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Caught in the Middle: 10 Tips for Managers Leading From Home

Tammy D. Allen, University of South Florida and Mark L. Poteet, Organizational Research & Solutions

“My immediate manager and his wife are both working from home and have kept their children in day care prior to being at home. After over a month at home they are still unable to handle their two children and their work. I am unable to rely on my manager for the things I need him for.”

Since millions of workers have shifted to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, managers are currently faced with full time remote work themselves as well as the task of supervising remote employees who may never have worked remotely before. 

Managers can be “caught in the middle” – working to meet the expectations of their bosses while managing the performance and concerns of their teams. This extreme shift in work style may be exceptionally difficult for managers who are used to daily face-to-face contact with employees. Compounding this are the unique pressures placed on managers as a result of the pandemic – how to respond to employees concerned about job security; how to balance showing sensitivity with managing results; how to make decisions in a VUCA environment. 

In short, many managers are unprepared to accommodate a remote workforce and may lack insight into best practices to promote continued employee productivity, engagement, and well-being. The two of us have conducted research on remote work (Tammy) and coached leaders during the pandemic (Mark). Below we offer tips for managers who are leading from home. 

1.    Practice self-care first. 
As the opening example illustrates, managers too are faced with juggling childcare, child schooling, while also trying to get the job done. When combined with the nature of this pandemic and the daily life pressures it brings (e.g., go try to find toilet paper!), for many this can present an unusual amount of stress. And we know that when under stress, managers risk being less effective in their interactions, actions, and decision-making. 

Just like the airlines tell us that in the event of an emergency we should secure our own oxygen mask before assisting others, practicing self-care first can enable managers to best assist their employees. Taking time for exercise, journaling, meditation, and being particularly mindful of one’s actions in this stressful time, may help managers be their “best selves” for others.

2.    Acknowledge and recognize. 
Acknowledge with your employees that what is happening is not normal. Recognize that they may be struggling with both productivity and well-being, experiencing new challenges or having some needs that may no longer be met (Eikenberry & Turmel, 2018). Recognize that you may have to lead in different ways to address the changes and realities of remote work. Studies show that demonstrating concern for employees is associated with many positive work outcomes. 

Some of the common challenges faced by remote employees include lack of or changed communication patterns, decreased opportunities for social interaction and bonding, reduced access to needed resources, and distractions when working in a home environment.  Although we have been at this awhile, it is not too late to provide guidance to employees on how to set up a remote workstation at home to be ergonomically sound. Find out what employees need from you in order to be effective and how you can best support their physical and psychological wellbeing.

3.    Establish clear communication. 
Let employees know when you will be available and likewise what your expectations are for their availability. Determine and communicate the primary modes of communication (e.g., phone calls, chats, virtual meetings, instant messaging). Be clear about communication protocols while also recognizing that employees may have varying levels of comfort with different communication media. Are there certain times during the day in which availability is expected? 

Seek employee input into their preferred channels and modes of communication. Develop and execute a clear communication schedule that ensures both the team and each individual gets the social interaction, feedback, direction and guidance each person needs. Consider offering guidance on methods and processes for the team to interact with one another. 

4.    Set goals, define processes, and track performance. 
In a remote environment with less regular communication, ensuring that employees continue to understand and perform to their key accountabilities and expectations can be challenging. Additionally, work priorities and deadlines may have shifted to adjust to the current pandemic situation. 

Work to ensure that the team understands and is aligned around its key objectives, be specific about what is to be done and by when, and create clear processes for tracking performance, checking in, sharing knowledge, and managing performance issues that can arise.

5.    Keep the team inspired and motivated. 
Employees will be looking to you for leadership, guidance, and support. Think carefully about how you are interacting with the team as they will be looking for you to set the tone and be a role model. Look for creative ways to structure virtual meetings to make them more engaging and fun. 

Increase the level of recognition and feedback you provide in order to reinforce strong performance and encourage continued growth and development. Ensure that each employee is given opportunity to speak up and contribute during meetings – a goal that can be more difficult to achieve in virtual/video meetings.

6.    Manage boundaries. 
When working remotely, especially during this pandemic when other household members may also be at home during the day, there are often more opportunities for interruptions, distractions, and moving frequently between work and nonwork roles. For managers this challenge may be even more difficult, as within the work context they are often responding to multiple stakeholders (e.g., their boss; their peer colleagues; external clients; individual team members). 

