Employers might need to deal with underperforming employees, social isolation as remote working increases


We’re not sure yet that the newly remote workforce is here to stay in a big way after the pandemic is behind us. Yet, recent surveys and studies point out that the trend is not going away anytime soon.

A survey by Harvard Business School economists found that 1 in 6 workers is projected to continue working from home or co-working at least two days a week after the pandemic is over.

Commissioner Thomas Epsky

Commissioner Thomas Epsky has been a member of the Florida Reemployment Assistance Appeals Commission since 2001. Prior to his appointment, he was the managing partner and principle consultant in a human resource consulting practice. He began his career in human resource management as a training manager in Macy’s Department Store and was a human resource generalist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island, New York. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York as well as a master’s degree from Barry University. He holds professional certifications including: the senior professional in human resources from the Human Resource Certification Institute; the senior certified professional from the Society for Human Resource Management; and the certified professional designation from the International Public Management Association for Human Resources.

What’s more, a survey of hiring managers by the freelancing platform Upwork found that 1 in 5 workers could be entirely remote after the pandemic.

And the millennial generation loves it. A full 68% of millennial job seekers said a work from home option would greatly influence their interest in working for a company and they ranked working from home among the top workplace benefits, a study by Fundera found.

Commissioner Thomas D. Epsky with the Florida Reemployment Assistance Appeals Commission and business consultant with the Small Business Development Center at Indian River State College, reported that before COVID-19, 22% of Americans worked from home and nearly 50% were involved in some way with remote or virtual team work.

“With the pandemic, many more businesses have been pushed into creating remote work situations that they never imagined doing,” Epsky said.

He believes many employers resisted remote work fearing employees would be less productive or possibly result in a loss of passive knowledge sharing.

“These concerns have been allayed with decreased overhead costs, less employee relations issues like hostile work environment claims, and an average of 30-40% increase in productivity by remote workers over traditional site-based employees,” according to Epsky.

So remote working is not going to disappear and may be considered a sought-after fringe benefit long after the pandemic is over. While as a small business owner you may have let some of your employees underperform because you are understanding of the situation, there are some nuances to managing in the remote world.

Here are some steps you can begin taking to more efficiently manage your remote employees.

Many successful remote managers establish a daily call with their remote employees, either on a one-on-one basis or as part of a team call. Small business owners may also find it helpful to schedule all-hands calls routinely as well. This is particularly helpful if your small business is one that is highly collaborative and used to working in the same room.

Julie Talenfeld, president of South Florida’s BoardroomPR and an expert in crisis communications, shared some advice about communicating with your remote workforce. She suggested creating a routine system of checking in with your employees with an official status update at the beginning and the end of each day, at minimum. Make yourself available at designated times each day to make your employees feel more comfortable to come to you with their concerns, she said.

“Communication is key in order to keep everyone updated on pendings, ensure projects don’t fall through the cracks and make sure deadlines are met,” advised Aileen Izquierdo, interim chair of Florida International University’s Department of Communication.

Messages should be specific and well-targeted, not one size fits all, and they also need to be human, she added. Managers should be flexible and give as much lead time as possible on meetings and deadlines.

In these times, remember that it is easy to feel isolated with everyone working remotely, often for the first time. Phone calls rather than emails for the typical back and forth inter-office communication may be more natural, Izquierdo said.

Epsky believes that working with remote teams demands new collaboration skills.

“What is missing from texts, emails, conference calls, and other digital media is body language,” Epsky cautioned. “The tone of a text or email is highly subjective and easily misinterpreted.”

Epsky warned these misinterpretations may result in costly mistakes and low morale that could impact engagement, performance and ultimately the bottom line.

Remote workers benefit from having technology, such as video conferencing, that gives participants many of the visual cues that they would have if they were face-to-face. When a Zoom call isn’t needed, or if time is of the essence, mobile workflow technology like Slack, Microsoft Teams or some type of instant messaging service is important to have. There are often less expensive options for this type of software available for small businesses.

TIP: Ensure there is an appropriate level of data security before using any of these tools.

Find ways to allow time for those water cooler conversations, particularly so for workers who have been abruptly transitioned out of the office.

“Fight the isolation of working from home and use interfaces like Zoom to bridge the gap of not seeing each other,” Izquierdo added.

And this goes beyond meetings: A virtual coffee break, virtual lunch or happy hour allows teams who have worked together to continue their comradery despite the lack of physical proximity.

Now what if your remote employee is underperforming? How can you help them improve their game? Harvard Business Review recently offered some solid advice on this.

Take the opportunity to reconsider what you want most from the employee, and why you feel you’re not getting it, the authors wrote. If the problem is you are expecting your employee to work the way you do, let go of those expectations. Dispassionately assess the individual’s real strengths and capacities for contributing to the team’s work. Is more training needed? Try to get them the training or the guidance of a more experienced colleague. They may be missing the opportunities to pop into the office of a more experienced employee to ask for advice.
It’s important to get to know them and continue to ask about their goals and what they care about, especially as circumstances change.

This advice doesn’t change in the remote world. Many people who aren’t doing well have a vague feeling that something is wrong, but don’t understand which of their behaviors isn’t working, the article said. As much as possible, use questions to encourage your underperformers to self-diagnose the situation. This will help you avoid micromanaging, which is a significant temptation when you’re trying to be extremely clear about expectations.

Be sure to keep your remote underperformer in the loop. If you’ve asked underperforming employees to keep you up to date on their progress, make clear how you want them to do that.

Epsky states that effective work starts at the top. He coaches his business clients to correct nonremote friendly behavior and put inclusive practices in place to create what he calls a “downstream successful experience” for everyone.

This article is provided by the FBDC at IRSC, the Small Business Development Center within Indian River State College’s School of Business. The center’s team of business experts works one-on-one with hundreds of entrepreneurs and business owners each year by providing confidential, no-cost consulting. The center’s mission is to help Treasure Coast businesses grow and succeed.

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