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Switching To Remote Work

Organising teams remotely, whether in response to the coronavirus or for other reasons, is not as easy as it may first appear.

Switching To Remote Work

In coping with the social distancing response to the Coronavirus pandemic, getting your team out the office and working from home is the best thing we can do to help flatten the curve of infections (New York Times).

It’s easy to rush into hasty decisions – they’re so darn urgent! But as serious as Coronavirus is, it’s not a burning building. You can afford to take an hour or 5 to plan a strategic approach to having your team work from home. So here are 6 areas you need to get right to survive the switch both strategically and immediately. I’ve drawn from my decades of local and international work in virtual project teams as well as some interesting research to back up my anecdotes.

For the Coronavirus pandemic, the effects of social distancing will go far beyond the economic impact of lost revenue, low productivity, and defaulting debtors. Hardest hit will be companies and workers in in-person services or handling physical products – tourism, transport, factories, retail, maintenance, cleaning, and any secondary business supporting these. For these industries, the prognosis is ugly: remote work will be impossible to implement at scale. With little to counter the loss in revenue, reserves will be stretched to protect staff and idle production assets while you hunker through the storm.

Companies with a slightly easier ability to survive are those where remote work is possible in some way. But a good internet connection and the right software are merely 2 elements in a long list of requirements to survive an urgent shift to virtual work. Whether working from home has been a dream or you’ve already experimented with it, now is a good time to make it work for your whole business.

If you’re equivocating the merits of remote work and expecting massive productivity drops, think again. Although there are many pitfalls – a February 2020 Harvard article details some common challenges – many more studies across a variety of industries have shown that remote work generally has greater benefits than disadvantages. For example, Forbes reported in 2012 a study of a Chinese company randomly assigning workers to work from home. Not only did productivity shoot up 13%, but morale improved, sick leave dropped and staff turnover decreased.

As with any decision for a radical change, look beyond the tactical and operational knee-jerk reactions. For a strategic, systemic and systematic approach, here’s what you need to prioritise:

1. First, optimise business processes: organise work streams and job roles so that a person’s wholejob can be done remotely. Remote work is optimised when workers can work from anywhere, all the time, not just some of the time.

2. Standardise your collaboration tools: more than email and WhatsApp, there’s a plethora of apps to satisfy common functions in many industries. The more each worker needs to switch between teams, the greater the need to limit tool variety across teams. For example:

- For shared file storage: DropBox and Google Drive.

- For task management and document collaboration: Office 365, G Suite (Google Docs, Sheets etc.), Trello and Slack.

- Free virtual meeting platforms: Skype, Zoom, WebEx, Discord.

3. Collaboration rules: ensure collaboration works without friction. When everyone’s in the same office, it’s easy calling an ad hoc meeting by just shouting loud enough. That’s impossible in a remote set-up. But having the right tool is no good if people have different ways of using it. E.g. when more than one person speaks at a time in a video call, it’s nearly impossible to actually take in what’s said. So agree on team practices for daily or weekly meeting times, time slots where everyone is expected to be available impromptu, rules of procedure, like how you take turns to speak, and which content is allowed on chat forums, plus a plethora of other courtesies and considerations to ease the flow.

4. Evolve the governance: for co-located teams, a surprisingly high ratio of work allocation and progress updating happens informally. Getting work done without these touchpoints needs formal protocols. A simple team dashboard to plan capacity, track work in progress and see each other’s pipeline helps everyone stay attuned to who is busy with what, keeping the team unified around the common objectives.

5. Support self-management: Working from home is loaded with distractions. No matter how much we love our family, I know many parents who gleefully return to work after maternity leave and school holidays for the pleasure of starting and finishing a task in one go. Help your team manage their work hours and integrate the demands on their schedule between work and domestic duties. The more the physical work space can be separated from the kitchen counter, the easier it is to manage distractions. “Distraction” goes both ways: a physical work space boundary helps workers switch off work mode when they aren’t “at work”. This area is easiest for mature-minded, goal-oriented workers, regardless of their age.

6. Adapt your leadership style: the biggest challenge with losing in-person contact is literally losing the connection with each other. In-office working relationships are underpinned by continual non-work “check-ins”, banter and gossip. Each encounter is loaded with visual and other non-verbal messages which, aggregated over time, are like a movie’s soundtrack, adding depth and meaning to our work experience. Remote work almost completely eliminates the opportunities for social interaction. Even with good quality video meetings, subtle gestures and facial nuances are depleted, leaving mainly gross motion sight and audio as the only sensory channels. The loss compared to in-person communication is like downscaling from a 50-piece chamber orchestra to an out-of-sync amateur quartet. When the background music is bad or missing, it’s easy to misinterpret a playful jibe on a text or email as “that guy just being a jerk again”. This all adds to the most common complaint of remote workers being the loneliness. So as leader, consciously design your team’s interactions to compensate for this loss of connection.

With the world’s current and correct focus on flattening the Coronavirus infection curve, joining the panic would be effortless. So stop, breathe deeply, and think about the big picture like the visionary you are.

Now, tell me how you can strategically exploit the benefits of remote working. Let’s share the learning.