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Seasoned managers offer their advice on making the transition to remote working

Andrew Long, director of business development for Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pa., works from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. His leather working bench sits behind him, allowing him to take his mind off work and work with his hands. PHOTO/SUBMITTED

For most companies that have already had employees working remotely, closing the office and having employees working from home is nothing new.

However, the recent move to enforce a temporary work-from-home plan in the wake of COVID-19 is entirely new.

For managers delving into this unchartered territory, there are some best practices and effective techniques to adopt that may be helpful in managing employees who are working outside the office.

First, it pays to think about deliverables instead of hours, said Tina Hamilton, president and CEO of myHR Partner, a human resources firm in Lehigh County. While many managers worry about employees putting in eight hours of work, they should instead focus on what they produce.

“You don’t want people to feel mistrusted,” she said. “If you lay out your expectations and you have open and honest communication, most will respond if they feel trusted.”

Hamilton’s firm serves a number of clients doing daily or weekly video conference meetings with employees. They’re getting updates on workflow, but also checking on their employees are handling the change.

“It doesn’t have to be touchy-feely if that’s not your style,” Hamilton said. “They are looking for leadership. Give them a feeling of control over this.”

It’s also important to give employees an opportunity to share what they can deliver and hold them accountable.

“They also want honesty,” Hamilton said. “I am part of an international entrepreneur network …some of these companies are literally shutting down already.”

The ones that will get through this the best are those who are honest with employees but also show leadership and strength, she said.

Transitioning to remote work

Karen Young, founder and president of Camp Hill, Cumberland County-based HR Resolutions has been operating her business remotely for two years. When she made the leap to remote working, it was a difficult couple of months.

Karen Young, president and founder of HR Resolutions in Camp Hill, Cumberland County keeps a box of tissues on her desk but is resolute that there is absolutely no crying in HR. PHOTO/SUBMITTED

“I gave money back to clients because of errors,” she said. “(My employees) weren’t paying attention to details or this that or the other thing.”

Young suggests employers ensure they are setting goals for their employees and following their productivity.

About a third of Hamilton’s employees work from places around the country, so for her the transition to working remotely was seamless. She has about 24 employees.

One activity that has benefited her company in a positive way is a private Facebook page the company set up where employees can take a few minutes to connect with one another during the workday. They would normally do that in person during the workday anyway if they were in the office, so she views this as a way for remote employees to interact.

“If employees don’t have a chance to breathe, that’s going to reflect on their work,” Hamilton said.

Having something like a private Facebook page, email chain or messaging app is important in order to have a “single source of truth” said Andrew Long, director of business development for Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pa., an economic development program that funds and assists young technology firms.

Long said that employees should always know where they can get information pertinent to their work and assigning one location to find that can go a long way.

Pick up the phone

Managers can also do quick one on one calls or virtual meetings with employees, particularly if it’s a small company.

“Their place is to listen, be there, maybe give them resources,” she said.

Communication is critical in helping to keep remote workers informed, engaged, and productive.

“The number one suggestion we would give is to make sure communication is a top priority,” said Jeanie Sharp, regional manager for Robert Half and Accountemps in the Greater Lehigh Valley and Delaware. “It’s critical that we set expectations and set expectations clearly,” Sharp said.

Sharp’s organization closed its Lehigh Valley branch on March 16 and employees have been working remotely since then.

“The other thing that goes along with communication is making sure people don’t feel they are on an island,” she said.

If managers use one-on-one phone calls they can build rapport among staff, she said.

Her firm has also been using FaceTime, a type of video teleconference technology, which she said provides value because managers can see their employees’ faces.

Promote office culture

If employees are in need of supplies, particularly items in high demand like webcams and headsets, try to order them online as quickly as possible since many products are currently on backorder, said Evan Kline, a personal injury and wrongful death attorney at KBG Injury Law in Lancaster.

“Take an inventory about what the staff’s capabilities are and whether the firm wants to provide it,” he said. “No longer will you click on an item and it will get to you in two days.”

Translating office culture to the computer screen during communication is important, particularly if employees will be working remotely for the foreseeable future.

One way to do this is by allowing your workers to answer one another through GIF keyboards on team messaging applications like Slack, said Long.

“Have an eye on your corporate culture when you are adopting tools like Zoom and Slack,” Long said. “Are they the ones that will allow for personality to shine through?”

Allowing your workers to send GIFs— short, funny, animated messages— may seem minor but with so much doom and gloom in the mainstream media, Long said it’s important to continue to laugh with your coworkers.

Make yourself comfortable

For her clients with employees moving to remote work for the first time, Young suggests setting up a designated space in your house.

“Please try to avoid using your laptop on your lap,” she said.

Managers should also emphasize the importance of a work/life balance, Sharp said. That includes taking regular breaks, setting regular working hours and getting away from your work desk during the day, to give both the brain and the eyes a little break.

Leaders should also strive to strike a balance between being firm on what their expectations are and being patient with workers. Some may have trouble getting technology to work properly while operating remotely, she added.

“It’s the balance between, we certainly don’t want to smother and micromanage but also leave the door open,” Sharp said.

She allows her staff to contact her on her cell phone at any time, she said.

“I think empathy is a really important quality to show,” Sharp said.

A new paradigm

Kelly Coblentz, vice president of human resources services at myHR Partner, has a one-on-one performance review with Courtney Bock-Hencken, one of the firm’s human resources managers. PHOTO/SUBMITTED

For Deirdre Kamber Todd, a lawyer who specializes in business law and health care law, the move to remote working could serve as an important lesson on how employees can function remotely.

“I think a lot of employers have this attitude that, it’s the feet under the desk or it’s nothing,” Kamber Todd said.

This new paradigm of so many companies having employees working remotely will change the way people work and could change the way managers think about remote work.

“We have to remember that at some point, this is going to end,” she said. “We have dealt with other sorts of major, frightening health scares in the past. Business has to continue. Get caught up with technology so you can effectively keep people safe.”

Kamber Todd, who owns Kamber Law Group in Upper Macungie Township, said face-to-face meetings are essential and can be done with video conferencing software.

It’s important for managers to have updated policies in place and to let their employees know what they are, she added. By creating policies, it shows you are on top of things, she said, but make sure your policies reflect what you are actually doing.

Having CDC guidelines available to them is helpful, as well as reviewing job descriptions and seeing what the essential job functions are and how they are going to be different, she added.


Be sensible

For managers, it’s important that they use common sense and don’t infringe on employees’ individual rights, she said. They should allow employees the opportunity to not work if they do feel sick, even if they are home.

“The major issue here is the expectations you create for the organization will either establish an environment that fosters calm or it will foster fear,” Kamber Todd said.

So how do managers portray a sense of confidence and calm to their employees when they themselves may be feeling anxious and scared?

Relying on past experiences of insecurity or inadequacy that you overcame could be a source of inspiration that helps you adopt a calmer, more confident demeanor.

“That’s where we really draw from personal experience,” Kamber Todd said. “This is a really important time to convey confidence. We need to assure and reassure our workers that we do care, we’ll get through this, we want you to be a part of that.”

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