Stuck in the Middle

Why managing remote employees is a major equity and inclusion challenge

No human resources strategy has gotten more attention over the past several years than diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) – and, more recently, belonging. In addition to being the right thing to do, smart companies know that making their workplace more welcoming and equitable to employees of all backgrounds increases the total talent pool they can attract and then retain.

This is the third installment in our series Stuck in the Middle, which takes a fresh look at the challenges facing frontline leaders in today’s labor market.

In a word, DEI is about differences – valuing them, embracing them, and supporting them. And post-pandemic, one of the most significant emerging differences across workforces is where employees work. Whether you believe remote work is the best way to attract and retain staff long-term or a fad that will fade, managing remote employees presents another major challenge for frontline leaders at a time when they already have their hands full.

Creating a workplace culture that feels equitable and inclusive for everyone can be especially challenging when you have both onsite and distant workers. In healthcare, for example, most nurses don’t have the option of choosing to work from home. That can create feelings of resentment toward remote employees who may be able to balance work and personal priorities more easily. On the other hand, remote workers may feel forgotten and passed over for important projects or promotions. Also, research is emerging related to feelings of isolation and loneliness that contribute to mental health issues.

Following are three specific strategies for better supporting leaders who shoulder different responsibilities and challenges for managing remote employees.

Clear rules help middle managers hold employees equitably accountable

Just as there are nonnegotiable rules for in-person staff (clocking in on time, lunch breaks, etc.), managers need organizations to be crystal clear about requirements for offsite employees.

For hourly employees in call centers or other jobs where an essential part of the job to be online during set hours, holding staff accountable is usually more straightforward. Most online programs and systems offer a tracking mechanism that helps employees and their leaders measure productivity and time logged in.

In jobs where the work is not as regimented, organizations help managers hold staff fairly accountable by setting standards for responsiveness. For example, employees should be available by phone during “work” hours, not just by reply email. Guidelines for responding to email and voice messages are beneficial, too, both for the internal and external customers that staff serve.

Project-based work requires different productivity standards

Employees whose work theoretically can be done in the middle of the afternoon or the middle of the night require leaders to approach productivity differently. Rather than just setting a start and completion date, mid-project milestones help leaders and team members monitor progress along the way and avoid a melt-down at the eleventh hour of a project.

Also, projects that can be completed by just one individual without the input or support of other members of the team are rare. Clear guidelines for regular project “huddles” or “stand-ups” help everyone stay on track and reduce the burden on the manager to be the only person tracking progress. Shared project management tools and applications also ensure individual and team accountability.

Managers need a new, expanded leadership playbook for offsite workers

“Remote” has become the most used adjective to describe employees who are not working in the office. Problems arise when the term begins to describe employees’ relationship with the company and their manager, not just physical location. When staff lose that critical sense of connection, disengagement and unwanted turnover often follows.

Frontline leaders need a clear playbook for supporting and staying connected to a geographically dispersed workforce. They also need their organization to recognize that leading a remote or hybrid may require extra time, tools, and effort to stay connected. We’ll cover these strategies in more detail in the fourth and final installment in this series.