Practicing sound boundary management skills for yourself and for others, such as setting clear expectations with stakeholders, negotiating tasks and responsibilities, dusting off those trusty time management skills, and learning to say “no” when needed, can help one stay focused. Managers should also provide guidance to help their employees manage boundaries.

7.    Keep meetings on track. 
Recognize that with virtual meeting technology, the flow of communication can be significantly altered due to the quality of wireless transmission. Interruptions between participants can be more frequent, it can take more time to get points out on the table, some may be late to meetings due to trouble with connections, and it may be more difficult for some to find ways to introduce their thoughts. For these reasons, consider being even more disciplined around agendas and meeting process rules. Consider shorter meetings to keep participants laser-focused on the task at hand and avoid video meeting fatigue.

8.    Ask if that virtual meeting is really necessary. 
Meetings are a part of work life. Managers with teams used to regular face-to-face contact may be especially concerned that employees will become disconnected and bemoan the lack of facetime. Now virtual platforms are being used to conduct meetings that may normally have been held face-to-face. In addition, video gatherings are being held as a way to socialize (video happy hour!) and stay connected with work colleagues, as well as with friends and family. Recognize that virtual meetings can be exhausting and be selective about their use. Consider first if email or other asynchronous communication gets the job done best.

9.    Encourage continued social interaction. 
“Virtual happy hours” have become quite popular with some managers and companies. These virtual/video meetings can occur at the end of the week, and they give employees an outlet to unwind, talk about issues, discuss nonwork/weekend plans, and strengthen connections beyond what is required to complete their tasks and responsibilities. This can also serve as an effective means of coping with the stress of the current pandemic. However, as noted above, also recognize when employees need time away from the virtual environment to recharge and establish other ways to maintain camaraderie within the remote environment. 

10.    Prepare for the future. 
Some employees will undoubtedly adjust well to working from home and will request to continue the arrangement after stay-at-home orders have been lifted. Flexible work arrangement such as working from home are a desirable work option for many. Now is the time to prepare for requests to continue remote work. Consider what has been learned during the required remote work period. Identify criteria for considering future requests and the development of a sound remote work policy. Options need not be all or nothing when it comes to remote work. Indeed, research generally shows that a moderate degree of telecommuting may be the most effective. 

About the Authors

Tammy D. Allen, PhD, Distinguished University Professor, University of South Florida
Tammy has conducted research on work-family issues, career development, flexible work arrangements, and occupational health for over two decades. She is passionate about applied science that helps improve the career development and wellbeing of workers. She is the author of over 150 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters as well as four books. Tammy is a past- President of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) and served as the 2018-2019 President of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology. She is a Fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, the American Psychological Association, and the Association for Psychological Science.

Mark L. Poteet, PhD, Organizational Research & Solutions, Inc.
Mark owns and operates a consulting practice that specializes in executive coaching, leadership assessment, competency modeling, employee development, and career development. He is a champion of helping employees and leaders grow and develop their capabilities to their fullest. He has served on and/or chaired multiple service committees at the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) and is currently Co-Director of the Volunteer Program Assessment at the University of South Florida and Treasurer of the Alliance for Organizational Psychology. Mark is a member of SIOP, American Psychological Association (APA), Society for Consulting Psychology (SCP), and Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

From the Learning Resources for Practitioners (LRP) Committee:

Do you have expertise to share to help practitioners and the larger business community adapt during COVID-19 crisis? Feel free to contact Kimberly Adams, LRP Committee Chair, at kadams6006@gmail.com to discuss your idea and submission details. Thanks!

Find more resources for adapting to work in the age of COVID-19 on SIOP’s new Remote Work page.

Find resources and advice on topics including work-life balance, worker well-being, managing remote teams, employee motivation and engagement, and organizational agility. New resources are being added on a regular basis.


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Dotlich, D. L., & Cairo, P. C. (2003). Why CEOs fail. Jossey-Bass.

Eikenberry, K., & Turmel, W. (2018). The long-distance leader: Rules for remarkable remote leadership. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Larson, B. Z., Vroman, S. R., & Makarius, E. E. (March, 2020). A guide to managing your (newly) remote workers. Harvard Business Review. Downloaded from: https://hbr.org/2020/03/a-guide-to-managing-your-newly-remote-workers.

Watkins, M. D. (June, 2013). Making virtual teams work: Ten basic principles. Harvard Business Review. Downloaded from: https://hbr.org/2013/06/making-virtual-teams-work-ten.

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