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Talent Assessment | 8 Min Read

Challenges of Working Remotely In Times of COVID-19

Challenges of Working Remotely

The arrival of COVID-19 caught most businesses off-guard, without allowing them to gauge remote work readiness of employees and devise a strategy on it. Working remotely has been an abrupt change for most. Still, most organizations are working on flexible strategies to counter the challenges of working remotely and increasing the productivity of remote workers. A significant step for organizations would be to pause and collectively understand their effectiveness in dealing with this sudden change.

The transition to remote work has been both life-altering and a revelation. Employees, across all levels, are facing challenges. However, leaders and managers are faced with challenges of managing remote employees, ensuring their productivity, and the larger team’s productivity while maintaining realistic expectations. On the other hand, employees are faced with multiple distractions at home and the expectation of quickly adapting to the new way of working. Here are some of the challenges confronted by managers and employees:

Communication & Collaboration

Seamless communication is the first to suffer as employees retract to their homes. Words often lose meaning without body language, expressions, gestures, and cadence – features that are part of face-to-face conversations. Add to that the complexity of email, texts, chats, and other ways digitization that enables relaying a message, with individual preference, there are higher chances of miscommunication. 

Miscommunication often hinders collaboration – an attribute on which organizations rely heavily to get the work done. Walking up to people’s desks is not the same as connecting with them over a call/email. Collaboration is a two-way street, and employees and managers alike need to work towards it to proactively drive maximum outcomes.

Monitoring & Supervision

The lack of face-to-face interaction can often lead to misdirection. Managers may feel that the productivity of remote workers is diminishing in the absence of an office environment and added distractions at home. Employees might have to grapple with reduced access to managerial support, making them feel disconnected and discouraged. The need for appreciation, reassurance, and validation in remote working employees, is higher due to the absence of being able to talk to their managers and read their body language. There is a heightened need for those elements because most employees are managing multiple responsibilities and trying their best to perform at their maximum productivity. Thus, managers need to maintain a delicate balance between giving optimal directions and resisting the urge to micromanage.

 Social Isolation

Psychologists suggest that when a person, or a group, is stuck at an isolated location or in confined quarters for an extended period, they are most likely to experience irritability or restlessness. This is referred to as ‘Cabin Fever.

Dr Swati Sharma
Senior Researcher, Mercer | Mettl

To know more, read Balancing Economics with Empathy: A Guide for Organizations to Help Employees Cope with Social Isolation

Social interaction is indispensable to our growth and development and helps us to stay connected. The lack of social interaction can lead to an uneven sense of belongingness, decreased levels of happiness, motivation, and even productivity, in some cases.

 Distractions

With the sudden onset of remote work and implications of social distancing, remote working from home has posed additional challenges of managing household chores and/or parenting responsibilities or just an individual’s ability to avoid procrastinating about work without direct supervision or monitoring. Distractions can impact the productivity of remote workers, but that is not to say that distractions only occur while working away from the office. 

 Access to Technology

Systems fail, internet connections get disrupted — technology isn’t always reliable. Disruptions like these can lead to annoyance, but they are only temporary. The challenges of working remotely include being affected by different situations, one of which is a technical glitch.

Working from home requires a lot of technological know-how. You have to keep abreast of changes in devices that you use, for instance, laptops, software, or tablets. Sadly, that is not a cup of tea for every worker. Thus, it is easy for you to find yourself in a technological jungle and end up missing to work effectively.

Hammad Akbar
Co-Founder, Cavako

The Manager’s Role in Driving the Change

How to Overcome the Challenges of Managing Remote Employees?

Leaders and managers play a significant role in mitigating these challenges. Managing remote teams is not the usual practice for most managers, so they might often find themselves questioning their methods and strategies. It is critical to gauge employees’ moods and feedback periodically. 

Managers also need to set practical expectations for themselves, their teammates, and the organization. Along with the challenges of managing remote employees, managers are responsible for measuring remote employees’ productivity. Managers need to adopt a more humane approach to keep high-performing employees productive, engaged, and motivated. They must understand factors that make remote work demanding and help others to improve upon them. Simple attitude shifts can make all the difference in times of crisis.

