Remote Supervision and Rethinking Return-to-Work Plans

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 14th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Each of us is going through the angst of addressing at least some of these questions:   

  • How should we bring employees back to the workplace? 
  • Should I return to the workplace or request to continue to work remotely?  
  • Should my child return to school (if that is an option)?  

Fortunately, most of us aren’t having to make these decision in the public eye. As an outsider looking at the lens the public eye provides, it seems almost arbitrary how these decisions to return to a face-to-face life are being made. What else can you conclude with so many varying scenarios such as organizations or schools alternating days in the office/class, with days working remotely, while another group will be present in the morning and another in the afternoon? While no doubt many different factors are influencing organizations’ game plans, I wonder if they have seen the research by Jeffrey Ely  (Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University), Andrea Galeotti (London Business School) and Jakub Steiner (University of Zurich).

These three men have used mathematical models to identify what rotation paradigm will be the safest for those returning to face-to-face work. And while what they determined is almost a duh moment— where you say, “but of course that has to be the most important factor in our strategy—it is not something I have heard mentioned as an element of consideration. Nor does it seem evidenced in the models that many of us put in place.  

I’ve reached these conclusions based on an organization’s response time—the time it takes for those with decision-making authority to know that there is an infected person in a group of employees. That is the critical factor that should drive the return to work plan. Thus, for an organization with a quick response time, it is best to have groups of employees alternate days in the office, as the infected person will be quickly identified and the group isolated. But an organization with a slow response time, which the researchers note is akin to the real world where it takes time for people to admit symptoms, test results to come back, people in positions of authority to find out, etc., would be much better served by having a longer rotation period, keeping the same group coming into the office for a month, or even longer, to limit exposure to a new group of people.  Make you rethink your return to work plan?  

Lesson:  before you start planning your rotation cycle, give some serious thought to your reaction time.

For those who will continue to supervise others working remotely, here are some different tips for successful remote working/supervision gleaned from studying teams operating in a most unlikely source:  outer space.  Two Northwestern University researchers shared lessons learned from their research with NASA.  

  1. Make sure that everyone, regardless of their location on the organizational chart, understands how her/his job and tasks—from the seemingly insignificant to the unquestionably important—help to achieve the collective goal of the organization. 
    In other words, make sure that everyone understands how what s/he does connects to the work others are doing and all flows together to fulfill mission promises.  Whether working remotely or not, employees must understand the significance of their work in  helping to achieve the bigger picture. This is why I talk to division/program heads/directors about the value of doing a “strategic plan” for their units once the organizational strategic plan has been developed; that allows each piece of an organization to be very clear how their work is helping to achieve the organization’s  strategic goals.
  2. While this should come as no  surprise, it is often those things that need to  be repeated, regularly:  remote employees don’t like being micromanaged any more than face-to-face employees. And yet, from what I’ve been told over the last five months, remote working seems to bring out the worst in those with tendencies to micromanage, even those who managed to keep them well tamped in a face-to-face  environment.  It  is, according to these researchers, almost a tug of war between the supervisor trying to exert more control, while the employee is seeking more autonomy.  Clear goals and timelines can make a big difference.
  3. The last lesson is an interesting one:  the “third quarter phenomenon.”  Apparently, there is a well-observed drop in attitudes and energy/interest in third quarters (however defined), be it a game, a fiscal year, or an arbitrary timeline. It apparently was just as evident in space as it is in other work environments. This means that supervisors and leaders need to be mindful of this third quarter slump and be prepared with appropriate antidotes, regardless of how an organization is working. But in the world of remote work, leaders must be especially mindful of keeping everyone working on the same clock. While working on different clocks frequently happens in organizations that work in silos (and that would be too many organizations), it is particularly easy for people to lose sight of the common timeline when working remotely.  

There are valuable lessons here to be applied when thinking, and rethinking, your return to the world plans.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.