With Covid-19 making its way around the world, remote and flexible work mechanisms have sprung up in many countries, activated by employees as well as by organisations. I happen to be an old hand at this, personally and professionally, so allow me to share some perspective.
My introduction to stepping out of a standard office was when I first started a new company. Years later, I was back in an office environment, but I had to develop a full-fledged second office for myself at home due to a particularly intense work environment that necessitated odd hours working with teams scattered everywhere. Later still, I consulted for organisations without offices in my location.
I have also been in a position to hire and manage lots of people who are by themselves in a different location, often as the first few people in a new office or market I am setting up, or who are thrown into a remote work situation due to circumstances around the world – everything from an office being raided over the potential illegality of a work product, to a super typhoon bearing down, to a general strike.
Here’s the good news: Working remotely or flexibly often makes people happier than a standard office set-up, saves costs on facilities, allows people to develop their own best work styles that lead to better work and less stress, and creates access to an extended diversity of talent.
Some organisations already embrace flexibility and remote work arrangements, or are used to dealing with them if many of their employees travel constantly. However, the spread of Covid-19 will mean that it is a new idea for many. If you are new to it, and are having to suddenly deal with it due to Covid-19, here is some advice.
For employers and people managers
Create a culture of trust, clarity, and boundaries
- Working remotely or flexibly needs a solid measure of trust, which has to go both ways.
- If you don’t trust your employees or team off the bat, set some daily goals and have a pre-set check in at the end of the day. That way, days and weeks don’t go by before you discover someone really wasn’t working at all.
- Get to know your team by coordinating one on one video calls with them, if available. They don’t all need to be formal meetings.
- Understand that just because you don’t see your employees, doesn’t mean they aren’t working. Don’t harass people or put them on the spot with unnecessary phone calls just to check if they’re at their desks unless it’s a real emergency. Don’t judge them if they don’t reply immediately. If you find yourself in this situation, ask yourself why you haven’t developed better trust or set clearer goals, and work on that.
- Give people a break if home-based distractions occur. A child could walk in like in the now-famous BBC interview with Professor Robert Kelly, a dog could bark, or a package could arrive. It’s okay for someone to get up and handle whatever is going on. Say hi to the child and dog.
- In the same vein, understand that not everyone has appropriate space at home to work from. Some may have other working family members stuck inside with them, older family members who live with them, a sudden influx of childcare because their usual systems are disrupted, or may be dealing with other invisible psychological factors tied to being at home all day.
- An abundance of technology now exists that can help people work from different locations. Test a few things and see what fits the type of work you do, and the culture of the team. Tools like Calendly make scheduling easier. Slack can be great if your team uses it together. Zoom works well for video meetings.
- Train yourself to conduct productive, pleasant meetings on video if that’s your tool of choice. It’s harder to see people’s expressions or understand pauses or tenor in a video meeting than it is in real-life, so learn to read the virtual room. Make sure you give people a chance to speak, because it is harder to interrupt on video.
- Ask your team for feedback on the tools you are all using.
- Don’t develop extreme communication methods just because so many tools exist. This can lead to people checking several channels for updates, and a lot of unnecessary stress.
- Provide your employees with the tools you are asking them to use if they come at a cost. Just because they are working from home does not mean they should spend their own resources on equipment they need for work. If you’re expecting your employees to use their personal phones and laptops, understand that they may not want to, or may not have the right models they need for work purposes.
Creating a culture of trust, clarity, and boundaries
- Don’t feel like you have to be rooted to your desk and chair. Far from the jovial picture of always being in pyjamas and lazily snacking from your fridge, working from home can often mean you end up over-working. People you work with may expect you to be available always, and because you are not in the same physical space, guilt could make you overly available. Push back if this happens. In a physical office, you would get up and have a coffee with a colleague, or walk the long way back from the restroom, or have a chat by the proverbial water cooler. You are allowed to take breaks at home too.
- On the flip side, be responsible and don’t take off for hours if you have work that has to be done in a particular time slot, calls and video conferences to keep, or people to update.
- You may have to work a bit harder to build relationships, especially if you’re the only one working remotely for any reason. Grab a few minutes here and there to chat online with your colleagues, or show up to a video call a few minutes earlier to say a proper hello. Stay a few minutes later, and ask a colleague to hang back and just catch up, one on one.
- Be consistent. If you are going to be available via a certain messenger, be available there. If you reply more efficiently to emails, keep that going.
- Communicate clearly. Let people know when you are planning to step out to lunch. Share real expectations for when you plan to share a piece of work that someone else may be waiting for, because they can’t just walk over and tap you on the shoulder in this remote working environment. Keep a record of what you’re doing, to enable easy communication of your work product if needed.
- Use the tools you’re being asked to, do your own research and propose new tools if you find them useful.
- Give your colleagues or manager feedback on what is working and what isn’t.
- Learn how to deal with video conferences if that’s your team’s tool of choice. The format looks and feels different from in-person meetings, and can have different results if you are not used to it. If you need to talk, figure out your interruption style. Be aware of the tech you are using; fumbling over audio and video is very frustrating for everyone to watch. You don’t want your video on if you don’t intend it to be, nor do you want your audio off when you need to speak.
- Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to over-communicate over multiple tools.
- You are human and so is everyone you work with. Build in blocks in your day to eat, stretch or exercise, run an errand if needed, and talk to people in real life.
- Embrace the fluidity. Surveys show that remote or flexible working structures can perfectly adapt to a lot of standard working situations, and can often be more productive and pleasant. It is the future of work, but it doesn’t have to be anti-social or distracting as many are often afraid it might be.