Managing a remote team has become an interesting challenge, largely due to the variation in experience with working from home. While some employees are highly motivated, others are giving in to the temptations of their environment. Our best strategy for keeping everyone engaged and motivated is creating a virtual workspace that best mimics the in-office experience. We’ve used Slack to replicate the work environment. As well as including channels for different projects, we’ve also created ones called ‘water cooler’ and ‘break room’ where employees can chat. Even if they aren’t working, they’re still engaged with work and will usually regain focus pretty quickly.

Laura Fuentes
Operator, Infinity Dish

 Staying Connected

An effective manager is good at communicating and listening. While remote working might make some managers exclusively task-focused, they must make time to interact with their teams and continuously communicate through video conferences and understand personal contexts. Managers need to communicate trust and respect and refrain from the desire to micromanage. Managing a dispersed team can be stressful, but making time for personal interactions can keep your team on track. Sharing experiences, jokes, or even what one had for lunch during these stressful times, can make your employees feel connected.

It's essential for leaders to spend every ounce of their energy to pinpoint what each and every employee on the team needs to thrive. Who is introverted vs. extroverted? Who needs more emotional support and guidance? Once you know your team member's personalities, priorities, and motivations, you'll be able to bring out the best in them in remote work. Tap into the power of 1:1s and ensure you're both accessible to and involved with each and every person on the team. In essence, you need to create space for conversations to discuss exact challenges that are now short-circuiting employees' happiness and wellbeing.

Jagoda Wieczorek
HR Manager, ResumeLab

 Project Management & Accountability

Coordinating with different members and teams while ensuring adherence to timelines and efficiency is a difficult challenge. Digital tools can aid in project management and accountability. Many managers believe in conducting daily or weekly team standups to stay abreast of developments that help to better manage expectations and provide a clearer picture of everyone’s contribution. Clear communication on accountability and timelines and constantly updating on progress is one way of effective project management. Using other tools such as a project management platform, an excel spreadsheet, or a virtual whiteboard, can enable keeping everyone updated. 

For many remote managers, the urge to micromanage can be a significant challenge. When you’re in a traditional office environment, you have a general sense of employee productivity. This “general sense” is absent in a remote work environment. My best tip for managers is to be intentionally transparent in your expectations for remote workers. These expectations can include: a) what time do you expect them to be online and available; b) how quickly do you expect them to respond to your messages or questions; c) what are their main tasks and deliverables for each week; and d) what are the status reporting communications you expect. Being intentionally transparent in your expectations, up-front, will eliminate a lot of problems later on.

Dean Calhoun
President/CEO, Affygility Solutions

 Work Context & Clarity

As the distinction between personal and professional hours blurs, managers can start to lead by example and create clear boundaries. This ensures employees work to the best of their productivity but don’t get burned out. Managers should pay particular attention by iterating and reiterating every project’s roles and goals and the quantum of every team member’s involvement and responsibility. Providing the bigger picture, a shared vision, and each employee’s contribution to achieving them can positively impact teams by keeping them engaged and moving together in the right direction.

 Flexibility

While a structure is required to manage deliverables, flexibility is needed to manage a team. With additional responsibilities that come with being at home, managers need to create a safe working environment by being flexible, wherever possible, by creating an enabling environment where employees can voice their concerns. Managers who address specific concerns of their team members often witness increased team productivity and effectiveness.

One of the biggest challenges to leading a remote team is adjusting to a new rhythm of life outside the office. I’ve had some employees thrive with minimal supervision, while others have needed extra support. It’s important for leaders to take the time and learn the individual preferences of team members. The management methods you used in-office might not translate to remote work. During this uncertain and constantly fluctuating situation, you will need to be flexible in the way you communicate and convey information, as well as how you measure employee work performance.

Monica Eaton-Cardone
Co-Founder and COO, Chargebacks911

The Role of Organizations in Helping Employees Overcome the Challenges of Working Remotely

Organizations can prepare their workforce for the long-haul lockdown in several ways. First, clearly communicate expectations to employees; second, provide solid communication tools beyond just email; third, provide training and coaching to employees on how they can improve their core competencies; and, finally, let all the employees know that we are unsure how long this will last, and we must be prepared that it may last a very long time.

