Out of necessity remote working has become the trend of 2020. At the time of writing government advice is not only to work from home if you can but, more than that, it’s employers who should be providing the tools to make working from home possible. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has said that employers should continue to offer remote working and has hinted at future legislation to make the option a legal requirement.
Whilst legislation may be a long way off, organisations like Twitter, Square and Facebook have already announced permanently allowing people to work remotely. Organisations like GitLab have always operated a remote first model with employees all over the world. Others, including Ocado Technology, were already building remote teams prior to the pandemic. National Law firms, including Slater and Gordon, have given up large London offices to move to a remote focused model. Many others are stating no plans to return to the office before the beginning of 2021. The mix of responses to the pandemic and increasing evidence to support the viability of remote working over recent years just goes to demonstrate the range of options available and the flexibility remote working can present.
Get remote working right and there are plenty of rewards for business. It does present leadership challenges. It certainly doesn’t support managing by monitoring presence as remote teams need managing differently, however this is one of the benefits.
What do we mean by remote working?
Remote working throughout the pandemic has pretty much exclusively meant homeworking. Other options have been limited and will remain limited to a certain extent for a long time. However, remote working doesn’t have to mean being stuck in the home. It could be working in the local coffee shop; working wherever you can find whilst on the road; working at a parents house to mix with caring duties; working from a caravan or holiday home - the list is possibly endless. The point is remote working is about flexibility. It’s about giving people the choice about what works best for them both in terms of lifestyle and getting the job done.
Whilst some organisations choose to put restrictions around remote working, others go for work anywhere, anytime. Whether such a relaxed policy works will depend on the type of work done and how teams communicate. Work anytime will work perfectly for someone who does a very individual job, but may be more challenging when teamwork and collaboration is required. In some situations pure asynchronous may work, others may need a mix of working at set times to allow real time conversations. In customer facing roles being available when the business is open to customers may require people work at a set time despite working remotely.
How remote working is defined is a choice for your organisation, but whatever you do define it! Be clear about what you expect from your people, including what is and isn’t acceptable. Avoid situations where unwritten rules leave people vulnerable. Managers should not be agreeing it’s ok for an employee to be out for an hour but tell them no to put it in the diary and hide it. That isn’t the way to create a healthy remote culture.
Communication is key to any relationship, in remote teams it is absolutely vital.
One of the first complaints about remote work from employees is isolation from others, followed by lack of availability of managers.
Informal communication happens naturally in the office. We walk in and say “hello”, ask how each other’s weekends were - we stop by the kettle and have a chat. This communication serves to build relationships, feel appreciated as a person and to break up the day. Managers must ensure this communication continues with simple things like starting a conversation with “how are you?” or “how was your weekend?”. Allow for this time both at the start of one to one conversations and team meetings.
There are benefits to going further than this and also organising remote social events, such as lunch on zoom or team quizzes. Exactly as you would in the office to build team relationships, this can be done remotely.
One to one meetings with individuals become even more important with remote workers and are possibly required more often. This ensures the individual knows there is a set time allocated to them where they can raise any issues and discuss progress. This will also help individuals and managers to manage time as issues, when not urgent, can be stored for these meetings. Equally having regular check-in meetings, either as a team or one to one help to ensure people feel part of the team and know there is a regular point of contact.
Remote working can be very isolating if an issue occurs and no one is available to help. It is crucial your team knows who and how to contact in an emergency.
Trust, Autonomy and Monitoring
Trusting people you cannot see is the biggest fear of many managers when it comes to remote work, but get it right and management is stepped up significantly. It’s not possible to manage by seeing how long they are present in the office. In reality what does presence in the office really tell us? How many people manage to look busy by walking round the office papers in hand or simply because they are still at their desk when the manager leaves for the day?
We’re able to trust when we can measure. Knowing what is expected of your people is key, so understand what good looks like? What outcomes do you expect to see? Communicate the priorities and plans. If it’s a big project, don’t wait until the end to find out progress. Meet regularly, breaking it down into chunks of time, monitoring the progress of those chunks. Even if you’re not managing remote teams, shifting the focus from presence to outcomes makes productivity measurable.
When individuals know the outcomes expected of them they can be given the autonomy to achieve. They can make their own decisions about what they do, when and how. In addition to outcomes, they need context. Remote working increases the need for data, therefore as a result decision making is improved as it is based on data. When people have access to data they can make decisions within that context. This reduces management time as individuals can be given the autonomy to make decisions.
Losing control of a remote team is easy, but in reality it is equally easy to lose control of an office based team. Monitoring based on outcomes is crucial to keeping everyone on track and ensuring progress. There can be a temptation to attempt to recreate the office model of monitoring presence but don’t do this - you will lose the benefits of remote working. Monitoring must be based on outcomes and data.
