What I’ve Learned While Our Employees are Working Remotely

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One year. 

And for some, it’s been closer to 13 months

Let’s face it. For the majority of HR professionals, we have been working in a remote world for roughly a year. In many cases, most employees had little to no experience in a remote environment prior to March 2020.

There’s been questions around productivity, communication, childcare and mental and physical health and safety; only the beginning of a long list of areas requiring massive considerations and changes. Collectively, this is something worth pausing over.

As a leader, or working to support clients who are leaders, you’ve felt the impact of these changes. Your leaders have felt the impact. Those abruptly adjusting to working remotely the best they can also felt it.

The common thread I am reminded of while employees have been working remotely is one very significant, key piece at the core of our profession: our employees are human and humans are unique individuals. Treating them as such by recognizing unique situations, acknowledging fears and supporting how employees manage work in a new environment is not just a sign of a good leader, but should be inherent in every leader.

Recognize Your Employees’ Unique Situation

I would argue that very few are adapting to remote working in the exact same way.

Some have children; others don’t. Some have elderly family members at home or to care for in some way; others don’t. Some have home office spaces; others don’t. And, some have gone through major life events including births, deaths and various types of loss, adding stress upon stress for them to cope with.

The Conference Board of Canada and the Mental Health Commission of Canada partnered to survey 1,804 Canadians between April and May 2020 and found that 84 per cent of respondents reported that their mental health concerns worsened since the onset of COVID-19.

Whatever situation your employees may find themselves in, consider the power in verbally acknowledging that. Tell them you’re listening, you hear them and that you’re open to supporting them as a whole employee, including the use of psychological services, employee assistance programs and other existing company programs or policies.

Recognizing their unique situation will create the transparency that’s required for trust, and trust will build your relationship even when you’re not physically in the same (office) space anymore.

Recognize Their Fears

Change can be downright terrifying for some people, even immobilizing, especially when it’s forced change. Remembering to validate employees’ fears is so important and for some this means feeling confident in saying, “I recognize navigating this significant change it isn’t always easy. While I don’t have all the answers, I can see you’re struggling.”

The global analytics and advice firm, Gallup, has studied global citizens’ worries, fears and confidence during nearly every major crisis from the Great Depression, 9/11, the 2008 global financial crash, to the COVID-19 pandemic and others.

Through this research, they have found “four universal needs that we have of leaders: trust, compassion, stability and hope. It’s clear that when “leaders have a clear way forward, human beings are amazingly resilient. There is a documented ‘rally effect.’” By recognizing the concerns and fears our remote employees are faced with, we can provide them with purposeful leadership.

Recognize That the Work Is the Focus, Not Tracking Minutes Spent Online

“My employee is remote but I just don’t think they’re being productive — I can’t see them at their desk like I used to in the office.”

Certainly, this is a sentiment expressed by leaders across industries and organizations that suddenly had to figure out how to lead a remote team, while still meeting business priorities.

Why wouldn’t it be, though?

It was what we knew and were comfortable with. A big reminder for me was that amid all the shifts in practices, protocols and processes, how we managed work, both our own and the work of our team members, also needed to shift.

Sadly, I’m not a runner anymore but I once had dreams of completing a marathon. Despite being far from a marathon expert or coach, I akin the forced change from an office work environment to a remote work environment to taking a marathon runner who broke records in a cold climate and teleporting them to a tropical climate without any preparation and expecting the same result — it’s likely not going to happen.

Square peg, round hole? Same analogy.

Changes were (are) required; a careful review of the training plan, nutrition, the body’s response to travel and a time change and, of course, acclimation to the temperature of the new environment before race day will all be necessary for success.

For our remote employees, though, very few had those preparatory luxuries and so consideration of our approach had to change in the moment and was even more critical in order to see any degree of remote work success.

Where did we land? Rather than monitoring how long an employee had been seen sitting at their desk in our previous office environment and converting that to minutes spent active on Zoom or Microsoft Teams in a remote work environment, clarify priorities, check in regularly and manage by output, rather than observation.

No Longer a Dream

I remember, as I’m sure many of us can, before 2020, working remotely was something dreams were made of.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to work from home?”

Indeed.

Commuting less (or not at all) along with being able to cook lunch rather than pack one the night before and enjoying a mid-afternoon break during the workday to walk the dog seemed like all but a luxury until it was forced upon so many employees in a matter of days.

Now, mental health concerns continue to rise, our job, financial and personal stress levels are being tested, and winter is here, bringing darker days and even more time spent indoors.

Looking forward? Some employees can’t wait to come back to an office environment while others wish nothing more than to work remotely 100 per cent of the time, forever.

As people professionals, it’s our responsibility to provide thoughtful leadership and to consider what we each have learned while our employees have been working remotely. For myself, I’m still learning every day.

 


 

Jackie Connelly, CPHR has built upon her past HR generalist and business consultant experience, as her current organizational development role at BC Transit allows her to manage change by leading and supporting the development and delivery of HR strategies, policies and procedures that support and empower people to do their best work.

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