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Podcast: Managing a Remote Workforce

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Podcast featuring Dr. Linda C. Ashar, J.D.Faculty Member, School of Business and Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine

Working from home during the pandemic can blur the lines between an employee’s work and personal life. In this episode, Dr. Linda Ashar talks to APU business professor and entrepreneur Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine about her years of experience supervising and managing remote employees.

Learn why it’s so important to establish clear expectations so employees don’t feel pressured to work beyond business hours, why everyone needs a designated work space to focus, ways to improve time management strategies, and how to build trust and communication in a virtual work environment.

Listen to the Episode:

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Linda Ashar: Welcome everyone, to our podcast. We are pleased today to have as a guest, Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine. We are speaking today about a topic of interest especially this year in COVID-19, about remote work, supervising and being a remote worker.

Dr. Minarcine holds her Ph.D. in leadership from Capella University. She is a highly accomplished person. I sometimes tell Suzanne I want to be her when I grow up. She is a professor at Wesleyan College, and teaches also for American Public University, in the school of business, but she is many other things as well.

She’s an accomplished entrepreneur, who has established and operated four businesses including an adult daycare center, a hospice, a flight school with 89 aircraft, and a home care company. And she currently is the founding partner of Sky High Aerial Drones, an aerial photography and aviation education company, which is really an exciting enterprise.

She is also president and CEO of the organization for research and community development, Global, a nonprofit which grew out of Afghanistan and currently serves 22 countries. In addition, Suzanne is a musician, she is a nurse, and a retired commercial airline pilot. Suzanne, welcome.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: Thank you.

Dr. Linda Ashar: We are talking today about remote working or telework. And it has been on the increase in the 21st century. This year it really came into the spotlight with businesses having to reorganize their workforce as much as possible, to keep people employed from working at home due to the pandemic. But you have a lot of background in remote working. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: My first experience in remote working was during the 1996 Summer Olympics. The Chamber of Commerce and the Olympic Committee recommended that people work from home or make alternative arrangements. They anticipated serious traffic delays, and obviously wanted the city to be as friendly to tourists as possible.

I was vice president of a managed care company, and at that time we had 48 nurses in an office in north Atlanta, and we were right in the heart of it, so I couldn’t ask for a better experience.

What I did was I worked with IT and our telecommunications people, and rerouted phone calls to people’s houses. We paid each employee an allowance of $100 a month to pay for an additional phone line or fax machines, because remember, we weren’t really as connected then as we are now.

So, I did a lot of innovative things. I got tickets to events for my staff. I gave them time off to attend some events, and it really worked out great. We had no sick time; we had decreased turnaround time on referrals to specialty physicians. People answered the phone quicker; the nurses answered the phone much quicker. And it really was an outstanding experience.

At the end of the Olympics, and when things started calming down, we all went back to the office, which everyone hated. And yet today, most managed care companies have their RN’s working from home.

Dr. Linda Ashar: So, when you said everybody hated it going back to work, what was the adjustment like coming back to brick and mortar workplace, from being at home and remote working? Because I think that that’s probably going to be some experiences for workers coming back to work from COVID-19.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: It certainly is. It was a big adjustment. Just as an aside, our medical director’s biggest concern with the nurses working from home, was they might be working in their pajamas. Which I felt was rather silly. It doesn’t really matter to me what they were wearing at home.

But they were comfortable at home; they went from their bedroom to their kitchen, to their office. And all of a sudden, once the experiment was over, once the Olympics were over, they had to go back to their commute. And in Atlanta, commute times are significant, and it’s not uncommon for people to commute an hour or two hours to get to work. And it was hard.

Dr. Linda Ashar: I’m interested in the experience that you had there, because it wasn’t too long after what you did for the Olympics in Atlanta, that MIT did a survey and an experiment to see how a team of workers would respond to remote working.

And they called it a quality of life survey, and quality of work comparison for remote working. And the results they came up with in that capsule, was that 90% of the participants said that their family and personal life improved; 85% claimed reduced stress; 62% said they felt more trusted and respected as employees; and 93% felt that their collaboration as work teams improved.