Feedback is equally vital within this. When in an office we overhear things, individuals may hear something for themselves to realise they have a misunderstanding, or managers overhear their team and spot an error. This doesn’t exist with remote working. Review of work (as appropriate to the role) and feedback keeps people on track and shows they are valued. No one wants to be repeating a mistake until it blows up into some huge issue!
The availability of tools to support remote working is a key reason why it has been successful for many during the pandemic and why increasing numbers of organisations were moving towards remote working prior to the pandemic.
As a starting point, don’t scrimp on the technology supplied to remote workers. Just because they are not in an office and visible to you does not mean they do not need the tools to do the job effectively. Employers are responsible for the health and safety of remote workers, which means doing the same Display Screen Assessments as you would in an office.
Beyond the basic equipment to do the job, ensure people have the tools to enable the communication, trust and autonomy. There are endless supplies of tools on the market, some of the ones we have come across and found useful include:
Instant messaging - do not rely on email. Email replicates letter writing, while instant messaging replicates conversations. Services like Slack are commonly used for communication in office based and remote teams, allowing people to organise their conversations. The key to successful instant messaging is understanding that just because it can be instant, it doesn’t have to be. Ensure rules of engagement are put in place to create a difference between asynchronous and urgent communication. Beware that without such boundaries in place, instant messaging can quickly become draining and reduce productivity.
Social Channels - Facebook’s Workplace is used by many organisations because it’s interface is familiar to people. It can be used to share company information, learning and for social interactions. As with instant messaging some simple rules around its use can be beneficial to ensure appropriate use.
Video Calling - Zoom being the most common. Video meetings are the closest replica to face to face meetings. They can be used for formal and informal communication, crucially allowing those visual cues which can be particularly useful in decision making. However, also consider the flip side to video calls - whilst going into the office only requires us to create an “office image” of our personal selves in the way we dress, having the keep the house “zoom ready” can be an additional challenge for some. Pop up green screens, enabling virtual backgrounds, have become readily and cheaply available and may be an option to support employees as they integrate their home and work.
Virtual Whiteboards - Miro being one example of a tool where teams can all be looking at an ideas board or mindmap. Boards can be shared within teams to support team meetings, just as you would huddled around a whiteboard in an office.
Task Workflow Managers - There are many of these on the market. Trello is our tool of choice as Silk Helix. Boards can be shared within teams, easily showing progress of projects and tasks.
Whichever tools you are using, and a mix is probably best, it is possible to over communicate and have too many meetings. People need information to make decisions, do their job effectively and feel part of a team, but too much and they become overwhelmed and distracted. Excessive meetings can prevent reasonable periods of time in the day to actually focus on completing work. As in an office when a door may get closed to sign an individual needs quiet and to focus, this must be permitted for remote workers.
Learning and Development
The world around us is changing rapidly, no longer can we leave education with a set of skills that just get better with experience. The skills we need at work change and the tools we use change. This has been seen sharply in lockdown with the introduction of new communication tools. For some businesses this has gone as far as completely changing the product or service they deliver. Keeping up to date means continuous learning has become more important than ever.
Give employees the time and opportunity for learning and sharing that learning. Social tools like Facebook Workplace or a Slack Channel can be ideal for sharing information learned or recommending reading and videos.
Recognise that employees may need support to learn new skills and that this should be valued as working time. Learning that may have happened naturally in the office doesn’t happen in the same way remotely, so there must be some proactive planning and scheduling of learning time.
The pandemic and lockdown has without doubt boosted the wellbeing agenda. Suddenly moving work into the home whilst at the same time removing child care and pushing families who all leave the house in the morning to work together has put its pressures on many. Well-being isn’t just for a pandemic and not considering well-being is harmful to business, potentially reducing productivity, increasing absence and increasing employee turnover.
Supporting employees at work with good, regular communication, reasonable expectations and clear goals is all beneficial to well-being. Recognise the risks of isolation and ensure your informal communication is there to reduce the risks.
Whilst managers often fear that employees are just skiving off when homeworking, the reality for many is longer hours, with no clear boundary between work and home. It can be easy to work into the evening or return to the desk after dinner. Monitor activity but have open discussions about expectations, supporting employees to manage time. Equally, don’t rush to judgement or rules that may prove counterproductive. If the actual time worked doesn’t matter, working in the evening may be as a result of flexibility and choice rather than over working.
In addition, if you have an Employee Assistance Program you can promote to staff this is a great benefit, particularly at this time. If you’ve not got this in place, they are often considerably cheaper than you might think and offer telephone counselling as well as financial support, both of which may be vital to employees at the current time.
Don’t forget the basics. Promote healthy lifestyles, encouraging employees to get out of the house and walk or engage in other forms of exercise. It can be very easy to stay in the house for days on end but not particularly healthy for the body or mind. Walking has been known to have great benefits for concentration and creativity. Recognise that people may want to talk whilst being dialed into a conference call or whilst they work through a solution to a problem. In fact these things should be encouraged in the office as well as remote working.
Article last updated: 26 July 2020
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