How to make the remote working experiment a success

The coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak has taken the world by surprise and companies are scrambling to respond in responsible ways. One way is what is now called the “remote working experience”: millions of office workers have been asked not to come to the office but work from home instead, to protect themselves and their communities. 

Social media is rife with speculation that this is the breakthrough event for the general acceptance of working from home. Some think that we’ll see such an increase in productivity that employers can’t roll this back. At first glance, a win for remote work.

Having worked remotely for many years, I’m skeptical; remote work won’t be successful if you work in an office one day and you’re mandated to work from home the next. That’s just a change in location. The biggest challenges you’ll face are the lack of technology and infrastructure and a lack of experience with working from home. And even when you can resolve these challenges: remote working is not for everyone and once we’re back to normal, your company might not have a viable business case.

Remote work requires a different way of working. When done correctly, it’s a great way to make a living: I’ve done it for many years, and I love the extra time because I have no commute. But I am also in the fortunate circumstances that my company fully supports remote working with the right tools and approaches. Is that difficult? No. Is it fundamental? Yes, and there is no quick fix. As a company, you’ll need to invest in equipment, adapt your processes and you must consider with everything you do that not all employees are based in an office. And even then, some things simply can’t be done virtually. 

The fundamental question is: can you be as (or more) productive when you work remotely? And what can you do to make the best of the remote working experiment?

Deploy the right tools

This is not something you can change overnight, but if everyone can work in the cloud, you’re halfway there. I’ve used the Google and Microsoft suites and they worked well. The suites allow you to collaborate on documents etc. that are stored online, so make sure everyone uploads their files to the cloud and doesn’t put them on local drives (which should be normal practice for everyone in a modern office). Tools like Teams will help you organize the work and ensure everyone has access to all information. 

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In addition, you’ll need communication tools for video conferencing and chat. Video conferencing works great for meetings with max 20 people. I use chat to quickly reach out and ask questions, or to have a short conversation with others. For virtual town halls, make sure your conference tool can accept all participants and that you have enough bandwidth to broadcast the event.

Connectivity & security

I live in an area with high-speed fiber networks, which means that I can access and transfer large data files as if I were in the office. If you don’t have fast broadband at home, the best thing you can do for yourself and your employees is upgrade connections as soon as the provider can arrange it – it really makes a difference in productivity when you don’t have to wait for downloads to complete and transfers are immediate. In addition, broadband allows you to video conference, which is especially important when you have a (difficult) conversation and you want to see how the other person responds.

Even so, my colleagues sometimes complained that I was hard to follow when speaking because my connection broke. I discovered that I had spotty wifi reception at my desk. I moved the desk to the other side of the home office and that made all the difference. When you engage in virtual conversations, connectivity must be spotless. If your kids play video games and other family members work from home too, now might be the time to discuss internet usage, to avoid bandwidth issues.

Still, connections fail from time to time. When everything you need is in the cloud, you can’t work when the internet goes down. Although I normally work in the cloud, I also have all apps installed on my laptop, so I can continue to work whether or not I’m online. 

Accessing company systems when working remotely has all kinds of security implications, especially when this is not part of your normal routine. I can’t caution you enough about security, but it’s not a simple topic or something that you can put in place overnight. Make sure you use a VPN and multi-factor authentication to safely connect to the network and use applications. That’s a minimum requirement to keep your data safe. Follow your company’s security updates to the letter and adhere to all security policies to minimize the risk of data breaches.

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Yes, you need your own workspace

Because most of you are working from home without upfront warning, you probably don’t have a home office. Working at the kitchen table can be a temporary solution, but if you want to get things done, you’ll need a separate workspace. That becomes even more important when schools close and the kids are at home. You will not be productive when you’re constantly interrupted by others.

Maybe you can temporarily put a desk in another room or create a makeshift office in a hallway. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than the alternative. Set clear rules about when you can and can’t be interrupted. Close the door. The point is to mark a space where you can focus and work gets done, that isn’t part of your family’s living space. Entering a separate space reminds you of going into an office, which helps you get into the “I am at work” mindset.

This is also a topic with a legal focus: in many countries labor laws mandate that companies ensure people have the right equipment at work. While they might make an exception for current circumstances, your employer must ensure that you have an ergonomically correct space available before they allow you to work from home in future.

Schedule breaks

When you work from home, the lines between work and private time become blurry quickly and it’s important that you take care of yourself. When I work, I often forget to take a break and there’s no one to remind me it’s lunch time. When I look up, it’s three o’clock and I haven’t eaten. That’s not good, so I schedule lunch breaks in my calendar with a pop-up reminder. I step away from my desk, eat something and go for a walk outside to clear my head.

Some people find it helpful to officially mark the start and end of their workday:

People who work from home often work more hours than at the office, because they feel guilty when they step away from their desk. Not immediately responding to phone calls or emails could be perceived as “doing other things”, meaning personal and not focused on work. Remind yourself that it’s not about being available, it’s about delivering the work. When you work in the office, you are not available 100% of the time either: you have lunch, or you get a coffee and talk to colleagues. When you work from home, don’t feel guilty, and don’t overcompensate by working long days.

