Managing the New WFH Employee

In the 21st century, new employees may be hired directly into the telework environment. When hiring the new WFH employee, look for the ability to focus without distraction (deep work skills). Newport suggests that this is one of the most valuable skills in 21st-century telework. “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task... [and] ... quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time” [38]. Starting the new WFH employee with a small number of important objectives and requiring an annual contract may be an option to ensure that WFH is the right work environment for the person.

For best results, the new employee should be mentored first in the office with an experienced teleworker—then allowed to work from home. Identify an employee who is already successfully working from home on your team and enlist that person’s help in determining how to best set up the new team member for success. Continue mentoring experiences as a buddy system after the new team member transitions to WFH to encourage networking and esprit de corps. Whenever possible, attempt to meet with the new WFH employee in person several times the first year. These initial interactions are invaluable in making the new remote arrangement succeed.

One of the main complaints of the new WFH employee is that the leader is not delivering what is needed to work remotely. Develop a checklist of computer/ technology/software/Internet bandwidth/security needs/permissions/access and have any materials and equipment readily available.

Communication is always key to productive work and happy team members. When leading the new WFH team member, communicate frequently with honesty and clarity. Newport [39] states: “In many offices, tasks are assigned haphazardly, and there are few systematic ways to track who is working on what or find out how the work is going.” Provide realistic expectations and transparent tracking and measurements for project goals. Communicating a clear plan of action and clarifying expectations is essential to the new WFH team member’s acclimation.

Transitioning the Traditional Work Team Member to WFH

Some transitioning team members will embrace certain personal benefits of WFH such as an end to commutes, a flexible schedule, more time with family, and money saved on gas, lunches, and dry cleaning. Many enjoy the opportunity to work in silence and work with fewer interruptions. It is estimated that there are 75 minutes per day fewer interruptions when working from home than in the office. Some team members may feel they get more done when working away from the office and other team members. Employees with weak immune systems or health concerns can relate to the many remote workers around the world staying home for well-being reasons.

Not all team members forced to move from the traditional office to working from home will adapt easily to WFH. There will always be people who prefer to “work at work.” Newly remote employees may say they are working more hours than before. In the physical office asking someone to take on a task is a more personal request than in the remote workplace, where it might be easier to overload another team member. Newly remote workers may find they are distracted and struggle with more fragmented schedules. They may find that they feel they are losing the distinction between professional and personal life. Work time becomes more spread out and leisure time less obtainable. In addition to the transition to WFH, the individual may also be transitioning children to “distance learning” if schools are forced to close. This means the parent working from home must also take on the additional job of full-time teacher or day care worker if day care is closed. Many find spontaneous conversation more difficult during videoconferencing, where conversation can seem more like interrupting. Some individuals may miss social bonding, need mentorship, or professional development. Others may suffer from claustrophobia from staying at home. (Coffee shops reopening following a pandemic in Hong Kong reported filling with remote workers looking to get out of their apartments.) Others may miss the time they had during their commute to listen to podcasts or mentally prepare for the day’s work.

There are several strategies the e-leader can employ to help team members work from home:

■ Set up standing meetings and schedule meetings so they occur back to back, preserving uninterrupted time on everyone’s calendar. Start and end meetings on time.

■ Encourage each team member to post “office hours” or “time blocks” to establish working hours and employee availability. This can be a singular team member or a decision to have time set aside by the entire team in “airplane mode” (no team communication) to allow time for solo work to be accomplished. These shared team time rhythms can boost production and help avoid burnout.

■ Provide an IT helpline. Be aware of technical issues that may arise, especially for team members working from home who have limited bandwidth. Determine a “Plan B” and “Plan C” for connectivity issues, especially for rural WFH employees where Internet access may not be as responsive as in urban areas. This rural-urban gap in infrastructure is often overlooked by virtual managers.

■ Allow employees to take their own office laptop, monitor, listening devices, etc. home with them. Using existing office equipment will eliminate issues with team members using outdated equipment or technology that does not interface with the company’s tools.

■ Survey the team members to determine the best date/time/place if collocated meetings are required.

■ Recommend some etiquette guidelines for virtual meetings and communications. Enlist the team in helping determine what is and is not appropriate. Develop a communications plan with the team. Encourage and praise members who follow the new guidelines and stick with these agreements. This will enable the team to establish the new norms and expectations for their work.

■ Provide written follow-ups, minutes, or notes to teleconference calls and video conferences. Use your team’s documentation site to store this information.

■ Encourage work/life balance: Suggest breaks at a certain time each day to walk, exercise, or relax. Suggest the WFH employee put on their company name badge when working and take it off when finished for the day. Suggest lunch and breaks away from the computer.

■ Establish clear standards for reviews and promotions that are equivalent to collocated personnel that perform the same work.

There are also financial and legal considerations for the transitioning (or new) virtual team member that should be determined by the company and communicated to the WFH employee. WFH workers’ utility and household costs may rise. Does the company have a policy regarding who pays for broadband and cell phone expenses? Will the company’s commercial office space rent savings be shared? Will the company pay moving costs or increases in rent for those needing larger accommodations? Are there any tax consequences for teleworkers living in one country but working for a different country (cross border operations or permanent establishment risks)?

Harter [40] suggests: “Organizations can support employees’ overall wellbeing as they adjust their policies, workplaces, incentives, recognition, virtual events and development programs to the temporary new normal. A key factor lies in equipping managers to individualize to each person’s situation.”

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