Now, that’s an overwhelmingly supportive study. It’s just one study, but that seems to track what you’re explaining happened with your experience in Atlanta.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: That’s exactly right. People did feel less stress. Just having the stress of sitting in traffic for an hour to an hour and a half. That’s a lot of stress right there. And when you take away three hours of commute a day and you’re allowed to work in your own environment, in a comfortable environment, it makes a big difference.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Many employers have been pushed into looking at this option for working with their employees, because of the pandemic this year. But it strikes me from at least the two examples we’ve just looked at, that this might be a very viable option to explore, even if you didn’t have a pandemic pushing you into it. What do you think about that? Do you think this is the way to go for the future of doing business?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: For some people, for some industries, it’s great. I think we need to look at each individual setting. Geico for instance, has done a fabulous job during the pandemic, of getting their employees out of the office and into home, but they are phasing that back.

I know some are looking forward to coming back, but there are a lot who don’t want to come back. It’s a trade-off. Obviously grocery stores, you can’t do remote, but for a lot of businesses who have employees in offices, it is a viable alternative.

Dr. Linda Ashar: So, what are some of the downsides to it?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: One of the biggest disadvantages, is that it blurs lines between home and work. It’s very easy when you work at home, to run back in the office and do one more thing. Just let me check my email one more time, let me wrap this up. So, we don’t tend to go “home” as we do when we leave the office.

The blurred lines can be stressful. I’ll grade one more paper. I’ll make one more phone call. Let me finish this project tonight. And then tomorrow it’ll be something different. So, it’s not like we do 40 hours of work in three days. We’ll spread that out and do 75 hours of work over five days, just because the lines are blurred.

Dr. Linda Ashar: So that sounds like an advantage to the employer, but not for the employee.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: It can be either an advantage or a disadvantage, as you miss the water cooler conversations, you miss the camaraderie. There are ways to work around that. You can work around it a little bit with Zoom, but people like to see their colleagues, in many cases.

Dr. Linda Ashar: So you mentioned Zoom; in case there’s anybody listening that doesn’t know what Zoom is, explain how Zoom works.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: Zoom is a video conferencing system, and you can set up a meeting, a virtual meeting, and you can see each other on the screen. You can talk; you can share slides. You can do breakout rooms, and have individual discussions in small groups. Most of the time it works great, but it is another thing that ties us in front of our screens.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Let’s take a step back and think about this for an employer that wants to set up more remote work. Maybe it’s a new employer, or an employer adding a department that would be well suited for remote working, whatever the case may be.

Let’s break down the reality of the process. How do you advise this employer, for the steps for setting up the remote-work arrangement?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: The first thing I would do is set clear expectations. Make sure that the employee has a quiet work environment, or has the capability of setting up their own quiet work environment in their home. It’s very difficult to work if you’ve got a lot of activity around you. There have been a lot of studies about how multitasking isn’t really multitasking.

So the employee has to have an environment that’s conducive to work. Set expectations for lunch hours. The employee should be away from the desk for a period of time; it’s not healthy to sit and eat at your desk every single day. I would say you have to respect the employee, make sure the employee feels valued.

Another thing I would recommend, and this might sound silly, but I would recommend not sending out emails late at night, because employees tend to feel like they need to respond as soon as they get the email.

We’ve become so connected, and we have our phones on and with us at all times, no matter where we are, and a message comes through at 10 o’clock at night; and a lot of employees will just pick up that phone and go take off; do the work; answer the email. And it’s hard to feel respected when you feel you’re expected to work after work hours.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Well there will be some bosses, I can think of some high powered CEOs off the top of my head, that that’s when they do their communications. They do them at 11 o’clock and midnight.

Absolutely, and I’ve been that boss. I try not to do that, but you’ve got to somehow communicate to the employees that your expectation is not that they read their emails after work hours.  It can wait until morning. And this is really part of time management.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Not to be too trite about it, communication is always important in how we deal with employees and employees deal with their supervisors, but it really is a super important thing with remote working, then.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: Yes, yes. Good communication. Both way communication, top down, bottom up, and laterally. There’s got to be good communication if remote work is going to be successful.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Should an employer go so far as to have some sort of training with remote workers on time management, and structuring their day, and communicating expectations of the employer’s view on their work day?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: One of the things we do not learn in college, in high school, in advanced degrees, we don’t learn time management. And we have become increasingly connected, and it’s very easy to get on your phone and say, “Well, I’ll get back to this a little bit later.”

