It wasn’t that long ago that companies were making plans for their 2022 return to the office. Then, omicron hit, and many of those plans were bumped again, continuing the remote or hybrid workplace norm for many.
Over the past two years, companies have dealt with both the pandemic and a labor shortage. A recent survey conducted by the HR software company Principles found that 94% of responding companies onboarded new remote employees during the pandemic who have only interacted with their coworkers virtually. Of these companies, 31% responded that new employees are adapting but struggling to make connections with coworkers, while 10% are unsure of how these employees are adapting at all.
Struggles with connection and belonging can affect other areas of work, too, says Jeff Taylor, general manager and chief customer officer at Principles. Compounding the issue is that remote workers’ struggles may not be as visible as those of on-site workers. But managers can help struggling remote employees. Here are five ways to start:
Set and measure expectations
One of the first things leaders and managers should do is ensure that they’re communicating and setting expectations appropriately, Taylor says. Because when leaders aren’t setting expectations clearly, explaining performance measurements, and inviting questions, employees may be trying to find their own ways without success. “Reviews and performance [management are] such a key part of a manager’s role. But what we’ve seen is that last fall, people gave up on reviews altogether,” he says. Ensuring that you have regular methods of delivering feedback is essential.
Cheryl Cran, founder of workplace consulting firm NextMapping and author of The Art of Change Leadership: Driving Transformation in a Fast-Paced World, agrees. Leaders should say upfront, “Ask me anything, there are no stupid questions. Interrupt me for anything. Ping me on the Intranet. Let’s have weekly check-ins to see how you’re doing, how you’re adapting,” says Cran. When you set expectations and measure against them, employees understand what’s expected of them, which is a common area of misunderstanding.
Yes, we all hate extraneous meetings, but it’s important to have regular check-ins, especially with new remote hires or those who aren’t performing as expected, says Brie Reynolds, career services manager at FlexJobs, a job-search site that specializes in remote work. These meetings, which can be brief, give your employees an opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns privately and while they know they have your attention. Also, they give you an opportunity to see if there are gaps in your training, she says. “Sometimes, you don’t even know what you don’t know about what they need,” she says. Try once a week and then adjust the frequency as needed.
During these meetings, Cran suggests asking specific questions, such as:
- What resources or support do you need?
- How do you evaluate your performance?
- What is the status of the projects on which you’re working?
These may act as a prompt to help the employee share any concerns or challenges, she says.
Create a “cheat sheet”
Reynolds advises creating a simple training and resource outline, which can help new employees understand the training they’ll need to be successful, as well as the resources that are available to them. And mapping out a daily guide for the first few weeks can help resolve that awkward new employee phase. “The employee handbook is obviously a very good resource, but also an outline that really goes through each day: Here are the things that you’re going to be working on, here’s who you’re going to be meeting with,” she suggests. Also create a list of independent projects and resources, including videos, training modules, databases, or other tools they should be using and learning.
Help them network
Cran says it’s also important to connect employees to each other in virtual settings. Without formats through which they can interact, employees may become isolated and siloed. Virtually, “they’re ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and not included in other meetings or other socializing opportunities within the organization,” she says.
Use platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams and encourage employees to ask questions of each other and interact. Hire someone new in sales? Encourage them to set up meetings with product development or information technology team members, she says. “[Create] intentional connections between workers so that we’re minimizing those silos,” she says. Doing so will also help connect them to the company’s culture and how they fit into the overall organizational goals, she adds.
Adapt your management style
If you’re managing a struggling remote employee, be mindful that you may need to look at how you’re managing the situation. Taylor says it’s important to get to know your team members well so that you can adapt your approach. Some leaders have too much empathy, which doesn’t help employees who do better with structure and accountability. They may require frank feedback. At the same time, it’s important to have some empathy for what employees are dealing with, he adds. “There is a middle ground. And that middle ground comes from leaders developing their coaching capacity.”
Clarity around expectations, fostering connections and regular dialogue, and ensuring that employees have the resources and training they need can go a long way toward helping remote workers thrive.