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Five ways leaders can support remote work

Christian Fernsby |
The coronavirus pandemic has forced many employees to work from home, and the magnitude of the shift to remote work is staggering.

Before the pandemic, about 15% of U.S. employees were working from home at least some of the time. During the first half of April, half of U.S. employees were doing all of their work remotely, Donald Sull, Charles Sull, and Josh Bersin write for MIT Sloan Management Review.

Widespread remote work has created new challenges, but the good news is that organizations around the world are experimenting with creative solutions to these problems.

This rapid shift has surfaced challenges with remote work that may have escaped people’s notice when the practice was more limited in scope.

The following five principles, based on their research, can help leaders more effectively manage a distributed workforce.

Maintain frequent, transparent, and consistent communication. When employees work from home, they can feel disconnected from their organizations, and nearly half (47%) of participants in our survey cited effective communication as crucial to their transition to remote work.

Using natural language processing to identify key themes in responses, we determined that the most effective communication has five characteristics: It’s frequent, transparent, part of a two-way dialogue, easy to navigate, and consistent.

Provide support for physical and mental health. Social isolation among remote workers is not a new challenge but the pandemic has helped bring the issue into focus. The most effective step to battle isolation is regular check by managers to see how their employees are doing personally and professionally.

Help distributed employees stay productive and engaged. Remote work can boost productivity, particularly on stand-alone tasks that require minimal coordination with colleagues. Longer term, however, organizations will need to evaluate the performance of remote workers. Employees who enjoyed remote work were more likely to speak negatively about how well their organization recognized and rewarded performance, their chances for promotion, and clarity of job expectations.

Manage the paradox of remote work-life balance. When it comes to work-life balance, remote work poses a paradox. On the one hand, working from home cuts down on commuting and allows people to adjust their schedules and spend more time with their families. The popularity of remote work helps explain why the number of U.S. employers offering a work-from-home option doubled, by some measures, in the decade before the coronavirus outbreak.

Don’t lose sight of your strategic priorities. It’s understandable that a once-in-a-lifetime crisis would distract leaders from their existing priorities, but it’s also a mistake.

In many cases, strategic objectives set before coronavirus will remain as important or even more critical in the future.

Gaining market share is hard under the best of circumstances, let alone when market demand is collapsing. Leaders must figure out how to build and sustain a healthy corporate culture when most employees are working from home.

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