The COVID-19 pandemic gave Americans a taste of working from home that many want to continue, so researchers at the University of Iowa are developing new techniques to help even the smallest organization effectively manage their home-based workforce.

A team of researchers from the Tippie College of Business and the College of Public Health have received a $1.1 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate better methods of training supervisors to manage remote workers, focusing on both productivity and worker well-being.

Beth Livingston, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship in the Tippie College of Business and principal investigator for the grant, says work-from-home was a slowly growing trend for a decade before it was forced on many employers by the pandemic. Unfortunately, some organizations struggled to manage their home-based workforce and are reluctant to continue even though many employees would like to.

“We want to find the best way to translate management skills to an online environment so that more employees can work from home if they want, and organizations can feel confident managing them,” Livingston said. “Employers have limited ability to manage people working from home right now, and saying, ‘I don’t know how to manage you’ is not a good reason to not let people work from home.”

Livingston said the regimen they develop will focus on lower-level managers, whose training is not often an organization’s priority, but they directly oversee the employees doing the actual work in most organizations. The training method will be inexpensive enough that even small businesses and nonprofit organizations can use it, she said.  

Livingston and her co-researchers, Tippie professors of management and entrepreneurship Amy Colbert and Stephen Courtright, and Diane Rohlmann, director of the Healthier Workforce Center of the Midwest in the College of Public Health, will develop the training regimen and then test it using field experiments and surveys to determine whether it works before making it available to all businesses.

To test the model, the researchers have partnered with furniture manufacturer Allsteel in Muscatine and Ameritas Life Insurance Corp. based in Lincoln, Neb., as well as the University of Iowa, with more organizations to be selected.