks. In the case of an office environment, such tools would generally include computers or laptops, a keyboard and mouse, and perhaps even a second monitor (screen).
Should the employee have limited internet data, or struggle with proper connections, you might consider providing them with a mobile dongle or even a partial data allowance as part of their remuneration package.
Here are some tips:
- Ask workers whether they need more, or are struggling with any inherently required tools.
- Should that be the case, determine the true need and try to accommodate them where possible.
- If it is not possible to provide them with additional tools, discuss creative solutions around their concern, such as coming to the office once a week or working at a smaller branch or professional partner nearby.
2. Utilise a central communication tool or app
MS Teams, Skype, Zoom, and other platforms that allow interaction between colleagues and their managers, have become well known and well used over the past two years. Still, some companies use it mainly for important meetings and sending quick messages to workers.
These platforms allow great opportunity to help remote workers feel connected to their colleagues, and to create a central space for documentation for particular task or project. Workers can check in with one another, communicate when they need to take breaks, ask for assistance, or simply have a quick laugh with their colleagues.
Here are some tips:
- Have your team check in every morning on a group chat with a quick ‘hello’, and let them use that group chat to ask opinions or communicate when they’ll be away from their laptops for a quick break – but don’t use it to micromanage them (more on that later).
- Schedule a fortnightly or monthly informal meeting with your team (just your direct team) to have them simply catch up and feel reconnected to their colleagues.
- When using MS Teams, create a Team for large projects as a central space for all documents to avoid the risk of documents or information getting lost in a busy email inbox.
3. Have a clear line of communication
One of the concerns companies had when workers initially started working remotely, was that lack of communication would lead to duplication of work, poor results, or tasks going missing or incomplete. Interestingly enough, many companies found that communication improved a lot in a short time. They realised that important messages were sent to all involved via email or message on the central communication tool, rather than relying on word-of-mouth spread around the office, which often led to some team members not receiving the message. To ensure that communication remains effective, clearly stipulate who workers should contact for which types of queries or tasks, and to whom they could escalate any concerns or issues.
Here are some tips:
- Clarify whom workers should contact for specific tasks or queries, as well as the preferred method of contact (e.g. email or private chat message).
- Ensure that you know which workers are involved in a project, so that they all receive important messages regarding the project.
- For large teams, appoint team leaders to smaller groups – they could handle basic enquiries from the team and escalate matters to their manager.
4. Recognise effort and achievement
When working remotely, workers are largely cut off from the chatter that buzzes around the office. While this chatter has become a distraction for remote workers when they do visit the office, the chatter often serves to pass along mention of employee efforts and achievements. People notice when colleagues work late, come in early, take on more than they usually would, or achieved something great.
Without this chatter and visual impact, such efforts and achievements can easily be overlooked. That is why it rests on the shoulders of the manager to take note of their workers’ efforts and achievements – and praise them accordingly. Regardless of working conditions, workers thrive on praise or acknowledgement from their manager, as it makes them feel appreciated, noticed, and hopeful for future professional growth or bonuses.
Here are a few tips:
- Check in with your workers regularly and have them share their recent experiences.
- Know the tasks of each worker and have a look at the end result to notice when they exceeded expectations in terms of quality and deadline.
- Take note of proactive thought or initiative by comparing the initial brief with the end result.
- Listen to how colleagues speak about one another and pay close attention to detect praise for a colleague and to disregard negativity that stems from poor self-image concerns.
- When delivering praise, do so privately at first and then publicly in front of their team – and remember to inform higher levels of management about workers who frequently exceed expectations or continually deliver great results.
5. Support and respect work-life balance
The commute to and from work provides workers with the opportunity to focus on what lies ahead, and to emotionally and mentally prepare for what lies ahead. When working remotely – especially when working from home – there is no built-in breathing time between being at home and being at work. Encourage your workers to develop a habit that gives them time to mentally switch from home life to work life. This could be something as simple as opening the door to their home office only in the mornings, or taking a brisk walk around the block after work.
Furthermore, respect that workers have meaning to their lives outside their employment. Some may have families, busy social lives, online studies, or other responsibilities. Respect their time and privacy after hours the same way you would have were they in the office.
Here are some tips:
- Politely ask workers about their health and families, to show that you acknowledge and care about their lives outside work.
- When sending emails after hours, use the delay function to have the email delivered during working hours.
- Avoid the temptation of sending WhatsApp messages – workers will most likely feel obliged to respond even if you don’t expect them to.
- Encourage your team to take breaks, to use their lunchtime, and not to neglect their personal lives.
6. Provide structure for workers who struggle to prioritise
While some workers have the inherent ability and self-discipline to prioritise their tasks and schedule their day, other workers (especially younger workers) might become easily distracted or need more structure and guidance to complete their tasks. If a dedicated worker often misses deadlines or seems to struggle in juggling their tasks, they might need your help to structure their day. Rather than simply presenting the worker with a prescribed schedule, engage them in an open conversation and get their input on how to best approach such a schedule. They might have optimal concentration times during which tasks requiring more focus could be placed, or have input on which tasks take longer than others.
Here are some tips:
- Have an open discussion with the worker on how they would feel about having a set schedule or structure to their day.
- Determine the appropriate time allocation for each task, and create timeslots for such tasks during the day.
- Schedule frequent check-ins with the worker to realign priorities and adjust their schedule accordingly.
- If the worker continues to struggle, consider bringing them back in to the office where a day’s structure tends to come more naturally then when working remotely.
7. Utilise online tools to track capacity; not time
Not having your team together in the office could pose a challenge to determining the progress of tasks or the workload and capacity of each worker. Tools such as SmartSheet allow you to delegate tasks to workers from an integrated master sheet, while workers can indicate when the task is done. This allows you to track the number of tasks each worker has completed, and the capacity they have for more tasks. However, avoid using such tools to track the time spent on each task unless it is an inherent requirement of the job.
IT support teams might need to account for how long it took to attend to a support request, while call-centre agents (especially in sales) might need to account for every minute spent on the phone or how long it took them to attend to a potential lead/sale.
Here are some tips:
- Implement a tool such as SmartSheet to track the workload and capacity of each worker.
- Use such tools to determine the natural speed and workload that a worker can handle.
- Check in with workers who seem to complete much fewer tasks than their colleagues.
- Unless absolutely necessary, avoid using such tools to track time, as that is quite destructive to job satisfaction and trust.
8. Move the employee back to the office only if absolutely necessary
When no other creative solutions or alternative approaches had succeeded in improving a worker’s motivation, self-discipline, or quality and punctuality of work delivered, then – and only then – consider moving them back to the office. If the worker’s employment contract states that their official place of work is at the office, you are fully within your rights to compel them back to the office. However, if they had worked remotely for some time, this action itself might negatively impact their motivation for working or staying with your company. When having the conversation about moving them back to the office, approach it as a mutually beneficial solution to struggles that both you and the worker had experienced. They might not immediately react positively to the move, but in time they might realise their increased comfort and productivity, or they might choose to move on to alternative employment.
Here are some tips:
- Try creative solutions and alternative approaches to boost the worker’s motivation and productivity.
- When nothing has worked, have a softly-approached conversation with the employee about their moving back to the office.
- Give the worker room to air their thoughts, as well as some time to adjust to the news before having them start back at the office.
- Monitor the worker’s productivity and attitude for a several weeks to determine whether they are adjusting well or remaining (and spreading) a negative attitude around the office.