Tips for Working Remotely While Social Distancing

Author: Convene Editors       


A Harvard Business professor offers guidance on how to work productively at home, manage virtual meetings, and lead teams from a distance.

A recent Harvard Business Review article on working remotely was drawn from an HBR subscriber video call, in which listeners were able to ask questions of Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School, who has spent two decades helping companies learn how to manage dispersed teams. Here is an excerpt:

The coronavirus pandemic is expected to fundamentally change the way many organizations operate for the foreseeable future. As governments and businesses around the world tell those with symptoms to self-quarantine and everyone else to practice social distancing, remote work is our new reality. [Here are some things to keep in mind to help] corporate leaders, managers, and individual workers … make this sudden shift.

What can employers do to make sure that people are staying focused, committed, and happy?

People get used to having these unplanned watercooler or cappuccino conversations with colleagues, and they are actually big, important parts of the workday that have a direct impact on performance. How do we create those virtually? For some groups and individuals, it will be constant instant messaging. For others, it will be live phone conversations or video conferences. A boss can encourage those types of contact points for psychological health. There’s one more thing: Exercise. It’s critical for mental well-being.

What are the top three things that leaders can do to create a good remote culture?

Number one, make sure that team members constantly feel like they know what’s going on. You need to communicate what’s happening at the organization level because when they’re at home, they feel like they’ve been extracted away from the mothership. They wonder what’s happening at the company, with our clients, with our common objective. The communication around that is extremely important.

During this period, people will also start to get nervous about revenue goals and other things, so you’ll have to make sure they feel like they’re going to be OK. Another thing is to ensure that no members feel like they have no less access to you than others. At home, people’s imaginations begin to go wild. So you have to be accessible and available to everyone equally. Finally, when you run your group meetings, aim for inclusion and balance the airtime so everyone feels seen and heard.

If the social distancing policies go on for a while, how do you measure your employees’ productivity?

I’ll say this to every manager out there: You have to trust your employees. This is an era and a time in which we have to heed Ernest Hemingway’s advice: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” You can’t see what people are doing. But equip them in the right ways, give them the tasks, check on them like you’ve always done, and hope they produce in the ways you want them to. You can’t monitor the process, so your review will have to be outcome-based. But there’s no reason to believe that, in this new environment, people won’t do the work that they’ve been assigned. Remote work has been around for a very long time. And today we have all of the technologies we need to not only do work but also collaborate. We have enterprise-wide social media tools that allow us to store and capture data, to have one-to-many conversations, to share best practices, to learn.

Do you see this crisis changing the way all teams and organizations operate going forward?

I think it’s going to expand their repertoires. Organizations, teams, and people will experiment more with virtual work. Many of them have always wanted to test it as way of expanding their reach or labor force. It’s not that people are going to permanently adopt this new format of work, but this experience will expand everyone’s capacity. If there’s a tiny positive aspect to this mess we’re finding ourselves in, it’s that we’re developing certain skills that could be helpful in the future. That’s my deepest hope.

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