By Ed Brennen
Elana Feldman was busy serving as the ringmaster of a make-believe circus for her two young children when her phone rang. It was her boss calling.
Like millions of Americans, Feldman, an assistant professor of management in the Manning School of Business, is now working from home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. And like many, she and her husband are doing so while also trying to educate (and entertain) their sons, ages 6 and 2.
“It’s an interesting time learning how to be a kindergarten teacher while also learning how to teach a college course online, but it’s what a lot of people are doing,” says Feldman, who teaches two sections of Organizational Behavior that were moved online for the remainder of the spring semester.
For Feldman, an expert on time management and relationships at work, society’s sudden shift to staying home may have upended her parental and professorial routines, but it has also provided uncharted new territory for applying her research.
While U.S. Census figures show that 8 million Americans were already working remotely before the coronavirus, the new reality has forced millions more to quickly learn how to do their jobs and interact with colleagues from home – while also dealing with unprecedented levels of personal disruption and stress.
“There are always challenges that come with people not working in the same location, but right now those challenges are amplified because you’ve got not just some people but everyone working remotely,” Feldman says. “You have managers who have never managed remote workers before, and you have employees who have never worked remotely before. And it’s happening at a time when people’s lives have been disrupted in many different ways outside of work.”
Trust the Process
One of the biggest challenges of remote work, Feldman says, is the tendency for people to worry about what everyone else is doing. In the office, it’s easier to see what people are working on and how they are managing their time.
“But we lose that information when we don’t see people. So we try to pick up on other cues like how quickly they respond to an email or when they’re logged in to systems like Slack,” says Feldman, who notes that this can create particular pitfalls for managers.
“Managers get nervous that they don’t know what their employees are up to, so they may start monitoring things more closely,” she says. “And without even realizing it, they may set an expectation that people should be checking email more than they used to in the evenings or on weekends.”
One way to avoid this, Feldman says, is for managers to think about their current business norms and then model their expected behavior for employees.
“A manager can say, ‘Hey guys, it’s 5:30. I’m signing off for the day. I’ll see you tomorrow,’” says Feldman, who adds that non-urgent communications can then wait until the next day “so that people don’t feel like they are expected to respond” late at night.
More importantly, Feldman says managers should let their employees know that they trust them to get their work done, even though they can’t see them.
“They need to set expectations and deadlines and then let employees work toward them,” she says. “Maybe some of their employees are working strange hours because they have kids at home. Let them do that. You need to trust that they’ll figure it out.
“But you also need to be having conversations about what is actually possible, because a lot of people are trying to maintain business as usual. People are under unprecedented stress; some are under time pressure and others have financial concerns. So trying to make everything seem ‘as usual’ is also a dangerous path.”
More than ever, Feldman says, managers need to make sure they understand their employees’ situations and challenges and “help work with them to find a way forward that is sustainable.”
While technology such as Zoom video conferencing and Skype has made it possible for businesses to stay connected virtually, Feldman says such options still have shortcomings (including technical glitches) and shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for true connections.
“You lose cues about people’s emotions and body language on a video chat. It’s harder to pick up on when people are struggling, which a lot of people are right now,” says Feldman, who recommends a “genuine, authentic check-in” at the beginning of virtual meetings. “This is a time when people need to connect.”
At the same time, Feldman says it’s “incredibly important” for managers to be thoughtful about when they schedule meetings and who absolutely needs to be in them.
“The key is to be very mindful about how you use technology to enable flexibility, to enable connections and to give people as much time back as you can,” says Feldman, who adds that asynchronous channels of communication like email and text allow people to manage interruptions on their own time.
Feldman, who had never taught online before, had to quickly learn Zoom when the university moved to virtual learning for the remainder of the semester.
“I’m a manager of students, so my approach has been similar to what many managers are going through,” says Feldman, who has 66 students in her two sections of Organizational Behavior. “I want to deliver high-quality learning, but I have to be understanding that some of my students may be struggling to find the time or the mental focus to do their work.”
Feldman, who recently co-authored a paper in the Academy of Management Annals on how social beliefs about productivity influence how people use their time, anticipates work changing in “big ways” once the pandemic is over.
“A lot of companies have already been moving to more telecommuting, but some managers are still distrustful of what people are doing when they can’t see them,” she says. “My hope is that there will be more ability to give people space to work the way that they need to so that their lives are more workable.”
Feldman says the coronavirus situation is exposing issues that people have been struggling with all along: Working couples trying to juggle kids and two jobs. Single parents struggling to schedule work around daycare. The precariousness of wage workers.
“Those problems are still going to be there when the outbreak is over,” says Feldman, who sees technology and remote working playing a role in possible solutions. “I really hope we can expand our thinking about what ‘good work’ looks like, especially in terms of when people do it and how much time they spend doing it.”
In the meantime, millions of Americans will continue to punch the clock from home.
“The role of the manager,” Feldman says, “is really important right now in giving people the peace of mind and the space to make things work.”