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Managing home workers

Don't forget to join our webinar on managing a remote team on the 16th April with Denise Linay from the RCM here

Firstly, we need to acknowledge the huge change to our practice that has come about from the current situation we face. Our staff are working from home full time, including many leaders and managers and it will be especially tricky for those who live alone or in a shared space, who are balancing childcare and other caring responsibilities.

Even for many ‘home workers’, there is still a considerable change as they are usually ‘out on the road’ spending their working hours meeting colleagues, reps and members and employers face to face. A substantial amount of their time involves personal interactions with other people.

Thinking about home working

One of the benefits of home working for me has always been the ability to focus and be productive without too much distraction, making the most of the time that may have normally been spent commuting to and from work.

Another is how it gives flexibility to both the individual and the team. When my children were younger, home working provided flexibility. I could take a few hours off to help with homework and prepare an evening meal and then I could pick it up when they had gone to bed. Now as a leader, colleagues also value the flexibility when they are working irregular hours (as we do as union staff) to have a senior colleague with the time to listen and debrief after a difficult evening campaign meeting or to discuss a decision during a reps or weekend event.

Of course, it’s also important to realise the impact of home working on mental health & well-being. This is especially true if our teams have been used to working in direct contact with people. I’ve managed a lot of remote workers over the years and it doesn’t suit everyone. To have home working imposed could be incredibly difficult for some of our colleagues.

Managing a team remotely is not business as usual

I’ve been incredibly lucky in my union career with ATL and the PDA to have outstanding support and leadership from my direct line managers, with high levels of communication and trust. This is crucial, but how does it work?

Firstly, managers and leaders need to devote time to line management; it takes a long time to get to know colleagues and to establish trust. This requires time and means you need to be highly organised. You can't just pop into a workers office and share a thought, you have to retain it and arrange a time to communicate that thought.

Ensure there are clear objectives for the work that staff are to undertake. Use written work plans, online diaries, feedback and project management tools. If you are using these tools, ensure the whole team can and does use them. If not, then put support and buddying in place.

Remote workers need to feel valued by an organisation, being treated fairly and equitably to their office-based colleagues in terms of access to wider organisation activities social or work; and equal access to benefits and continuing professional development opportunities.

Top tips for managing staff remotely

Right now, use this as an opportunity to enhance your listening, communication and emotional intelligence skills and those of your team through coaching and mentoring.

Keep in touch and be responsive – individually ensure you have 1-2-1s and give opportunities for teams to come together professionally and personally. This also means when they need to talk, debrief or require a decision from you, try as much as possible to be available.

Keep it personal – get to know your team. What makes them tick? Get to know what motivates them individually and collectively and match this to the operational and strategic objectives.

Set expectations, give clear feedback but be flexible – people need to know what they are doing, how it fits, what they have done well and what may need a bit more attention or time. Be clear with your plans, roles and timescales. But also remember that during this time of crisis, not everyone will be as available as usual and you may need to be responsive to that.

Be patient – it takes longer than you think to lead, line manage a remote team and for them to achieve optimal performance in these difficult first weeks of adjustment.

Technology – use it and help others to be enabled to use it effectively too.

Allow for reasonable adjustments – for staff who have children at home at the moment or caring responsibilities give them options to be able to work effectively and choices if they are unable to do so.

Be kind – to one another and support a culture of kindness in your team, with members, reps and across your union.

Do your best to keep everyone safe and well – keep an eye on the wellbeing and mental health of your team.

Policies – with organisational policies for staff and around member interactions clear expectations, boundaries and support for remote work are incredibly helpful, especially if something starts to go wrong. And lots of unions have excellent policies to share. We recently developed some quick WhatsApp Guidelines for members and staff.

Learn – if you haven’t managed a team remotely before then there are lots of useful online resources to help you develop your remote leadership and management skills. And, we continue to learn from each and every one of our team members every day.

Collette Bradford is the PDA Head of Organising and Engagement. She leads the field team including Regional Officials, Organising staff and the PDA’s new Education Officer role. These staff support the networks of PDA members such as PDA Students & Pre-Regs, organisation of the union network at Boots, PDA Regional committees and the National Association of Women Pharmacists.

She was previously Director of Organising (ATL Section) at the National Education Union (NEU). Collette has a special interest in distributed leadership, relational organising and union renewal.