Verify, but trust.

Our daily work routine is upside down. Many employees are now working from home and must somehow cope with a new and uncertain reality. This also poses a challenge for supervisors. Many are unfamiliar with the feeling of not having their employees around. What kind of leadership makes sense in this situation? How can you successfully make use of the home office reality? And do these new forms of work hold potential for the future?

At this moment, you might feel that you have lost control over your employees. I can reassure you that this is normal and will subside over time. It may be that some employees take advantage of the situation in the beginning. In the end, the performance must meet the targets. A ‘lazy day’ can even be beneficial if motivation and productivity rise the next day as a result. You and your employees will find your way. It may be that it takes a little time. Perhaps you can exchange ideas with managers who already have experience with home office working models.

It is now important for you to set guidelines for the home office. Discuss your expectations with the team. Set guidelines that both sides agree upon. For example, should your employees continue to work during office hours, or may they schedule their time independently?  Who should be available at what time? Depending on the size of the team, fixed times for video conferences or telephone calls can be useful. On top of that, it is important to clarify whether your employees are doing well, what they are currently working on, what results you expect, and whether they have any capacity left. Online tools such as Trello can help to define tasks for your employees.

For some time now, my employees have been able to choose whether they prefer to work in the (physical) office or remotely. During ‘regular’ times there is one Office Day per week when everyone is physically present and we exchange ideas. The remaining days, employees are free to work when and where they want – in compliance with labor laws. Upon request of one of our employees, we have now introduced a skype break, where we exchange ideas on general topics we are interested in, similar to a coffee break in the office. Anyone who feels like it can virtually join in.

What we regularly struggle with are the working days vs. non-working days. Since most of the people on my team work part-time and there are no fixed working days, it is difficult to know who is “at work” during what time. Fixed (half) days could – depending on the team – also be part of the guidelines. An alternative is to agree on ‘response times’ or ‘response paths’. If I see that an employee has tried to call me but hasn’t sent a WhatsApp message or an email, can I assume that calling back is not urgent, or will she try again herself? Such expectations must be explicitly clarified to avoid misunderstandings.

This form of collaboration and cooperation requires a lot of trust from you as a manager but also requires you to formulate your expectations regarding performance, results, and flexibility. Different employees demand different amounts of freedom and feedback. This is accentuated when working from home. An entrepreneurial mindset that is aware of the interdependencies within the team helps. During the transition phase, a close exchange of ideas is very important until new processes have become established.

If we now turn the crystal ball and look into the future, I hope that we can also draw positive lessons out of this crisis. Before now, many managers have resisted the idea of home office. In the coming weeks, they might be able to gain positive experiences with the new mode of working and continue to offer this opportunity in the future. In any case, it must be acknowledged that leading employees in the home office is more demanding: It brings us to the core of leadership – caring for your people!

Learn more on new working models: Competence Centre or Diversity & Inclusion 

About the author
Prof. Dr. Gudrun Sander Prof. Dr. Gudrun Sander has been working for equal opportunities, the advancement of women and inclusion for more than 25 years. She is a titular professor, Director of the Competence Centre for Diversity and Inclusion and Co-Director of the Research Institute for International Management at the University of St. Gallen. With her team of 30 employees, she supports organisations on their way to more equal opportunities.