Remote work is a growing trend and a new challenge
To cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people working from home increased dramatically in Japan, beginning in the spring of 2020. Remote work’s benefits include time savings, as people can avoid the daily commute and are still able to deal with customers online, but it has also created new issues.
Less communication has caused an outbreak of “coronavirus fatigue” in many businesses. Many are now looking at a hybrid work model that combines office and remote work.
Given this backdrop, how should managers handle remote work communications? We spoke with Koji Takagi, CEO of HR strategic consulting company Celebrain and an author in the field of management and leadership.
QUESTION. 1: What sorts of issues have arisen as a result of insufficient remote-work communication?
The idea of “remote work” was first introduced as part of work style reforms and as a traffic management approach for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and it was promoted jointly by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. National and local governments called on people to avoid unnecessary outings, and many companies began to introduce working from home.
The casual “I was nearby so I thought I’d drop by” and “Do you mind?” do not exist anymore
We are still in transition when it comes to remote work, with all manner of mistakes and problems arising. There are clearly a lot of little communication issues, too. Take, for example, something that we do in sales, which is visiting a client because you were “in the neighborhood anyway.” Before, this could drum up work because the client might say, “That’s good, because there was something I wanted advice about.” That does not happen anymore with COVID-19. The lack of casual communication and information sharing is very tough for people in sales.
Management also has a number of problems to contend with. In the pandemic, some people are going to the office and some are staying home, so work styles are all over the place. Managing attendance and performance is a big problem for managers, as it is very hard to know who is doing what, where. And when you just want a quick chat, there is no way of asking, “Do you mind?” in a light and casual way. Even a short meeting between co-workers on Zoom requires scheduling, so it is stressful for those who do not like detailed task allocations.
On the other hand, some staff says that they are more efficient now that they are not being loaded down with sudden, extra duties. In the workplace, it was convenient to be able to casually ask for a staff member’s attention, but it is doubtful as to whether this is really an appropriate way to approach staff. How we evaluate and how we think about things always depend on our perspective. In this age, it may be important that we pay extra attention to sorting out the details.
QUESTION. 2: What are some universal, easily applied ways to enhance the work rhythms and work-life balance of staff?
Introduce guidelines for simple communication
What can be done to ensure smooth communications when remote work is in place? The first step is to decide on some simple guidelines. In our company, for instance, we have a rule that you must show your whole upper body on screen. If you are only showing your face, you might still be typing or not listening to the speaker. Showing your upper half on screen shows a positive work attitude. We also bow when greeting, nod in agreement when someone is speaking, and wave good-bye when ending a meeting. All workplaces should put such simple rules and etiquette in place.
Check-in to start work and check-out to finish
Another important step is to make a clear distinction at the start and the end of the working day. It is fine if you have a home environment that allows you to focus, but if you are working in a home with a baby or a spouse who is working in the same room, it can become difficult to separate your work from your private life. Institute a “check-in” to start your workday and a “check-out” to end it. A check-in draws a line between home and work, and it encourages you to feel on duty and look your best.
To make these milestones even clearer, some workplaces are bringing back morning and evening meetings from the old days. During the pandemic, some staff have missed regular conversations. Having each staff member give a minute’s talk during the morning meeting makes them speak and helps to prevent isolation and depression. It is hard to know what to say when the topic is undefined, so prepare an easy topic such as, “something interesting that happened yesterday.”
QUESTION. 3: Remote work means being unable to see staff members doing their jobs. How can I allay my concerns and fears about this?
As seen in a survey about remote work, many managers do worry whether their staff members are doing their jobs properly, and employees worry about whether their managers are evaluating them properly. This is mutual paranoia. But if you listen hard enough, you find that most managers believe that their staff members are working well and that most are taking personal responsibility for their work.
That said, remote work means that we work without seeing one another, and for many, attendance and management concerns are real. What everyone wants to know is, “How should a manager communicate to manage worker motivation?”
Managers are there to support. Distrustful communication is a no-no.
To my way of thinking, it is important for management to believe in the inherent goodness of people and to use positive language. Staff members tend to worry that their managers don’t think they are doing their jobs properly, so if a manager adds to their worries, it is going to break the relationship down further.
For example, if a staff worker is asked by his or her boss, “Your schedule is open, what are you going to do?” or “How many places will you go today?”, it will breed an unpleasant sense that the boss does not trust them. When you are online, use positive words to show your staff that you trust them. It is best to be supportive and to foster employee motivation and ownership, so that they can work with peace of mind.
If possible, try to support your staff in a natural way. It is good to say, “If you have any concerns or worries, I will give you all the support you need. That is why I am always here to listen.”For their work to go smoothly, you are listening supportively and then understanding the content of the concern. Employees’frame of mind and motivation are greatly enhanced if their managers can show why they want to know something, such as: “I know you are hoping to make today’s visit count. What were you planning to do?”