And we can’t do that, time management is very important, especially if you’re working in a remote situation where there are certain metrics that must be met.

Dr. Linda Ashar: You’re also a remote worker, in addition to being a person who has done a lot of supervising of people who work on a remote basis. How do you manage your time as a remote worker? What tips do you have for that?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: A dedicated workspace is number one. Number two is: I allow myself, I force myself to get away and have lunch. Even if that means I leave my office and go to my kitchen, at least I’m not sitting in front of the computer.

It’s all a part of mindfulness really. You know, and being aware of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and when you’re doing it. The other thing that I do is I make sure I have time to exercise, to workout, to stretch, to take care of myself. And, when I’m done for the day, I put my computer down, and I’m done.

Dr. Linda Ashar: So, you take mini-breaks, I’m sure.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: I do. I like the Pomodoro method, and a great substitute if you don’t want to download the app, is to set your iPhone or set your smartphone for a timer every 30 minutes. And after 30 minutes is up, you set the timer for five minutes, you get up and walk around, you get up and breathe, you get up and stretch.

You can focus on for 30 minutes; this is just time management 101, but you can focus for 30 minutes. And then, you know you have a reward at the end, five minutes to do what you want. That’s when you check Facebook, or that’s when you play Words with Friends, or whatever you like to do on your phone; that’s when you do that. But working hard for that 30 minutes has really helped me.

Dr. Linda Ashar: And that 30 minutes can be very productive. I think there’ve been studies that we lose efficiency, many of us lose efficiency, after a certain length of time. You have to take a brain break to rejuvenate. And we all do it, we do it automatically. So, what you’re suggesting is doing it with more awareness, and getting up and moving around, breathing or whatever the reward is that makes it more worthwhile.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: Yes, yes. It’s all part of mindfulness, being mindful about focusing on your work, and then taking care of yourself, and then getting up, going to get something to eat, walk around the block, do something. But when you’re working, really focus on your work, you’re working in a quiet environment without distractions. You can take the break.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, let’s switch hats. We’ve been talking about being an employee, what are the challenges for a supervisor, remotely supervising employees?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: One of the big things the supervisor has to do, is make sure the employee feels valued. And this comes back to communication; there are entirely too many employees who are out there, who see an email from the boss that says, “Give me a call,” your first reaction is, “Am I in trouble?”

So, communicate, let the employee hear from you when something’s going right and not when something’s going wrong. Make sure you’re encouraging, finding things to compliment the employees on. Make sure the employee does not feel like they’re hanging out in space. They need to feel supported, and they need to feel valued.

There are all kinds of tools that can be used for this, you can use Microsoft Teams, you can use Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, but whatever you do, don’t overuse them to the point where your employees are rolling their eyes saying, “Oh no, another meeting.”

Dr. Linda Ashar: Or another fun team project, when I’d rather maybe be off doing something on my own.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: Right.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Yeah. So, how does a supervisor do a performance review on remote?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: This is one of the challenges, because typically a supervisor will only hear when things go wrong. And obviously, if I am your supervisor, I can’t see everything you’ve done in every class you’ve taught for the entire year, but I need to evaluate you.

One of the challenges is to find good things here, there, and make notes, make notes of the good things, so that when a problem comes up, when someone complains or this happens, or that happens, you have something to fall back on.

You can say, “This was really good here, and let’s troubleshoot.” You’ve got to approach problems as opportunities instead of punitive. This goes back really to Senge’s The Learning Organization, where problems are looked at as opportunities to learn, and not opportunities for punishment. It’s a different mindset.

Dr. Linda Ashar: From a positive mindset, there’s a reason why we have you working for us, so we shouldn’t be looking for reasons why you shouldn’t be working for us. Maybe in a given case, there might be reasons, but that’s not your starting point.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: Right. I worked with someone years ago, many years ago, who had this attitude about employees, that all of his employees were just basically slackers, and they were trying to do as little as they possibly could do.

