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When Social Distancing Disrupts the Workforce: Tips for Managing and Training Remote Teams

April 17, 2020
Planning for the next step is the only cure for the disruption we’re experiencing from the COVID-19 virus.

The world is reacting and adapting. With companies asking employees to work from home in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, managers and employees both are realizing the challenge ahead to sustain business continuity and ensure a successful continuation of work and business. While it helps address the immediate issue at hand, working from home may not work for companies—or employees—long term if they’re not prepared.

At the same time, more manufacturers are developing alternate work plans and responding to shifts in labor demands. While the government makes efforts to sustain the workforce with support and compensation during this period of social distancing, the workforce quarantined or isolated due to the public health emergency will need to recalibrate their time similarly to those employees working from home, and prepare themselves for the return to “business as usual.”

Supporting the Remote Workforce

It takes more than a laptop and conference calls. Engagement, productivity and technology training are legitimate concerns, especially for companies without established work-from-home policies. Leaders have to learn to maintain operations and productivity with less direct influence. Leading virtually is a learned skill. Similarly, virtual workforces require employees to rethink collaboration—technology does not equal teamwork.

Communication channels could fall to the wayside, and person-to-person interaction and encouragement could be diminished. Even something as small as slower Wi-Fi at home, which Gartner expects to become a serious problem as more people work remote, can cause serious discouragement in employees. Just as systems can get overloaded if they’re not prepared, many find staying “on” while working from home overwhelming.

How should organizations plan to diminish frustrations and keep enthusiasm alive with a team gone fully remote?

Plan virtual meetings. With team members spending their days in social isolation, face-to-face interaction will reconnect employees to their teams. According to research, 87% of remote team members feel more connected to their team when they can use videoconferencing, highlighting that the platform can lead to improved communication and collaboration, resulting in greater productivity.

Establish real-time communications. In this unprecedented time, it’s important that people feel connected. Many offices have no set platform outside of email for communicating. Slack, Google Hangouts and other real-time communication platforms will make teamwork more immediate and close the distance. Making sure there’s clear communication is pivotal to successful collaboration.

Make time for small talk. Maintaining a rapport with staff will ensure people don’t feel like they’ve been lost in the fray during social distancing. The conversations before or after meetings and quick check-ins are a good way to reinforce work relationships.

Be flexible. Recognize that employees working from home may also be caring for children who are also at home. Or they may be sharing their workspace with another family member who is also working from home or is at home because they are ill. Encourage employees to take breaks for themselves and their families and adjust schedules as necessary.

Encourage Continuous Development

Every manager understands the value of encouraging teams to adopt a learning mindset, but this concept holds especially true in times of change. When people are taken away from their day-to-day routines, confusion, stress and discouragement can come into play. However, guiding employees’ career paths and expressing an interest in what their futures hold can help create stability for them.

Connecting them with leadership programs and learning opportunities establishes that you are invested in their growth. This is key to employee retention, satisfaction and morale. It reminds them to consider the future and remain productive while away from the workplace.

Giving employees specific goals will only be effective if you are also connecting them with the necessary tools to begin making progress. Team members who work on the factory floor and express interest in management can be given resources to learn more value-added roles. This type of exercise is valuable as labor demands are impacted by the pandemic.

Luckily, many resources have defined testing times and check-in points that give employees small, attainable goals which studies have found can keep them motivated: generally, those who see their goals as attainable report higher cognitive, mental and emotional well-being. Not only will making active career progress create momentum and energy in staff during a time when it could become very easy to feel stagnant, investing in skills training creates the potential for added value.

Developing a new set of leaders with key insight into the daily operations of the business creates a path forward for both employees and the organization itself. Planning for the next step is the only cure for the disruption we’re experiencing. Now is the time to plan for the future of work which is quickly becoming business as usual.

Donna McEntee is director, environmental health and safety products with Skillsoft, a provider of cloud-based corporate learning content.

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