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Long before COVID-19 hit, some people had years of experience making the most of working remotely. Before landing in Cedar Rapids at JET Engineering a few years ago, Helena Long spent 15 years traveling the country as a human resources and training consultant for Fortune 500 companies like Motorola, Dell and Ford Motor Company that had employees scattered all over the country - even the globe.
Now serving as JET Engineering's vice president of human resources and leadership development, she said many of the people she has worked with over the years never met their coworkers in person. Some of the struggles they faced might sound familiar to those working remotely for the first time.
'Communication was always a challenge. Building trust was also an issue,” she said.
Long came up with creative solutions designed to make employees feel connected. For example, she'd ask people to share personal tidbits of information, like their favorite board game, at the beginning of a meeting. Some employees hung photos of their distant coworkers on their office walls. Other companies even placed full-sized cardboard cutouts of far-flung employees in a conference room during a meeting to try to duplicate the experience of meeting in the same room.
With all of the technology being used today, cardboard cutouts probably aren't necessary, but Long said feeling connected is still crucial.
At JET Engineering, where many employees have been working remotely this year, Long and her coworkers recently took some time to share Halloween photos with each other. They've also kept up with social routines like celebrating birthdays. Long said simple things like that - even if you aren't sharing pieces of cake in person - can keep employees from feeling disconnected from their coworkers.
If you sense that a coworker is feeling isolated, she said you should talk to them about the ways they're contributing to the company.
'That shows people they're valued,” she said. Sensing this requires 'remotional intelligence,” according to Long, meaning the ability to see someone as more than a box on a Zoom video call. 'Try to understand what's going on in their world so you know how best to support them,” she said.
Because the transition to remote work was sudden for many, Long said managers didn't have time to establish clear expectations. For some employees, that resulted in 'ghost expectations” for remote work, meaning their manager may have had certain expectations but may not have clearly communicated them. Even something like how often a manager expects their team members to interact with each other can be uncertain when remote working is new.
Scheduling regular touch-base meetings is one way to prevent 'ghost expectations” and confusion.
'Keep routines going as much as it makes practical sense to do so,” Long said. Daily work schedules, on the other hand, require flexibility. She said managers should understand that working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., especially with uncertain daycare and school schedules, might not be realistic for some. 'Measure the ‘what' and not necessarily the ‘how,'” Long said.
Much of her advice also applies to those who have returned to working at the office. With limited personal interaction and some meetings held virtually from separate offices, even those physically at work are encountering some of the same challenges as remote workers.
'People have told me they feel like they're working from home at the office,” she said.
Long said managers should set clear expectations considering how many things have changed in the last few months. And they should involve their employees in the process.
'Talk to them about what success looks like now,” she said.
Quotes about working remotely:
'Most fears that have to do with people working remotely stem from a lack of trust.” - Jason Fried
'Try to appreciate the benefits that do come with remote work. You're not commuting. You're able to make your own lunch and save money doing so. You have more control over your schedule and more time with family. Focus on whatever positives you can find.” - Yuki Noguchi
Books on working remotely:
'Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams” by Teresa Douglas
'Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture with Virtual Teams” by Larry English
'Work Together Anywhere: A Handbook on Working Remotely - Successfully - for Individuals, Teams, and Managers” by Lisette Sutherland