Leaders, which of your employees need the most support right now?
As people across the world strive to find some semblance of balance in their new realities as remote workers, some are better equipped than others. Leaders are learning how to manage remotely and work remotely themselves. Employees are learning how to stay in touch, stay on task, and stay in tune with their personal and family lives, often all at once, mixed up throughout the days and nights as the pandemic wears on around the world. Organizational structures and policies are constantly shifting to accommodate these new realities. Anecdotal and qualitative evidence has been shared about how people are doing and how leaders should react, but empirical evidence is lacking as we are still in the midst of this crisis.
Inspired by our recent research about who is best equipped to handle the stress of remote work, and by advice during past natural and manmade disasters causing disruptions in the world of work, we conducted an international online survey of 241 employees, intending to find out who is faring the best in their current work-from-home arrangements. These findings reveal some important lessons for leaders about how to manage this new remote workforce.
Every work-from-home situation has its challenges, as those in each situation would be quick to share. We designed a short survey to compare responses across five work-from-home scenarios: home alone, home with other adults (parents or roommates), home with partner (and no kids), home with kids (and no partner), and home with partner and kids.
We assessed three key factors across these five categories: perceptions of support, characteristics and skills that predispose them to be effective in remote work (individual readiness for remote work), and who is using their newfound time and flexibility resources to achieve goals across the work and home domains. We also measured each individual’s level of emotional stability, a personality trait linked to readiness for remote work and for facing stressors in general.
Our assessment revealed a clear pattern of results, which can help leaders understand who needs the most attention in this particular remote work transition (COVID-19) and in other future emergency remote work situations. The arrangement faring worst during this time is the home alone with kids category. These individuals perceive the lowest levels of support from all sources, and rate themselves lowest on the items reflecting individual readiness to work remotely. The best arrangement appears to be home with partner and no kids. For all categories and outcomes, emotional stability was highly important.
Home Alone: Those working from home alone have isolation concerns, which is a frequently cited concern in remote work research.
Home with Kids: Those working from home with kids have the hardest time trying to balance both work and family responsibilities, with those who have no partner at home faring the worst. They likely also experience the most professional isolation in combination with never being alone, being isolated away from adults with kids at home.
Home Alone with Partner: Those working from home with a partner but no kids appear to have the best of both worlds, enjoying the benefits of remote work but also having adult companionship. They may still struggle with isolation from their workplace and coworkers, but likely have the most mental and emotional capacity to find workarounds to compensate for lack of face time since they do not also have kids to care for while working.
Implications for Leaders
These work-from-home situations are not in the control of leaders to change for employees. But these results carry clear suggestions for leaders in terms of how they can support and equip their employees in times like these and in normal times. Based on these findings and the remote work literature at large, we offer 5 recommendations, which we address directly to leaders.
- Find out what each employee needs. By this point, employees likely have most of the tangible resources they need, such as computers, internet, phones, and other essential business items. But other needs may be less obvious. You might have to ask them directly what they still need. They may be afraid to ask for more, or they might not even know or realize what they are lacking. The individuals who are home alone with kids may be particularly fearful of losing their job if they speak up about their challenges. Ask how you can help. In particular, leaders may need to offer extra support and adjust expectations for employees who will continue to work from home while also juggling childcare. Those with no partner at home (whether just during the workday or ever) may need an extra dose of support. Employees who are home alone with only their partner may be in a unique circumstance to help offer support to those who need it. Coordinating support networks among employees may be one way that leaders can address these challenges most effectively.
- Offer autonomy and support in equal measures. In these times, while more people are home all the time, employees may need more flexibility in their schedule to complete work whenever they can, while also taking care of home responsibilities and sharing workspaces, technology, and internet bandwidth with family members. Do not try to micromanage from afar, as autonomy is one of the most important ingredients for successful remote work. But do offer tangible support from afar and be clear about the difference as you offer it. As people start returning to work, some employees may still have kids at home, and employers must accommodate for that. SHRM has offered guidance on those policies. Keep in mind that your job as a leader is to help your employees design a remote work arrangement that works for them and the organization – everyone’s reality will be different in terms of how they can best juggle all of their other responsibilities and still achieve their work goals. Also keep in mind some employees do not want as much autonomy, and this is largely driven by levels of emotional stability. So if you have an employee who seems to ride that emotional roller coaster in normal times at the office, be aware they are probably having a particularly hard time right now. Offer support and encouragement and hold frequent, honest conversations about how much guidance and clarity they want from you while you are apart.
- Share training and best practices for remote work. Especially for employees who are new to remote work, these offerings can really help them ramp up their remote work skills faster and adjust to this new normal. Best practices include guidelines for setting up appropriate boundaries between work and family, setting up a productive and comfortable workspace, etiquette of video and conference calls, and how to set up proactive communication with leaders and coworkers. Adopt the right tools to help virtual collaboration without letting the technology get in the way – virtual whiteboards, shared documents, messaging applications – don’t let the technology get in the way of work but make it work for you and your team.
- Hold opportunities for professional interactions. During these times, many employees have expressed their desire to connect more informally with their coworkers. Although some have also expressed joy at avoiding those interactions as well. It may be a challenge for leaders to strike the right balance of interaction while still giving employees the freedom they crave for working at home. Many leaders are facilitating virtual coffee breaks or other meetings without agendas, which are optional but highly attended. The success of this type of initiative largely depends on the collegiality you had in your team prior to this crisis. Avoid placing undue stress on your employees to attend such meetings if they feel it will help their reputation and standing in the team by being clear about (lack of) expectations and intentions. There is a plethora of opportunities to build strong cohesion among members now by supporting each other well during this time. At a minimum, you will need to check in proactively at appropriate intervals with your team members, whether in team or individual meetings or emails. The goal is to avoid wasting time but keep up connections to keep or strengthen the bonds among your employees for their benefit and for the benefit of the organization.
- Be ready for a new normal. Now is the time to start planning for what your workplace will look like when everyone can return to work. What are you learning from this experience about how work can be accomplished in your team? What are your employees learning about what they like and dislike about remote work and these new ways of interacting? What efficiencies have you uncovered in the process, and what inefficiencies have you eliminated? Start thinking about policies for remote work in the future. If your team has now had a taste of it, they may have preferences and request for the future. How will you handle those to maximize employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity? All will benefit the bottom line and employee retention, so plan now for how to handle those requests.
We are all facing unprecedented uncertainty. As a leader, any comfort and support you can give employees will make an enormous difference for future engagement and loyalty. But move away from a one-size-fits-all approach, even for offering support. Many of us have very limited time and attention as we strive to juggle simultaneous responsibilities, so use your time wisely to support your employees in the way they need to be supported and focus on helping those who need it most. Leaders who tailor their approach to each employee during these challenging times will find they are most successful in empowering and supporting these employees to thrive, even in the midst of the ongoing challenges. As we navigate the coming months, the most successful leaders will be those who have adapted according to the needs of their team. The future of work will continue to be about the ability to adapt – to the next crisis, the next disruptor, the next trend – what can you learn from COVID-19 to be ready for next time?
“Even introverts who work in an office can suffer from isolation at suddenly being moved home. Dr. Perry suggested proactively staying in touch with others rather than waiting for someone to reach out. That could mean emailing colleagues more often, having conference calls, video conferences, using chat tools or just picking up the phone.” ~ NY Times
Click the button to take the assessment and get your own individual readiness report.