- The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that more employees than ever before are working from home.
- Harvard Business School academics offer their advice on how leaders can support their team, maintain employee welfare, and ensure productivity is not affected by the crisis.
With many people working remotely for the first time, many of us have experienced a videoconference interrupted by barking dogs or hungry kids demanding snacks, punctuated, perhaps, by slamming cabinet doors and grinding ice makers in the background. We all understand, of course—we’re living it, too.
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Welcome to the new world of remote work, pandemic style.
Before the coronavirus hit, 5.2 percent of US employees reported telecommuting most of the time, while 43 percent worked from home at least some of the time. Now, with the pandemic shuttering workplaces, that figure has skyrocketed globally.
But remote work during this bizarre time is certainly not business as usual, even for work-from-home veterans. While some of the typical remote work rules apply, others don’t. Business leaders need a new game plan.
We asked Harvard Business School professors to provide practical advice for managing large-scale, long-term remote work at a time when many employees are not only distracted by the commotion in their homes, but are shaken by the crisis unfolding outside their doors.
Here are 10 ways that leaders can support employees who are working remotely during an unprecedented and uncertain time:
1. Communicate clearly and be decisive
Business leaders have already had to make difficult decisions, such as closing offices or eliminating travel, but now they should express in black-and-white terms how employees’ work priorities should change as a result of these business disruptions.
If certain non-essential tasks are too difficult to pull off from home, take them off the table or at least put them on a back burner for now, and let workers know which projects should be prioritized, says HBS Senior Lecturer Julia Austin, who provides leadership coaching to companies.
“While now is a time to foster trust and delegate, you don’t want people debating about whether they should or shouldn’t do a major project. All that time questioning what to do will impact productivity,” Austin says. “Managers should make the call on high-level priorities, so employees can focus on their best work.”
At a time when many business leaders can’t gather their staffs in the same room, they need to “show up” on videoconference or in email to update workers regularly about how their companies are pivoting to weather this crisis and protect employees worried about their jobs, says HBS professor Tsedal Neeley, the Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration, who has researched how to fix broken global teams.
“They may not be able to completely reassure workers about what will happen tomorrow, but they can provide a glimpse of the big picture from their perspective,” says Neeley, who is writing a case about a leader of a US company whose entire China operation was shut down and has seen no revenue, with thousands of employees home, since November.
2. Lead by example
Managers should model the behavior they want to see in others. If they say employees can leave the office or avoid travel, but the manager keeps popping into the workplace and hitting the road, workers may feel guilty staying put.
“Leaders underestimate how much what they do is mirrored by their employees,” Austin says. “Hypocrisy degrades them. Employees not only want to be told what to do, they want their managers to follow through on everything they’re saying, so they don’t feel pressure to keep up or start questioning their own performance.”
3. Be extra flexible
The beauty of classic remote work for employees is the breathing room for them to take a walk, throw in a load of laundry, or start dinner, all while getting more work done by avoiding unnecessary office meetings and traffic-snarled commutes.
But right now, with offices, schools, and day cares closed, those time-on-your-side benefits have evaporated for many remote workers who no longer have the house to themselves and are struggling with the tremendous challenge of focusing on work while balancing the demands of family members.
So, this period requires a new frontier of flexibility, the professors say. Managers should ask employees what challenges they face and allow workers the freedom to choose their own best windows of time to get work done, whether at the crack of dawn, late at night, or in two-hour shifts with breaks throughout the day.
“Managers should yield to the expertise and knowledge of their subordinates and let them decide the best times and ways for them to work right now,” Neeley says.
If the team is working on a project that is time-critical, one option is to ask employees about their availability so everyone knows not to expect an immediate response during certain chunks of the day. And, if a manager starts sending out emails on Sunday mornings because that’s her own best time to work, she should make it clear that her subordinates need not reply until Monday.
4. Adjust work expectations
Based on input from employees, managers may want to evaluate each employee’s workload and ability to handle the work given current circumstances and shift projects around as needed, Austin says.
It might even be appropriate for employers to decrease workloads for now and reevaluate when working hours should return to normal, says Lakshmi Ramarajan, the Anna Spangler Nelson and Thomas C. Nelson Associate Professor of Business Administration.
Her research suggests that employer expectations can create conflicts between employees’ personal and professional identities, decreasing their performance and commitment.
“Employers should understand the fundamental shift in employees’ lives and recognize that they have to radically alter their work expectations until this crisis winds down,” Ramarajan says. “An employee with young kids at home, or someone taking care of elder relatives, or a worker needing to focus on their own physical and mental health as a result of the situation will not be able to do a 40-hour workweek.”
Wikimedia, the nonprofit organization behind Wikipedia, is telling staff and contractors they can work 20 hours per week and still get paid for 40. “Work is not the only thing on people’s minds right now. Their families, their bills, childcare and school closures, the economy … we are all trying to manage a lot,” CEO Katherine Maher wrote. “It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect someone to be fully present, eight hours a day, when they have a three-year-old with crayons drawing on the wall, or an elderly parent who needs help navigating the stairs.”
On the flip side, some employees are working more than usual now—partly to prove they’re still plugging away when they can’t be seen. “There’s this pressure to say to your supervisor, ‘Yes, I’m here!’ by making yourself super available at all hours,” Austin says.
Managers should discourage workers from being “heroes,” Austin says. “If an employee is cranking at home because he’s good at it, but his colleagues are struggling, don’t start assigning all the work to him,” she says. “Managers should be patient and give people time to catch up, so you’re not adding pressure to anyone’s plate.”
5. Rethink meetings
Managers should understand that some employees can’t do back-to-back phone or online meetings all day long. “People are still spending too much time in meetings, even though our work and lives have changed significantly,” Austin says.