Set clear expectations and trust people to do the right thing

When you work in an office, it’s easy to keep an eye on people. It’s also easy for them to approach you with a question. When employees work from home, you can’t see what they are doing, and so you have to trust that they do the right thing. It’s therefor very important to agree on what’s expected, with dates and deliverables. It’s even more important that people feel they can reach out to you without it being considered an interruption.

I have led virtual teams for many years. In fact, none of my direct reports live in the same country and I don’t see them often. I’ve participated in virtual client and project teams, with people I have never met in person. When you work together this way, you must be very clear on deliverables and outcomes, agree on regular reporting and make sure everyone knows what their responsibilities are. That’s true for all projects, but even more so with virtual teams, because you can’t monitor people closely, and when you want to stick to deadlines, it’s important you have a clear picture.

I have weekly scheduled check ins with my direct reports, so we can discuss progress and road blocks, and what to do about them. In practice, we touch base more often than that – they use the chat tool to reach out during the day, which allows us to quickly discuss something and if necessary have a conversation. To me, it’s not about when and where they work or the number of hours they put in, as long as they deliver against the agreed deadlines.

Under normal circumstances, your team might know what’s expected, but suddenly their daily routine has profoundly changed and you will need to help them through it. Make sure to address this upfront: check that every employee understands what they are expected to deliver and that they are able to work under these circumstances.

Also pay attention to the process: what kind of meeting frequencies will you install? What is the protocol for asking questions: email, call, chat, a Teamspace? Are there times when you expect everyone to be online, or can people schedule their own working hours? Providing clarity on the way of working will help people work better together and ensure that deadlines can still be met. And realize that some employees will not do well outside of an office and need extra attention and guidance to get through this period.

Practice good meeting hygiene and be social

When you attend a meeting in the office, the rules are clear: everyone gets a drink and there’s some social interaction. Then the meeting is called to order, you put your phone and laptop away, and everyone is focused on the agenda.

When you participate in a virtual meeting, it’s easy to be distracted: you quickly answer an email, someone asks a chat question, etc. Treat virtual meetings the same way as face to face meetings and use the same set of rules: have video calls, so everyone is focused, and agree to turn off email, chat and all other applications. Don’t forget the occasional coffee break!

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To keep your teams engaged, reserve time for social interaction at the start of a virtual meeting; make a conscious effort to spend some time talking about the weekend or the latest blockbuster. We all need that human connection to feel part of a team, so share a joke, ask them about their day or their family. You’ll find that in virtual meetings people often launch into the business conversation right away – make an effort to socialize first, then switch to business.

Keep remote workers close

When you work in an office, people get their information through town halls and other in person meetings. Remote workers might miss side conversations and important updates, simply because they are not there, and no one thought to include them. You must make sure that remote workers are treated as a separate group in your communication strategy (and in all other processes). It’s not hard to do, and it works best if you make one of your leaders responsible for this group.

To ensure that remote workers feel included, we have a Yammer group where all remote workers participate: everyone can post questions and updates. As the executive sponsor of this group, whenever we have town halls at the offices, I schedule a virtual town hall for our remote workers, so they receive the same message and can ask questions. While you might not fully replace the office channel, remote workers will be better informed and feel part of the community.

Know when remote won’t work

In some circumstances, remote will simply not cut it. When I ran my strategy initiatives, most of our meetings were virtual, especially when we talked to experts in other countries. That worked well, because these sessions were organized as presentations, and the experts did most of the talking. I’ve also participated in many virtual leadership sessions, when we couldn’t travel to the same location, and in virtual presentations to clients. Again, once you get used to it, it works well.

However, there are meetings that require everyone to be in the same room: when you need to discuss difficult topics, or when you engage in brainstorming sessions. There are times when we ask everyone to join in kick off meetings, so people get to know each other and develop personal relationships. Although most customers accept a digital signature, a few months ago a vendor insisted that I personally sign a paper contract so I ended up driving to their office to make it legal. So while remote works most of the time, be prepared to handle exceptions and don’t eliminate the travel budget.

The future of remote work

Remote working is not for everyone: some people like going to the office, enjoy working in the presence of colleagues or don’t want to work from home for other reasons. For some, it’s about flexibility, and the option to work from home a few days a week. And for a small group of people it’s critical to work remotely because otherwise they would not be able to work at all.

The outbreak of the coronavirus is a black swan event, that requires us to be pragmatic and creative and make the best of a difficult situation. Many companies have been mandated by local governments to activate their BCP’s and sent workers home – an unanticipated circumstance that requires quick thinking, instead of thoughtful planning. It would be wrong to base the success or failure of the so-called “remote working experiment” on this crisis.

Whatever happens, let’s make sure we share and evaluate the lessons learned, seize this opportunity to prepare our companies for the future of work and respond to a growing employee need.

And if you want to read up on the remote working experience , here are some great guides to help you do that:

Preparing for emergency remote work – Workplaceless

The ultimate guide to remote work – Zapier

GitLab’s guide to all-remote – GitLab

The Suddenly Remote Playbook – Toptal

A Guide to Working from Home – OfficeArrow

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