“What is the situation?” “What are you planning to do?”Staff also need to be able to consult
Of course, effort is also required from the staff. Some staff members would like to consult with their manager, but they may be a little vague about what to consult about. This shows a lack of “consultation ability” – being organized enough to ask someone about something. Please provide advice to those staff members who are in this position to enable them to specify their needs and to communicate them in an organized manner.
Speak positive words in passing during Zoom meetings. That is because putting it in writing can turn into negative evidence for the opposite of our intention –staff members might, in their own minds, feel that their boss is putting them under pressure.
QUESTION. 4: What can I do to support those staff members who feel abandoned or left to their own devices?
When people are working from home, there is a suspicion of “overmanagement,” when an employee is being checked 24 hours a day. On the other hand, some staff members can worry that, with less interaction from their managers, they are being abandoned or left to their own devices. In a recent Pulse survey (an employee satisfaction survey), quite a few young workers said, “I want to be properly managed.”
Consideration for work specificity and the sharing of goals
I think it is important for managers to be proactive by imagining and giving consideration to what employees’ concerns might be and by giving them the support they need. Managers can say, “If you don’t understand something, please say something,” making it easy to speak up.
Another idea for allaying worries is to set goals. Do a proper daily check-in, share “today’s goal,” and decide what the output is going to be. The key thing is the final output. If things are still not going well, then do a proper evaluation of what went wrong. Assessing the goals together with staff should foster mutual respect.
Open communication is key
Be careful about “remote harassment.” When speaking with staff members, ensure they can relax by slowly nodding and keeping a smile on your face. If you are expressionless, it can come across as glaring, so the point is to keep the corners of your mouth lifted in a smile. This makes it easier to see your facial expression through the screen. Use body language and gestures like thumbs-up for “good job.” Making the OK sign with your fingers is fine, too. Using your body language for frank and open communication is just as important with remote work as it is for work in the office.
QUESTION. 5: How do you know when a staff member is unwell, and what should you advise?
Assume that remote work causes a special kind of fatigue
In the pre-pandemic workplace, an employee could be casually observed and, if they were pale or otherwise looking poorly, asked how they were feeling. With remote work, it is harder to judge whether someone is unwell or tired by looking at them on screen or listening to their voice. The best thing is to reach out to support them when you notice something is wrong and assume that it is a symptom of working from home.
Long hours of computer work and a lack of exercise can lead to shoulder strain, backache, and eye strain, among other ailments, and some workers will suffer poorer mental health from a sense of isolation. If you notice any change in a staff member in a one-on-one meeting, break the ice before getting to the main agenda by making an example of yourself and asking something like, “Lately my shoulders have been really stiff. How about you?” If you leave it until after the work content is finished, the session tends to end rapidly with, “Right, see you later.” If possible, broach the topic before the work agenda begins.
You may need to make time for a separate meeting
If you are told, “I’m struggling mentally,” you can listen with empathy to ease the pressure the worker feels, but you might also need to refer them to a clinic if their symptoms are severe. If you notice someone looking pale during an online meeting, set aside a separate time for that person or send them a supportive email. If you ask someone if they are OK during a meeting, because everyone else is watching, they will answer that they are OK. Be extra cautious.
QUESTION. 6: Is it best to go offline to communicate more comprehensively?
Some people wonder, in this age of remote work, if offline is still important. This will be a discussion when the COVID-19 pandemic dies down.
However, I doubt that we will revert to our pre-COVID working style, even if the pandemic ends completely. At the start of the outbreak, it seemed as though only IT ventures were implementing and engaging in remote work. Yet it is probably true that few companies today can say that remote work is going very well for them.
In-person is best for generating innovation. Apply the respective strengths of different work styles
Still, I think it is important to consider the post-COVID society. We now know that operational tasks (like Excel data entry or bug checks)lend themselves to being done remotely. On the other hand, it is probably better to meet in person to work on initiatives that take a long time and require continuing communication.
At the moment, everybody is using trial and error to cope with this unprecedented situation. When it comes to communication, too, we need to keep working on improvements and new methodologies, overcoming mistakes and problems through ongoing discussions.
Auther: Mr. Koji Takagi, CEO, Celebrain Corporation
Joined Recruit after graduating with an arts degree from Doshisha University in 1986. Achieved the best sales ranking for six years running, earning the title of “legendary top salesman” and a place in the company’s history.
In 1996, he set up Entre, Japan’s first magazine for entrepreneurs, where he took posts as vice president and editor. He later was appointed to the role of CEO for Celebrain. In addition, he is expanding his network with celebrities and CEOs on thespeaker circuit and as a radio personality. His publications include Top Eigyo no Framework – Uru tame no Kodo Pattern to Shikumikata/Shukanka(Top sales framework –how to systematize and instill a sales behavior pattern) from Toyo Keizai.