Someone who has that attitude does not need to be in a supervisory position, especially of remote employees, because you’ve got to start from a position of trust. And you’ve got to start from a position of caring about your employees, and paying attention to your employees when things are going right, and not just when things are going wrong. It’s more like being a coach instead of a criticizer.

Dr. Linda Ashar: I like that, I like the term coach. That suggests that you engage an employee in finding solutions, rather than just telling them what’s wrong and leaving it there.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: Yes, definitely. And you’ve got to balance your time among the problems and the positives.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Let’s talk a little bit about that employer or supervisor who is a micromanager. It seems to me that person’s going to be very uncomfortable with the remote worker setup.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: It’s very difficult for a micromanager to work with remote employees. Delta Airlines is an example of a company that has placed reservationists in work from home remote situations, and they have metrics that they can look at. They can tell how long it takes a person to answer the phone, they can tell how long it takes the person to resolve the problem, or opportunity with the customer.

So they can measure all of that, and they can quickly get the metrics they need. What they can’t get, is the ability to watch, and to micromanage.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Let me ask you this, if you were to put together two tool kits, a tool kit for an employee who’s a remote worker. What would you put in that tool kit, for that employee to be successful as a remote worker?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: I would say the employee, and really this applies to the employee or the supervisor: know your strengths and your weaknesses. You need to know both. Know what you’re good at, and know where you need help, and ask for help.

For the remote worker, I would say don’t do all the fun stuff first thing in the morning. Spread it out, reward yourself at the end of the day. But if you do everything, all the tasks that you like to do in the first two hours of your day, you’re going to be miserable the rest of the six hours.

Have a dedicated office space, and make sure your family knows this is your office space, and not a playroom or a place to come hang out and watch TV, or listen to music. Because you’re working, you’ve got to set clear boundaries.

And then manage that blurred time. Manage that time after work, dedicate yourself to cocktail hour from five to six, or something. Just something to give yourself a distinct break between the work day and home.

Dr. Linda Ashar: You know what’s going to be hard? What about that person that tends to be a 24/7 worker?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: I have had to work very hard at this. Because it’s easy for me to get up in the morning, turn on my computer and have at it, and go at it until 10 or 11 o’clock at night, and forget about life.

That’s a bad thing, that is a very bad thing. You know, personally, my husband has cancer. That has given me a new appreciation for life, and a new reason to commit to taking the time off. You’ve got to remember, you cannot recapture time. Once you use it, it’s gone.

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And so, my advice to that person, is to use your time wisely, and decide, what are my priorities? Where do I want to be this time next year? Where do I want to be in five years? Where do I want to be in 10 years? What am I working towards? You don’t want forget about living life and having fun. So, you’ve got to find something that you love besides work.

Dr. Linda Ashar: That is excellent. That’s really a wonderful way to put it, and I thank you for sharing that, Suzanne.

The second toolkit, your advice applies to everyone, supervisor and worker, non-supervising worker. But supervisors do have some key things that they need, whether it’s the owner, or an operating supervisor. What’s your advice for a supervisor? Some tools, some nuts and bolts, things that they should be aware of, and be thinking about for the remote worker?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: For the remote supervisor, or for the supervisor of remote workers, I would say, again, know your strengths and weaknesses. Know what you’re good at, know what you’re not good at, know where you need help.

And learn how to balance your time between people who are having problems or people who are struggling, people who need support, but also don’t forget the people that are doing a great job. Let those people know that they’re appreciated, and use that opportunity to praise, as a way to feed into yourself, good vibes into yourself.

It’s very easy to get caught up with all of the negativity. One of the things I hate to do worse than anything, is performance evaluations, that’s what I hate to do and it’s easy to put them off. But just like I said for the remote worker, don’t do what you love first thing in the morning, get the worst thing out of the way. If you set goals for yourself, “I need to do 10 performance evaluations today,” do those first, or do three and take a break. It’s all about self-care.

