Don’t Expect to Get 100% From Your Employees Right Now

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Barbara Larson, an executive professor of management at Northeastern University, is one of the world’s premier scholars on remote management. She says that the way you manage teams in the office just won’t translate remotely. Here’s her crash course on how to recalibrate your style as the Covid-19 pandemic ushers in this new work-from-home reality.

 
What do managers need to change immediately? 
Trying to require 100% attention is not going to work. This is like wartime. You wouldn’t expect people to be at 100% productivity when their houses are getting bombed. Right now, child care and housecleaning and restaurants and all these services that help people buy time have been cut off. Managers need to be extraordinarily sensitive to that.

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What percentage attention can managers expect? 
[Laughing] Expect periods where you’re getting 100% or even 110% focus, and other times where it drops off due to logistical constraints like child care and emotional exhaustion. As long as you’re seeing people capable of performing at 80%-100% sometimes, I’d try to give them a bit of slack when they have a half day where they fall off the radar.

 
What criteria do you focus on with work-from-home employees? 
Set expectations around results and output. In reality, what often gets rewarded is time in the office and online presence, which don’t necessarily correlate with results and output. Managers should think about the nature of the work employees are doing and give as much leeway and flexibility as is reasonable when it comes to things like work hours, especially now that many workers are also parenting at home.

 
How do you put that into practice? 
If you want a time that everyone is online, talk about that and set a time, perhaps 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Of course, if you have someone whose job is to be chatting with customers from 8 to 5, then you need to know that she’s available.

 
What is the most common mistake that you see managers making? 
Trying to control employees too much. A friend works at a small firm, where the head is having the entire firm call in for all-hands meetings three times a day, which is insane and very much resented by employees.

 
How do you manage someone who is sick or has a sick family member? 
Offer as much support as is reasonable. This is the time to give people every break you can give as a manager, such as time off or lower workload. One big payoff is that this yields increased employee loyalty after the crisis is over.

 

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