Back to the Future: Managing Remotely
It was time to stop making buggy whips when they invented the automobile.
In normal times, a business considering remote work options would start with a committee. Six months later they would make a recommendation that would likely lead to sub-committees which would perhaps finally result in a pilot program that would end with a committee review and circle back to the original committee to make revisions, adjustments, etc. The final rollout would of course involve extensive training, feedback and oversight. Figure total time of one to two years. Instead the business community got all of one day to make it happen. Talk about getting thrown into the deep end of the pool!
The good news is- we learned a lot about what works, and what needs work. As we prepare for the future, here are some things to consider as you develop a plan for flexible work options, and the challenges of managing a remote work team.
Not every job lends itself to remote work. Not every person is a good candidate for remote work. Working remotely 100% of the time may not be the right balance- for the job, for the person, for your culture. Determine which jobs can be done remotely, and what percentage of the time works best. A good balance is your goal.
Make the Best Matches
Some people thrive in a 100% flexible work environment, while others crave the structure and predictability of a separate, specific workplace. Most people, after having involuntarily experienced the 100% work-from-home environment of Covid-19, find themselves preferring a hybrid option, where they may work from home 2-3 days a week and go into the workplace the other days. There are many benefits to face-to-face communication and working relationships that simply can’t be replaced by Zoom meetings. To the extent that you can offer options, try to match people with the work environment that will work best for them, and your company.
Consider your experience with the employee who wants to work remotely. Do they require a lot of close supervision or have they demonstrated the ability to work independently and make good decisions? If needed, help them create a personal development plan to enhance the skills required to successfully work from.
Some employees may complain that their jobs don’t allow for a work-from-home option and feel disadvantaged. This is the time to talk about job choices and weighing their options. There may be an opportunity to change jobs to one that allows for remote work, or they may end up opting to stay in their current job once they better understand the pros and cons.
Update Your Job Performance Measurements
Are you worried that your work-from-home employee may be sneaking in a dog walk, a nap, or throwing in a load of clothes? Does it matter? Many managers worry that they will have trouble managing people when they can’t see them. But other than an attendance measurement, what does simply “being there” have to do with getting work done? I once worked with someone who was a master at appearances. She came in early, left late and always appeared busy. As her co-worker, I experienced how conveniently busy she seemed to be whenever a customer appeared. Our work production at the end of the day was combined, so there was combined so there was no way to determine who had actually done the work what. I was never quite clear what she was actually doing, but her strategy worked for her. She got regular raises and even a promotion for basically looking busy.
If you aren’t already, change up your method of measuring productivity based on results instead of perceived busyness. Be sure you’ve established clear expectations for projects and/or assignments, including defined checkpoints and deadlines. As the definition of “workplace” changes, so must our definition of how we measure work. Millennials and Globals are much more comfortable with flexible work options and are attracted to the businesses that offer them. Don’t be surprised if you get a middle-of-the-night email with a solution to a problem that in days past would have kept you in you office until 8 PM.
If you’re still worried about what happens when you can’t see people- you do realize how many texts are going on during your current Zoom calls, don’t you? It’s become the adult version of passing notes in school.
Both formal and informal communication is essential. Depending on your team and its needs, once or twice a week may be right for an “all hands (and faces!)” videoconference call. Others may prefer an end-of-day call where everyone gives a quick report on what they were working on and an opportunity to raise any questions or concerns. During the heart of lockdown, some managers held a regular 10-minute video meeting every morning, just to check in and see how everyone was doing. Figure out what works best for you and establish a regular schedule.
Informal communication means you’re open to emails, texts or phone calls as needed, and also includes making regular one-on-one calls to touch base.
Use Technology Effectively
Zoom Burnout. Seems like everyone’s been a bit too Zoomed. One meeting after another from dawn to dusk. If there is one Time Waster that could be much better managed and would have the greatest impact on productivity and employee engagement, it’s meetings. There are already too many unproductive meetings- it’s every employee’s #1 complaint. Moving from too many in-person meetings to too many Zoom meetings makes no sense. As one employee put it, “well, at least now I only have to walk down the hall to attend yet another pointless meeting.”
As you plan for the future, reassess your meetings. Are they productive? Do they have clear agendas and purposes? Do people have enough advance information to be prepared? Do they start and end on time? If you’re usual meetings are an hour long, try making them 45 minutes, and stick to the time frame. Make it your goal to have fewer but better meetings.
We’re all tired of the standard video screen that looks like the opening scene of The Brady Bunch. It’s not just about seeing faces. Get creative. Zoom and some other video software offer options like using a whiteboard, sharing and viewing documents, spreadsheets, Powerpoint presentations and breakout rooms to change up the experience.
The single biggest and best change I discovered was how to turn off my view of myself. In a normal situation we aren’t faced with a distracting mirror where we have ample opportunity to criticize our looks, reactions, positioning and wardrobe. On Zoom, click on the top right corner of your video to reveal “mute” and three dots. Click on the three dots and the last item on the dropdown menu offers the option to “hide self-view”. Whew! You’re no longer too intimately involved with your pores.
Create New Routines
Instead of fretting about what “we used to do”, look at this as an opportunity to do some new things, or some old things differently. If you work in a department where you might have run into someone in the hall and brainstorm a new idea, or pop your head into their office with a quick question, pick up the phone or dash off a quick text. Make sure there’s still a place for spontaneity and quick chats. Or you could devote 10-15 minutes to your regularly scheduled video calls for “whatever.”
Emphasize Work Life Balance
Many people working from home for the first time were surprised to find that they were working more hours than usual. Being at your desk when you would normally be getting into your car for a 45-minute commute, then working through the same end-of-day commute time adds an hour and a half to every workday. The home office only a few steps away can lead to more late-night emails and “just a few more minutes on this project”. The next thing you know you’re spending more time at work than if you actually went to work.
Set reasonable start and end times and stick to them. If you’re lucky enough to have a physical home office, turn the lights off, shut the door and go home.
Make Real Face Time
Video calls can’t replace face-to-face communication. The nuances of body language, eye-to-eye communication and the informal interaction between people are unique. Be sure to schedule time to meet in person- as a team, and one-on-one. Have a department lunch once a month, or once a week. You may have some outdoor space to safely share pizza and reconnect.
We all know we are in uncharted waters. For the better part of six months we’ve been somewhat becalmed, drifting in some kind of suspended animation. The cure for frustration and insecurity is forward action. Pick up the oars and get moving. One of my favorite mottos: Pray, but keep rowing to shore.