Dr. Linda Ashar: And I would add to that, when I was actively in my practice advising employers, one of my things that I insisted, and it was very difficult for a lot of people to do, is I said, “You need to document what employees do, both positive and negative.” So, no performance review with any employee should have any surprises.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: Absolutely. Netflix is a company that’s done away with performance reviews. Their feeling is that their employees know when they’re not doing a good job; they know when it’s time to go. Other companies have done that as well, but you’ve got to know the good as well as the bad.

Dr. Linda Ashar: And I think most employees dread performance reviews as much as supervisors in giving them, because of the negativity that just goes with the whole concept, I think. And yet, performance reviews should and could have a positive connotation. It could be about the good stuff, but somehow we never seem to think of it that way.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: No, we don’t. We tend to think of it as something we dread. And supervisors too often are looking for something you did wrong, rather than what you did right.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, I think that there has been an American mindset in the employment field, that nobody’s perfect, therefore, you can’t have a really good performance review. There’s got to be something wrong.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: Right.

Dr. Linda Ashar: And that’s where the negative spin starts. And sure, nobody’s perfect. But so what? Since nobody’s perfect, why does that have to be the starting point?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: Right. And that’s one of the problems with performance evaluations in general. I encourage you to look at the articles that have been written about Netflix and how they did away with it, and how their HR manager who put this policy into effect, decided it was time for her to leave.

Dr. Linda Ashar: I will, that sounds very interesting. I have read in general that some employers, I don’t remember where I read it, it might have been “Society for Human Resource Management” may have had a blurb up, that there’s a bit of a trend to start doing away with annual lockstep performance appraisals.

Many employers do them just so there’s some documentation in a file, because they have annual raises–somebody doesn’t get a raise, some people do get a raise, so there’s a justification to give a raise. And yet, the same employers give a percentage raise, like a cost of living maybe, across the board anyway. So, do they even play into each other when that’s the practice?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: Yeah. And this is a topic we could go into on another day at great length, but there’s got to be a better way than the checklists that we currently use. If you ask me “What are my five strengths, what am I doing best, and what are three things I could do better?” I could tell you, I could set smart goals for next year.

But the checklist where you’re not let’s say on a scale of one to five, you get threes all the way down, but you’ve done a really good job. So you’re not eligible for a four, you’re not eligible for a five because nobody’s perfect, it’s demoralizing.

Dr. Linda Ashar: On today’s topic and the remote worker: What else would you add that we haven’t talked about?

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: I would say that if you’re working from home, if you’re working remote, you need to a way to connect with people. Whether it’s a club, or volunteer work, or your community HOA, something. Find some way to connect with people on a face-to-face basis.

I know that’s difficult right now during the pandemic, but we need some kind of human contact, and we need some kind of human contact that doesn’t have to do with work.

So, find something you love and do it. Learn a new hobby: take piano lessons, garden, do something, but don’t let work overtake your life.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, that’s the best advice I’ve heard, and probably ever will hear. Everything you’ve said today has been really good, Suzanne. And I can’t thank you enough for sharing your time with us today, and your wisdom. And I look forward to speaking with you again, thank you.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine: Thank you.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Today, we have been exploring remote working with Dr. Suzanne Minarcine. This is Linda Ashar, thanking you for listening to our podcast. Please check back for more broadcasts.

About the Speakers

Dr. Linda C. Ashar is a full-time Associate Professor in the School of Business, American Public University, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in business, law, and ethics. She obtained her Juris Doctor from the University of Akron School of Law. Her law practice spans more than 30 years and includes employment law and litigation on behalf of employers and employees.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine is an active professor, writer, speaker, coach, retired airline pilot, nurse, and trainer. She is a seasoned entrepreneur who has successfully established and operated four businesses, including an adult day care center, a hospice, a flight school with 89 aircraft, and a home care company. Dr. Minarcine is founding partner of Sky High Aerial Drones, an aerial photography and aviation education company. She is President and CEO of the Organization for Research and Community Development Global, a non-profit which grew out of Afghanistan and currently serves 22 countries. She currently teaches in the business department at Wesleyan College. 

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