UPDATED 18:00 EST / MARCH 19 2020

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As coronavirus disrupts daily life, how AI can help manage remote workers

Can artificial intelligence help employers manage remote work forces in this dire time of economic distress resulting from the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus? The founder of one startup believes so, boasting machine-powered assistance designed for today’s challenges of leadership to mitigate the loss of worker productivity. 

dr-tommy-weirEnaible Inc., founded in 2018, uses AI to quantify productivity at the aggregate and team level. The company’s founder, leadership scientist Dr. Tommy Weir, has advised Fortune 500 companies, governments, and family businesses on how their leaders can reach peak performance

To get a handle on the new remote work reality, SiliconANGLE Media spoke with Weir to find out how organizations can best manage remote workers during times of crisis, including using the best communication tools and leveraging advanced remote work technology, including AI. The following has been condensed for clarity.

Many aspects of the economy are at a standstill, whether it’s shipping firms limiting deliveries to only essentials or curfews imposed at restaurants and grocery stores. What’s the risk of even larger loss of productivity with remote work? Can it even be mitigated?

Weir: Two of the primary risks, which are not being talked about are: this isn’t “real” remote work and remote managing. To quote the famed commercial from years ago, “This isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile.” And this isn’t remote work. It’s displaced work. Remote workers have home offices/workspaces set up, work designed for remote work, and normalcy. Workers were told to pack their bags and work from home. Most are learning how to do this for the first time, figuring out how to use Zoom, managing simultaneous homeschool, etc. They weren’t prepared for it. And companies aren’t prepared for managing them. 

Front-line managers were already struggling; prior to COVID-19, Gallup reported that bad management costs the U.S. economy $400B in lost productivity per year. Now, managers have the complication of learning how to remote work themselves while trying their best to manage their displaced teams. Morale is being challenged. The risk of significant productivity loss is looming; it’ll be felt on the balance sheet and in the macro economy. Following Lehman Brothers (2008), productivity growth went negative (-2%). Depending on how long lock-down lasts, we could surpass that loss.

Can it be mitigated? Yes! But this will require companies to rapidly emphasize using tools to aid remote management. The tips that are circulating social media aren’t built for displaced workers. They need manager support to succeed while facing the pressures at home and get as much done as possible.

The managers need prioritized, personalized recommendations on how to help their employees succeed. How can they do this when they can’t even see them? Companies are sitting on a gold mine of underutilized system data. This is where the answer lies.

The best way to help your employees protect their jobs is to help them succeed. Managers need instant help to know how.

What expectations should be set for remote workers under these unique circumstances, such as keeping children home or being limited in business hours for things like grocery shopping?

Weir: This is alluded to in the previous response. Additionally, prioritization and optimization of work need to be the priority. Fortunately, there is a time gain from the absence of commutes. But distractions are rampant. Now is the time for leaders to help their teams keep focused. Where the leaders look, their teams will go.

Companies need to be compassionate and empathetic. They should encourage sharing of tips on how others are managing these unique circumstances. They need to check in with them. See how they can help. We need to become overtly human centric. Simultaneously, the expectations should be clear, communicated openly. Don’t assume people know what to do or how to do it. Guide them to the right path.

What are some common mistakes managers should avoid with remote workers?

Weir: The No. 1 common mistake is assuming that it’s business as usual, even when it’s apparent it’s not. A laptop and Zoom at home doesn’t replicate what was. Next on the list is they don’t communicate often or personal enough. They need to be proactive in building an environment for their employees to succeed. This includes on the personal front. Companies that succeed in building a great employee experience at this time will be the heroes in the recovery, which could last up to six quarters (if history proves true).

What are some top remote communication tips/tools you can recommend for managers and remote workers?

Weir: Pick up the phone and call your team. Nothing beats a personal phone call. Over communicate. Check-in without checking-up — just as you would (should) in an office environment. Ask each team member how they’re doing, feeling, and if they need any help. Do it in the same way as if you’d bump into them grabbing a coffee or in the bullpen. Make it natural rather than schedule a daily check in, but do it daily. Call them, don’t send an email asking — that is unless you would’ve sent an email doing so while in the office. Make it personal.

Employees should also be encouraged to talk to one another. The void that’s already being felt is the absence of the informal communication. As much as we don’t want to admit it, work is social. Employees build relationships; they share what’s going on in their lives. Just using formal communication channels sucks this right out of the system.

Turn on the camera when you use Zoom. We made this mistake this morning. We have a monthly enaible Bash and always have employees scattered about. But today, it hit me that none of us had our cameras on. Big mistake on our part.

Any other tech that managers or remote workers can use to enhance a long-distance working relationship?

Weir: Create space for water-cooler conversations — many of the best ideas and thoughts are generated spontaneously. They may happen over a quick coffee or when a random idea pops up between two people and they pull in a few others — then an epiphany adds millions to the top line.

For those in the tech world, Slack works super well for this. But not everyone else has been living in Slack. Pushing people into a new tool doesn’t feel natural. Try to recreate natural interaction space.

How can team leaders hold remote workers accountable without micromanaging?

Weir: Micro-monitor without micromanaging. You need to have an eye on what people are doing and delivering. This was challenging enough in the HQ, but the complication is magnitudes more difficult now. This is the perfect time to use an AI system that can do this better than humans. Allow the machines to learn and the humans to lead. 

Remember we are notoriously bad with self-control. The Values in Action survey ranks self-control as #24 of 24 strengths. And all of a sudden a new flurry of temptations are in the remote workplace: Netflix, naps, errands, kids, if you live where there is good weather — the pool, the plight of I’ll finish this tonight or get up early tomorrow. When discipline is thrown out the door, productivity will follow in its draft.

How can managers keep remote-worker engagement and morale up during times of crisis?

Weir: This is a tough question. Imagine staying at home, not leaving your home for a week … you’ll go stir crazy. Now, imagine someone says you can’t leave. You’ll be banging the door down by noon. Morale is going to get hit rapidly. Managers need to be proactive on this. I’m not meaning to sound like a broken record, but talk to your teams and get your teams talking to each other.

Even try to do team building. Use Netflix Party to watch a movie together. Play an online game together. Start a book club. Do things that bring your team together in addition to the work. They need support. They need an escape.

Based on enaible’s position for ethical AI, what biases do you anticipate a remote manager will unknowingly have, and how should these be addressed?

Weir: They’ll give a disproportionate amount of time to their favorites and unintentionally leave the others on a deserted island. Those that they have a relationship with will get the attention.

Be sure to give attention to everyone.

Photo: Luke Peters/Unsplash

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