Q&A: What Can Managers Do to Help Employees Working From Home?

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After years working in an office environment, many employees have suddenly found themselves working from home. Some might be trying to manage their children’s online education at the same time, or to care for babies and young children. Others might need to help an elderly parent or run errands for a neighbor who can’t go out. And all of them need to take care of their own mental and physical health in this time of heightened anxiety.

It’s a challenging time, but new research from University of Virginia Darden School of Business professor Roshni Raveendhran suggests managers can employ several specific strategies to help their employees cope.

Raveendhran and her co-author, Matthew Perrigino of Iona College, explored the unique work-from-home challenges posed by the pandemic in a new article published in the Behavioral Science and Policy journal. They laid out an “assess, create, support” framework that gives managers concrete strategies for supporting their employees in these specific and trying circumstances.

Like many of us, Raveendhran has experienced some of these challenges firsthand, and has been personally affected by the pandemic. She also saw a lot of overlap with her research on understanding the future of work – how technological advancements influence companies and employees, and how workplace and human resources practices affect employees and employee behavior.  

We spoke with her last week to learn more.

Q. You are currently working from home, as UVA and Darden shifted to online courses and telework in the spring. How is that going?

A. Yes, I have been working at home since March. As a professor and a researcher, a large part of what we do allows us the flexibility to work from home when we are not teaching. So, I am no stranger to working from home, in general. However, the backdrop under which we are all operating has made this very different. The pandemic has changed so many things for so many people and organizations. Personally, for my family, it has really hit home, as my father-in-law in India tested positive and passed away a few weeks later.

It has been an incredibly challenging time for us as a family, and I know that many others are facing both similar challenges and very different ones. For example, my husband and I do not have children yet, though we do have a 5-year-old chocolate lab that all my students know by now, as he loves Zoom meetings. But a number of my friends and colleagues are also dealing with their children and their children’s online education right now, which is a tough adjustment as you are also adjusting to working from home.

Q. As managers and employees both adjust to working from home, what are some common challenges or blind spots to watch out for?

A. This is really the question that prompted us to write this article with a focus on managers and organizational leaders, and show how our current circumstances are very different from traditional work-from-home expectations. Typically, work-from-home arrangements can be a way to incentivize employees, and something that both managers and employees can schedule and plan ahead for. If a manager knows that an employee works from home two days a week, for example, the manager can plan ahead for those days. There are a lot of expectations in place in these traditional work-from-home setups.

Work from quarantine is different because, almost at the turn of a switch, almost every employee in some organizations began working from home. Managers were having to adjust to their own work-from-home preferences and challenges, while ensuring that this transition was viable and not too anxiety-provoking for every employee who reports to them. In this case, it is so important for managers to be aware of their own blind spots, and to realize that they cannot expect their own work-from-home experience to be similar to someone else’s. Some people who report to them might have kids, and might not be free to answer emails at certain times. Some might prefer to stick to the 8-to-5 hours they kept in the office, while others might need to work at different times.

Q. What other assumptions should managers be careful of?

A. A lot of my research focuses on the future of work and the psychological impact of novel technologies, and I have recently studied how companies are using behavior-tracking applications or wearables that might, for example, track how much time you spend at a desk or on different websites.

One big assumption I am seeing managers make is that people are not as productive working from home, and that they should monitor employees more to track productivity. I think this is problematic. In general, the assumption that people may not be as productive working from home automatically puts employees on the defensive. It is also putting blinders on, and expecting that working from home, during a pandemic, will be the same as working in the office.

Instead, I think the best antidote would be to assume, as I heard Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put it, we are not working from home; we are trying to do some work while at home. The most important thing right now is to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. That could indeed mean some loss of productivity in the immediate short term, but I think that loss will be offset as people adjust and realize that their managers and organizations care enough to help them adjust.

Q. Your article outlines an “assess-create-support” framework to help managers assist their employees. Can you explain that?

A. We wanted to give leaders and managers an easy, systematic way to think about what they should be doing.

First, assess. One of the biggest challenges facing managers right now is that everyone, including themselves, has different preferences for how they want to work from home. Some people are “separators” – they like to keep the strict 8-to-5 hours and separate work and home life as much as they can. Some are “integrators” – they like to have more flexibility, and might need to take a break in the afternoons, but come back and work in the evenings when they are more productive. Managers need to pay attention to those preferences, ask employees what they want, and realize that, especially now, it will be really hard to expect everyone to work on the exact same schedule.

Next, managers need to create routines and practices that enable employees to manage boundaries in the manner that they prefer, both time boundaries and psychological boundaries. One way to do that is to be aware of how your employees best communicate. There are so many ways to reach employees – Slack, Zoom, email, phone call, text message. Separators might prefer some control over when they connect, and might not like getting messages at 10 p.m. that they feel forced to respond to. On the other hand, those who are integrators might not mind responding in real time to an instant message or text.

Finally, managers must support the plans they have put in place – most importantly, by modeling those behaviors themselves. Don’t say one thing and do another. If you want your employees to take breaks, make sure that you take breaks, too. If you want to encourage flexibility and work-life balance, don’t ping employees with last-minute nighttime requests that are not truly urgent. Such mixed messages can be very confusing, especially now when employees have so few alternative cues to understand what’s normative in this new, pandemic-driven normal in the workplace.

Q. What further actions can managers take to support employees working from home?

A. One specific one is to be mindful of how you use asynchronous and synchronous forms of technology to communicate. Using asynchronous communication when possible can let people know that you respect their preferences and are willing to adapt and accommodate their schedules.

You can also leverage tools to understand employee preferences. Some managers might prefer to talk this out one-on-one, but in some cases that might not be possible, or employees might not feel comfortable. You can create a straightforward structure to track those preferences, such as a survey. Additionally, if you are mandated by your company to use monitoring software, you can use your authority to make it informational, rather than evaluative. Encourage your employees to look at their results and come to you with questions, rather than constantly monitoring them.

Finally, be very explicit about your own challenges. If you are vulnerable and you tell your team when you are having a hard time – when your kids are struggling, or you need to care for someone, or you are just tired – it helps people see your humanity and feel that they can be honest with you. It also establishes a sense of social connection and psychological safety – things many people are hungry for right now.

Q. How are these strategies different from formal support within a company or organization, and why is that distinction important?

A. This is a very important distinction, because there are often psychological, interpersonal and systemic reasons that prevent people from reaching out to Human Resources or utilizing formal support. No matter what policies are instituted at the organizational level, it is how managers interpret policies that matters most to their employees, and affects how employees see an organization.

If you have latitude as a manager to decide how to help your team, you should use it, no matter what else is going on at your company. This is a way to show leadership, and if now is not the time to show leadership, then I’m not sure when that time would be. We are all new to this, and we are all stressed. Individuals must embrace the ways that they can lead, and be the best leaders they can be to help people who depend on them. Again, if not now, when?

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Caroline Newman

Associate Editor Office of University Communications