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March 11, 2020

Telework is surging amid coronavirus. Here's how to do it right.

Daily Briefing

    As the number of cases of the new coronavirus in the United States grows, more companies are encouraging employees to telework, but the practice presents its own set of challenges.

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    Ensure everyone knows who does what

    If a team isn't used to teleworking, the sudden shift may require employees to rethink how they're going to get their work done and what their roles are, Heidi Gardner, faculty chair of the Accelerated Leadership Program at Harvard Law School and Ivan Matviak, co-founder of Gardner & Company, write in Harvard Business Review.

    To help mitigate any confusion, leaders should ensure each team member clearly understands their role and the role of their peers, Gardner and Matviak write. Having that knowledge will ensure workers know who to direct questions to and increases communication, which helps team members remain engaged, despite not being able to see each other.

    Further, managers should be attentive to the possibility that during "these volatile times," at least one team member will likely "face an unexpected shock" that can affect their work, Gardner and Matviak write. To mitigate the effect of this type of situation, Gardner and Matviak recommend thinking ahead about "where you have skills redundancy built into your team or how to access capacity from outside."

    Prioritize personal interaction

    Isolation also presents a challenge for remote workers because it can lower their productivity and engagement with the team, Gardner and Matviak write.

    To avoid feeling isolated, it can be useful to keep a list of your team members with their photos with you while you're working, Gardner and Matviak suggest. This will help you be more conscious about the decisions you make and whom you delegate responsibilities to.

    It's also important to emphasize personal interactions, Gardner and Matviak write. For example, they recommend leaders set specific times to meet virtually as a team, and even develop small talk topics to start a meeting off with, similar to what you might talk about in an in-person meeting.

    Emphasizing personal interactions among remote workers is key to addressing feelings of isolation, according to Prithwiraj Choudhury, the lead author of a Harvard Business School study on teleworking.

    "If you have a team where some people are remote, you need to recognize the pain that remote people go through," Choudhury said. "Not just the communication loss but also in some ways the different self-identity."

    Acknowledge and 'normalize' different home office spaces

    While working remotely, employees can face several distractions that are different from the ones that may occur in the office. Gardner and Matviak recommend getting to know the work environment that each employee is in to better understand each employee's behavior.

    One way to do that is to have each person in a meeting give a brief tour of their workspace or share some context like the potential distractions that could pop up. This can help colleagues "develop an understanding of each person's work context so they can be more sensitive to each other's constraints," Gardner and Matviak write.

    It's also important to check your assumptions or stereotypes about the work environments of each worker, Gardner and Matviak note. Having team members work from home creates ambiguity that can lead to assumptions about a team member's commitment to their work or their level of focus.

    "Threats like the coronavirus will create disruption. But you can use strategies to respond effectively and continue to deliver against your business goals," Gardner and Matviak write. "Disruption also creates opportunity. Use this time to explore new ways of working and revisit old assumptions that will likely benefit you in the long run" (Gardner/Matviak, Harvard Business Review, 3/5; Stern, Wall Street Journal, 3/5; Dean, Los Angeles Times, 3/6).

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