If your office has a meeting-heavy culture normally, consider scaling back the total number and length of meetings, Austin says. Could you reduce a get-together that typically lasted an hour in the office to a 30-minute huddle on Zoom if the meeting leader sticks to a clear agenda?
One of the simplest ways to trim meetings is to move to email, Slack, and other writing-based tools for information-sharing and idea-gathering. Call meetings only for decision-making, says Austin, who has written about how to master team meetings. “Meetings should be reserved for getting things done,” she says.
At the same time, Neeley notes that for some organizations, additional contact with staff and more meeting-based communication may be necessary now, particularly in the early days of adjusting to the remote work world. Research shows that informal conversation benefits remote employees, so she advises managers to devote time during meeting calls to connecting with staff on a personal level, for instance, by asking how everyone is holding up.
Afterward, managers should articulate key outcomes of the meeting using other media like email. “It can be harder to pay attention to a long meeting online versus face-to-face, so some form of redundant communication would be helpful so things don’t slip through the cracks,” Neeley says.
6. Move to more asynchronous work
Given the disruption to the 9-to-5 workday, employers should decrease “synchronous” work that employees perform simultaneously and increase “asynchronous work” that workers can do on their own time in a Google doc, Slack, or email, says Prithwiraj Choudhury, whose research shows companies often benefit when employees work remotely. Choudhury is the Lumry Family Associate Professor in the Technology and Operations Management Unit.
“The crisis accentuates what remote companies already understand—that work does not need to happen at the same time,” says Choudhury. “People can wake up in different time zones and cities, open documents, and get going.”
Those new to remote work also need to change their mindset about how quickly to expect responses and learn to practice patience, he says.
“If you post a message in Slack, trust that people will be responsible and come to it when they can,” he says. “It doesn’t hurt to throw your question in the deep, dark water and wait a few hours. We will all learn that things don’t have to happen right this instant. This is the new norming that needs to happen.”
7. Accept that productivity will probably suffer
Choudhury’s research shows productivity often increases with remote work. But now, with workers who have never operated this way scrambling to get up to speed while dealing with other distractions, this period is not the best litmus test for measuring the productivity of remote work, Choudhury says.
In fact, companies may need to face the hard truth that productivity could suffer by at least 10 to 20 percent in the short term, Austin says. “I have a client who hung a sheet in his basement because it was the only way he could hide from his kids. And his kids were still handing him notes under the sheet during our call,” she says. “With that happening everywhere, productivity is bound to suffer.”
Ramarajan says business leaders should send this message: We get it—this isn’t easy. Take care of yourself and your families first. Employers should also reassure them they won’t be penalized if productivity drops, whenever possible. This will generate greater long-term commitment to organizations, she says.
“Great leaders will share their own struggles about adjusting to their partners being on conference calls in the next room,” Austin says. “People often think that everyone else has it figured out except them. They’ll be relieved to know this isn’t easy for anyone.”
8. Focus on outcomes rather than monitoring activities
Supervisors who lack experience managing remote workers might seek to keep close tabs on employees—asking them to keep their webcams on all day or alert managers when they take quick breaks. Or they might send emails at 4:45 p.m. to test whether workers are still online. Neeley says this type of micromanaging, which was found, for example, in a Wall Street Journal leaked memo, sends a hidden message to workers: We don’t trust you.
“It’s terribly intrusive and tone deaf,” says Neeley. “Managers who don’t see the people they’re managing are struggling. They feel like they’re losing control, and their insecurities are creeping in.” She urges managers to let go of commanding by fear and trust they’ve hired competent people who aren’t slacking off.
One caveat: While most workers thrive with a hands-off approach, Choudhury’s research suggests that junior workers who are new to a company may need additional supervision and guidance while working remotely.
But in general, rather than monitoring every move employees make, companies should establish work goals and measure individual productivity based on output, he says.
“If you’re on a team in a traditional company, one imperfect measure of productivity is showing up to work every day,” Choudhury says. “Now companies don’t see their workers, so the immediate priority should be to make productivity more objective and measurable to the person, so you don’t worry people are free-riding.”
9. Take time to empathize
It’s a terrible, uncertain time, and managers need to acknowledge the obvious. After all, employees are worried not just about keeping their jobs and how their business is faring, but about the welfare of their families and friends, their personal finances, and even the logistics of squeezing in a harrowing run to the grocery store.
Managers might want to give employees space to talk with each other, offer support, and listen. “Now, more than ever, teams need empathy and to feel like you are all suffering together,” Austin says. “Everyone is dealing with a crisis that is very real. Managers should show their vulnerabilities by saying, ‘We’re all feeling this.’ After 9/11, crying with my coworkers was one of the most transformational moments in my career. Work teams may bond over this current crisis.”
10. Let workers blow off steam
With many employees feeling anxious and isolated, companies could set up attendance-optional social events online—coffee breaks, lunch gatherings, happy hours, cooking and crafting classes, talent shows, and even meet-the-pet sessions.
Knowing that workers are bound to feel some screen fatigue these days, business leaders should encourage self-care by encouraging employees to take breaks, naps, and walks between work calls.
“A manager can say, ‘It’s 3 p.m., and it’s been a tough week. Take the rest of the afternoon off and spend time with your loved ones.’ You’d be meeting people where they are by recognizing that everyone is stressed out,” Neeley says.
While this period of remote work isn’t normal, Choudhury says, the silver lining is that many business leaders who have long been resistant to the idea of remote work may open their eyes for the first time to its benefits, including happier workers, less need for office space, and, for some, a possible bump in productivity over the long haul, once the virus settles down.
“Now that you’ve opened the door to adopting a remote work culture, it may be hard to go back,” Austin says. “My prediction is that there will be a higher demand for more remote-friendly software solutions, a lot of empty space in office parks, and more workers looking for remote roles.”