Coronavirus will make remote working the new normal for those that know how, write Sharmla Chetty and Hans Kuipers
On various mornings in the early spring, workers around the world woke up to a whole new way of working. Millions globally had worked at home before Covid-19. But for the many millions more who were office-based, the overnight switch to remote working hit hard. In a technically advanced age, remote working is normal – yet it requires its own framework and disciplines. Get distributed work right, and it can become part of your company’s DNA for the long-term.
Great remote working requires three ‘C’s. You must construct a good framework; ensure the lines of communication work properly; and you must develop virtual ways of connecting.
1. Clarify expectations
Videoconferencing is key for face-to-face contact. Yet it’s important to ascertain whether you need a ‘team room’ live on videocam all day. The role of messaging and chat during meetings is another important matter to address.
Ensure your employees can identify a room for working, even if that means sharing space with other family members. Discuss the extent to which employees can combine work with childcare, eldercare and petcare. Set guidelines over dress code, if one is necessary.
Establish working hours and expected response times for emails and messages. Devise a mechanism for feedback.
Tip Avoid software overload – choose just three or four key tools to manage your team. Find out what works for everyone, and stick to it.
2. Create a productive environment
Don’t blur the boundaries! Keep work time and leisure time as separate as possible. Get up, get ready and get going as if you were going to the office. Find a space for work away from communal spaces: avoid beds and sofas. Small rooms or tables by a window are ideal if you don’t have a study or home office. Let everyone in your family know your boundaries. If your team members live in small homes with large families, offer support to help them find privacy and peace.
Homeworkers need breaks too. Build time into your days to give your mind and body a rest. Avoid working overlong hours just because you have saved on the commute, or because the need to travel home from the office no longer acts as a hard stop on the day.
Tip Suggest that your team uses the time they would otherwise have spent commuting on physical exercise – weights, pilates or yoga.
3. Establish rational processes
Team touchpoints and timetabling are as – if not more – important with distributed teams. Set clear guidelines and manage meetings properly, as you would if they were face-to-face.
Avoid creating another teleconference simply because it’s easier to convene people virtually than physically. Set a reasonable number of meetings with proper agendas to avoid proliferation.
Tip Set a golden hour for international teams that minimizes meetings outside business hours. A typical example is 10am ET for transatlantic calls.
4. Define collaboration models
Avoid leaving things open to interpretation. Set clear expectations and ownership on projects. What is the key deliverable? When is it due? Who is leading the project? Set standards for feedback, shared in a shared folder, outlining when tasks were set, what the deadline is and who is the key point of contact. Establish the rules of engagement – the frequency and nature of communication – to keep highly collaborative.
Tip Identify project leaders to keep projects organized. These should be the best person for the job, not necessarily the most senior.
5. Make accessing information easy
Finding key data, correspondence or job briefs is often a significant challenge even when people are in the office. The problem is exacerbated when teams are distributed. Yet with cloud storage, there is no excuse for substandard archiving. Adopt file-sharing systems like Egnyte, OneDrive and Dropbox Business. Share documents in real-time. Aid version control by choosing systems that allow users to collaborate, amend live – and roll back to previous iterations.
Tip Keep everything you need for a project together. Avoid email chains. Interact in the cloud, with shared documents in shared folders.
6. Deploy digital tools
Use Microsoft Teams or Slack to reduce the morass of email and cut through siloed conversations and arbitrary Cc’ing. Employ tools such as Webex, Skype and Zoom and use video calling where possible to optimize collaboration. Video offers the best-quality interactions next to in-person meetings, revealing expressions and body language; it forces participants to focus and remain engaged; enables more efficient execution and better decision-making; and supports continued relationship development.
Other great online collaboration tools include Airtable and Trello. You can make whiteboarding fun with Miro, or for interactive polling features, use Mentimeter. Share your favourite tools with your team to make collaboration engaging and creative – but be sure your chosen software meets organizational security standards.
Tip Offer online training to your teams using digital collaboration software if required.
7. Mimic in-office interactions
Overcommunicate on project progress and company achievements. Let everyone know what you are doing with regular informal updates. Social isolation is a real danger, but can be avoided with the right strategies. Keep talking! Underpin and reinforce crucial feelings of belonging to the organization. As the coronavirus crisis played out over the spring, more and more companies tweeted about having ‘water cooler moments’: virtual tea breaks, or Friday afternoon drinks via Zoom. Social contact – and social time – is important.
Tip Nominate the next speaker on video calls, especially in bigger groups, to prevent weird pauses and avoid people talking at the same time.
8. Build virtual intimacy
Celebrate team milestones – and personal ones. Wish colleagues happy birthday. Inquire about weekends and ask after families.
Tip Appoint a social team captain to manage the social side of business life. Leave time before and after meetings for socializing.
9. Trust people
Finally, remember that working remotely is about trust. You must trust people to get their work done or let you know if they are having trouble. Many millions worked from home regularly or permanently before the virus outbreak, and many millions more will do so after it. Trust your people to deliver – and give them the time, tools and space to do so.
Tip Always use video where possible. Humans rely on face-to-face contact to build trust.