Dean Calhoun
President/CEO, Affygility Solutions

 Provision of Resources

Equipping your workforce with bare minimum resources such as machines, remote tech support, and other tools required to stay productive is a good start. Organizations can also explore providing counseling, wellbeing sessions, access to shared online communities, learning and development opportunities through online courses, subscriptions, and more.

Our staff can access our EAP (employee assistance program), which has been modified to include video face-to-face counseling where required. We are also surveying our staff more regularly to keep a pulse on how they feel and what their concerns are so we can put programs and initiatives in place to support them.

Priya O'Grady
Head of Marketing, Console Group

 Future-Proofing

These unprecedented times have led organizations to make difficult decisions about workforce management to stay afloat. Organizations are going the extra mile to retain their best employees and not make any abrupt decisions. A structured and scientific strategy of high-potential identification can address this problem and equip your leaders to make better talent decisions for the uncertain times ahead.

Working remotely is the ultimate test of your employees' ability to self motivate and achieve without supervision. If lockdowns continue for the next couple of months, you should have enough time to get a sense of who on your team is capable of working outside of the office and can potentially be allowed to work remotely even when the lockdown ends, should you both decide that's better. Conversely, this lockdown will give you a sense of who on your team may need the focus, concentration, team cohesion, and supervision that comes from working in an office. Whether you decide to make those changes is up to you.

Jake Rheude
VP of Marketing, Red Stag Fulfillment

 Culture of Appreciation

Acknowledging high-performers with awards and recognitions is an excellent practice. Organizations need to build a culture of gratitude by thanking employees who stand out during a week or month. While organizations are trying to cut costs, a simple shout-out or an Amazon voucher goes a long way in keeping your employees motivated and connected to the organization’s cause.

We make a point to educate our line managers on the importance of recognizing staffers' wins. Most employees don't think managers recognize their work as often as they should. As a result, they don't feel appreciated for their contributions, which might cause their engagement levels to short-circuit. To tackle it, we've set up a #kudos Slack channel to praise employees for accomplishments and also encourage peers to give kudos when their colleagues do a slam-dunk job.

Jagoda Wieczorek
HR Manager, ResumeLab

 Transparent Communication

Clear and consistent communication can help employees to plan better. Sharing short and long-term goals, communicating formally and informally, building trust and transparency, should be encouraged as general practices.

Organizations can work on their open and transparent communication culture, starting from the management. It’s a matter of company culture whether or not the WFH will work well. The more the mutual trust there is, the better will the productivity be.

Milos Djordjevic
Co-Founder, SaveMyCent

Anomalous times call for extraordinary resolve and determination on the part of employees, managers and organizations. To successfully conquer remote work, organizations need to identify a set of remote work skills and shift focus to L&D initiatives to empower everyone to effectively and productively work remotely without getting bogged down by the challenges of working remotely.

How Mercer | Mettl Can Help?

Mercer | Mettl’s suite of tools is designed to help you build an agile workforce during times of uncertainty. Mercer | Mettl has always been at the forefront of assisting organizations in building winning teams through intelligent recruitment technology and revolutionary L&D programs. Here are some of Mercer | Mettl’s solutions to enable you to better manage the COVID-19 disruptions:

Remote Work Survey: Measure employee pulse on remote working.

Remote Work Assessment: Define competencies and skills unique to your employees’ challenges of working remotely and get customized assessments.

High Potential Identification: Identify your most valuable employees for better talent optimization.

Virtual Assessment Centre: Conduct L&D initiatives as usual, with the help of technology, for continued workforce development and organizational planning.

Online Interview Platform: Hire remotely with a structured video interview tool to make quicker and better hiring decisions.

Originally published June 22 2020, Updated July 1 2020

Bhuvi Kathpalia

Written by

Bhuvi is a content marketer at Mercer | Mettl. She's helped various brands find their voice through insightful thought pieces and engaging content. When not scandalizing people with her stories, you’ll find her challenging gender norms, dancing to her own tune, and crusading through life, laughing.

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