Tips from Online Learners: Success in the Remote Workplace

If you’re looking for people within your organization who can be your teleworking trailblazers, look no further than your employees who have completed a degree or certificate online.

COVID-19’s impact has led to a dramatic increase in remote work, accelerating an already growing trend. But even prior to COVID-19, the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2019 Benefits Survey found 69 percent of employers allowed employees to work from home.

While working remotely offers benefits to both the organization and the employee, and at times is a necessity, it’s not as simple as bringing one’s laptop home, notifying coworkers, and securing a Zoom account. Effectively working from home requires planning, skill, discipline, and some trial and error, given the unique culture of organizations and the demands of individual roles.

If you’re looking for people within your organization who could be your teleworking trailblazers and offer tips on how to do the work-from-home pivot well, look no further than your employees who have completed a degree or certificate online. Through their online education experience, they’ve mastered many of the important skills that translate well to working remotely.

As telework increases and organizations recognize the need to support remote workers, here are three lessons from online learners:

1. Master Organization and Time Management

Organization is crucial for both the remote workplace and the classroom. Online learning offers good practice for staying proactive and productive, even when deadlines aren’t pressing. Online learners need to be independent, self-sufficient, and self-motivated, since it’s necessary for them to manage many different tasks in their academic, professional, and personal lives. Many of our students have told us over the years they had no idea how much time they actually had until they took an online class, and started asking themselves good questions about whether the activities they were planning on engaging in were going to further their goals.

Leaders and managers can provide employees with the resources and support to be independent self-starters. Managers need to provide clarity on their vision and goals, so teams can work together to set achievable objectives and deadlines. This allows employees to understand what they need to accomplish so they can stay organized and on task, while empowering them to exercise creativity and autonomy—in groups or as individual performers—to get the job done.

2. Encourage Consistent and Predictable Communication

Just as faculty members need to clearly communicate to students what is due, when it’s due, and what the criteria is for evaluating their work, employers with remote workers need to set expectations about what is being asked of the employee, why it’s being asked, and what success looks like. Just as important, managers must establish clear and predictable norms about communication. What are the expectations around when one will respond to an e-mail, is an e-mail the right communication vehicle for certain types of communication, etc.?

Online learners are accustomed to clarity and move across various communication platforms seamlessly, as they have come to understand there are established norms and guidelines for how to communicate with faculty and fellow students, how and where collaborative work takes place, what is expected in terms of participation, etc.

Instant messaging and asynchronous discussion platforms are common in online learning settings and also can allow remote workers to collaborate in real time (or close to it). Online students are used to these types of tools and technologies, which help them stay in touch with their professors and classmates.

Managers need to regularly check in with their teams, via phone or video conference, and to establish communication norms within their groups. Communication goes beyond sharing tasks and deadlines. It’s important for leaders to develop solid relationships with individual team members and to get to know their interests and what matters to them in their personal lives. These relationships will encourage collaboration among teams, which is vital for team members dispersed in different locations.

3. Reinforce the Value of Work-Life Balance

Online learners are masters of balancing schedules. They’re used to completing their courses often while working full time and managing busy personal lives, which can include caring for children, aging parents, or pets. But remote workers often feel they need to be available and accessible online throughout the whole day. Just as in a typical workplace where most employees spend around eight hours in the office, but take breaks throughout the day, in a remote workplace it is also essential to learn when to sign off.

While workers need to be available and ready for unexpected requests, it can’t come at the expense of life balance. Taking regular breaks throughout the day is important and necessary for a healthy team. Managers should encourage this balance, provide tips for success, and most importantly, act as good examples.

Approaches such as the Pomodoro Technique can help those learning to manage this balance. This technique suggests that separating work into intervals and intermittently taking breaks will help individuals remain productive during the day.

While online learners have practiced remote work skills, they’re important to teach in environments that increasingly allow or encourage telework. Teams that have mastered time management, improved communication, and balanced work with their personal lives will be more efficient and happier in and out of the office.
Melissa Marcello is associate vice president of
Champlain College Online, where she oversees the admissions and marketing for more than 60 career-focused degrees, certificates, and microcredentials, along with the national partnership program, truED, which is Champlain's bold reimaging of workforce development.

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