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Managing remote work: Changes, challenges & choices

As reported in a recent State of Remote Work report by The Buffer, the most common problem remote workers, 22% of the total respondents interviewed, have is 'unplugging after work'. Loneliness comes second (19%), lack of collaboration (17%), distractions at home (10%), managing and coping with time zones (8%), and staying motivated (8%) - are critical issues that affect remote workers and the companies they work for.

Managing remote work: Changes, challenges & choices

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  3 March 2021 5:09 AM GMT

Dr B K Mukhopadhyay

(The author is a Professor of Management and Economics, formerly at IIBM (RBI) Guwahati. He can be contacted at

Dr. Boidurjo Rick Mukhopadhyay

(The author, international award-winning development and management economist, formerly a Gold Medalist in Economics at Gauhati University)

As reported in a recent State of Remote Work report by The Buffer, the most common problem remote workers, 22% of the total respondents interviewed, have is 'unplugging after work'. Loneliness comes second (19%), lack of collaboration (17%), distractions at home (10%), managing and coping with time zones (8%), and staying motivated (8%) - are critical issues that affect remote workers and the companies they work for.

The right online platforms: The Good, the Bad, and the Overwhelming.

"Given the lack of face-to-face interaction and heavy reliance on technology, the intent of what someone wants to communicate might be misconstrued." Communication (the lack of it or too much of it, regardless) would improve when a collaborative work management platform is used to centralize all of communication and collaboration. Suggestions would include using Trello or Asana to Base camp or Wrike – they are inclusive in regards to keeping the managers in loop and centre of everything.

On a simpler ground, however, the least would be to ensure keeping up with regular team meetings, this can be easily facilitated by Zoom or Google Hangouts, to gather teams together and continue to provide important updates, deadlines, and details.

Regardless of the choice of platform, it's also easy to rely on only instant messages or emails, there are times when a quick phone call or video chat will be far more effective and efficient. During extraordinary times as today, avoid falling into the trap of always defaulting to written mediums. Being flexible for the best and efficient way forward would go a long way.

Working for home can be a lot more work than usual.

While close to a quarter of the U.S. workforce already works from home at least part of the time, the new policies leave many employees — and their managers — working out of the office and separated from each other for the first time. There are albeit positives, e.g., no soul-crushing commute, no micro-managers hanging over the shoulder, amongst others. At the same time, when your personal life and your work are both under the same roof, it's harder to switch off.

A report from the United Nations International Labour Organization evidences that employees are reportedly more productive when they work outside of the conventional office, they're also more vulnerable to working longer hours, a more intense work pace, work-home interference, and experiences a lot of stress.

"Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worse things that is going to happen to you all day long. Your 'frog' is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don't do something about it." So, a list of things as given below is needed in order to manage expectations better while we run through the work from home phase.

A. Focus on a few things, and do them well - The 'Eisenhower matrix' is often used to avoid unnecessary time-wasting tasks and know which tasks to do next. Or plan to do just 1 big thing, 3 medium things, and 5 small things per day, the 1-3-5 rule.

B. Managing your energy is more important than managing time -Keep track of how much you'll be able to focus at different times during the day. "You improve by pushing your practice, not yourself during low energy".

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It is important to set your workdays and hours and more importantly, stick to them. In most cases, that either means maintaining regular business hours or basing your work hours on the schedule maintained by your spouse or kids. Not only does a conventional schedule make you more productive, but it also allows you to spend time with the people you care about.

On the other side of the coin, when you work from home, you no longer have a clear geographic division between workspace and personal space. It is for this very same reason, once again, difficult to switch off when both personal and professional worlds operate under the same roof.

Fundamentally, one's home is a place of relaxation, safety, and security. It's a place where you subconsciously slip into a calm, easy-going state of mind, putting the stresses of the workday behind. However, working from home punches holes right through that neat mental division. Many telecommuters complain they feel like they're never off the job. They always feel a compulsion to check email or get "just one last thing done."

When you work from home, you tend to get less supervision and direction. Your boss (or clients, as the case may be) typically doesn't give you as much guidance — guidance many remote employees desperately need to stay on track.

The rules of engagement and setting boundaries

Remote work becomes more efficient and satisfying when managers set expectations for the frequency, means, and ideal timing of communication for their teams. For example, "We use videoconferencing for daily check-in meetings, but we use IM when something is urgent." Also, if you can, let your employees specify hours when you choose to be contacted and equally importantly, when not to be. Finally, it is important to keep an eye on communication among team members to ensure that they are sharing information as needed.

Put a human face on your organization!

Especially in the context of an abrupt shift to remote work, it is important for managers to acknowledge stress, listen to employees' anxieties and concerns, and empathize with their struggles. If a newly remote employee is clearly struggling but not communicating stress or anxiety, ask them how they're doing. Even a general question such as "How is this remote work situation working out for you so far?" can elicit important information that you might not otherwise hear. Once you ask the question, be sure to listen carefully to the response, and briefly restate it back to the employee, to ensure that you understood correctly. Let the employee's stress or concerns (rather than your own) be the focus of this conversation.

Research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion tells us that employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations. If a manager communicates stress and helplessness, this will have what Daniel Goleman calls a "trickle-down" effect on employees. Effective leaders generally take a two-pronged approach, both acknowledging the stress and anxiety that employees may be feeling in difficult circumstances, but also providing affirmation of their confidence in their teams, using phrases such as "we've got this," or "this is tough, but I know we can handle it," or "let's look for ways to use our strengths during this time". We are all in this together, and we will get through it – it is a time when we also get to know ourselves a bit better.

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