- COVID-19 has created an opportunity to experiment with remote work
- Managers need to orient themselves to leading remote teams
- Communication, accountability and individualization can drive performance
COVID-19 has created what Time magazine called "the world's largest work-from-home experiment." It's teaching leaders who weren't on board with off-site work that operations can be just as productive as ever -- though it takes time and patience to reorient managers to get high performance from a remote team.
Time and patience are in short supply. High employee performance, however, is needed now more than ever. To sustain it, leaders should learn what Gallup has uncovered in our 12 years of studying remote work.
12 Years in the Making: What Gallup Knows About Remote Work
1. Communication yields engagement.
Scholars and practitioners have been telling remote managers the same thing since employees went remote in early March: communicate. It's good advice, but it's missing an important piece: frequency.
Gallup research finds that frequent conversations yield the biggest improvements in engagement. And remote workers are three times more likely to be engaged if they receive feedback from their manager at least a few times per month. So, communicate -- ask what their preference is. Don't make it a guessing game, make it a conversation.
2. Accountability comes from expectations.
In his book Soar With Your Strengths, Gallup's first chairman Don Clifton advised leaders that, "Nothing happens until someone expects something of you in ways you can achieve," Remote or not, employees can only be accountable for what's expected of them. And to hold remote workers accountable, managers must provide clear and collaborative expectations -- but 26% of employees strongly agree their manager is good at helping them clarify priorities, and six in 10 employees know what is expected of them at work.
These baseline numbers suggest we've got some work to do.
Remote or not, employees can only be accountable for what's expected of them.
For starters, managers have to be explicit about the remote workers' responsibilities and metrics -- and excellence should always be the standard. That said, managers and employees should define success together, based on the worker's talents. Doing so prevents future conflicts and aligns the worker with the goals of the team and organization. In other words, to make things happen, your expectations for your employees must be clear and achievable for them.
3. Individualize to optimize.
Some workers are beginning to realize that the presence of others and the structure of the office kept them focused. Others now know people and external structure slowed them down and that solitude increases their productivity. Those are just a few examples of what's referred to as "clues to talent" -- unique, differentiated circumstances that help each employee to thrive. Managers and workers alike need to learn to recognize these clues and then apply their findings productively.
That's not to suggest that managers can exactly replicate the workplace for remote workers. That's clearly not possible. But they can identify the conditions that allow people to do what they do best -- that's what the CliftonStrengths assessment does -- and set people up to succeed at home. That could mean a daily team video conference so socially motivated workers can see the rest of the team as they work. Or managers can set up an opt-in reminder system: "It's 8 a.m. and time to do great things!" and, "10 a.m. and time for a break," And, "It's 4 p.m. -- what's left on your to-do list?"
Some employees don't need or want that level of attention -- they'll find it intrusive -- but others do. Either way, individualizing to the employee is the heart of great coaching, which is the key to optimizing performance.
The Opportunity in an Unprecedented 'Experiment'
In 2012, Gallup reported that 39% of the U.S. workforce was working off-site at least some of the time. In 2016, that number was 43%. And now, Gallup Panel data from the first half of April finds that 62% of U.S. workers have worked from home because of concern about the coronavirus. Eventually, the pandemic will end, and it will be safe to return to the office. When that happens, leaders and managers will have the time and patience to reflect on what millions of people learned from "the world's largest work-from-home experiment."
When the pandemic ends, leaders and managers will have the time and patience to reflect on what millions of people learned from "the world's largest work-from-home experiment."
At that point, companies will have to make some decisions about flexibility. Managers who don't practice good remote management now will conclude that it just doesn't work.
But managers who take the time and have the patience to hold people accountable for the right things, who communicate expectations and individualize, will come to a very different conclusion. That conclusion will have an enormous impact on companies and the future of business. And a substantial percentage of the workforce is already wondering what leaders are going to do.