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Managing Work-from-Home Employees with a Personal Touch


illustration of ooden blocks connected together to show teamwork
Image: ink drop -
Remote work, work from home, telecommuting, virtual teams… call it what you want, the concept of having team members spread out across the country or the globe, collaborating via various communications media, is hardly new. But the current context definitely is new, and it’s making the task more challenging even for managers who may be accustomed to having some or all of their teams located remotely.
Likewise, even workers who have been home-based for a decade or more are dealing with factors they’ve never had to contend with: Kids home from school, competition for workspace in their houses, and of course the overarching worry and fear about what may lie ahead in terms of both the virus and the economy. It makes for a new type of management challenge.
This past week, our sister brand, Enterprise Connect, presented a virtual sampling of the sessions and talks that it would have presented live in Orlando at this time. All of the talks wound up devoting significant time to the challenges that enterprise IT decision-makers are facing at the moment; and one session, Tools for the Times: What Works for Working From Home, also addressed some of the unique challenges of managing the new cadre of remote workers.
In this session, Phil Edholm of PKE Consulting, an IT consultancy, offered some advice that was particularly helpful because of his past experience. Phil was a top executive with Nortel when the Canadian telecom giant declared bankruptcy in 2009. That situation may not have been quite as dire for employees as the current pandemic, but it absolutely was a time of tremendous uncertainty and stress for the workers. Given that it was a bankruptcy, people knew their jobs were in jeopardy, and indeed Phil recounted that he did 64 exit interviews in eight months. Furthermore, out of a team of 102 employees, 101 were located remotely.
Two pieces of advice in particular resonated for me, and I think for a lot of the audience also. The first was Phil’s recommendation that managers adapt the old HP concept of “management by walking around.” It’s important, he said, that managers call around, touch base, engage workers informally just to make sure everyone’s doing OK. At first the employee might be a little suspicious — uh… why are you texting me/calling me? You didn’t used to do that. But eventually things relax and you get more informal, and you can get a sense of how they’re doing with the situation.
Phil’s other suggestion was that managers place a premium on good news — gathering it and sharing it. Every meeting should start out with a round-the-horn sharing of good news, with no one exempt. It could be business-related or personal, dealing with a specific project or something going on with a team. But it’s mandatory for everyone to participate.
I’m of the opinion that when this pandemic is finally behind us, the dollars and cents will drive a lot of companies toward remote work for more of their workers. It’ll have nothing to do with whether people like it or not — when did your company ever ask you whether you liked working in the office? But it’ll be a different experience from what we’re going through now. The pervasive stress and uncertainty will hopefully be, if not gone, at least severely reduced, and people may not need the same level of isolation mitigation that many of our team members crave at this unique moment. But knowing how to communicate in crisis times is one of the most important management skills, and having the tools and skills to make this communication happen will be important even after there’s a new normal.