Remote working: it’s not the same as ‘working from home’
RATHER THAN SIMPLY ADOPTING THEIR ‘WORKING FROM HOME’ POLICY, ORGANISATIONS NEED TO LEARN AND EMBRACE EFFECTIVE REMOTE WORKING METHODS.
March 20, 2020
Last week, we laid out our strategy for organisations dealing with the challenge of coronavirus. One of the most important messages in it: remote working and working from home are not the same thing.
This week we’re looking at exactly what the differences are, and what organisations can and should do to implement effective remote working.
Before we start, there are two key issues we need to address:
1. We need to forget negative connotations of working from home
Of course, in this particular climate, we’re all bound to have negative thoughts. But they shouldn’t be focused on remote working.
Undoubtedly, many of us have been in the position (pre-coronavirus) where the suggestion that you work from home has been met with eye rolls from colleagues and a reluctant manager. Perhaps your boss assumes you’ve had a lie-in or spent the morning in your pyjamas on the sofa. Meanwhile, you’ve spent the day feeling guilty you’re not doing enough. You know the drill.
We have to understand that this view of working from home is simply not accurate. And in addition, we need to recognise that remote working is an entirely different way of getting things done.
It requires individuals to take responsibility for creating their own productive environment and for learning the skills required to be effective while working in a new way. Meanwhile, for organisations it’s the chance to establish new rules and processes for how work gets done and to educate their leaders on how to enable this.
2. We need to understand that remote working isn’t a short-term thing
We’re seeing lockdowns and social isolation measures coming into effect across the globe, with the potential for some social and economic measures to be in place for as long as 18 months. Even if companies take the most optimistic view, there’s no doubt that teams will need to work remotely for a significant period of time.
Unfortunately, many organisations are taking a short term view on the issue. We’ve heard lots of ‘It’s ok! We have a working from home policy so we’re just adopting that…’. Anecdotally, we’re also hearing of many businesses moving from days-full-of-meetings-at-the-office to days-full-of-calls-at-home.
While rapid emergency measures are required, the unfortunate reality is that organisations can’t expect to simply ride it out until the worst of the crisis is over and then get back to business as usual.
Remote working vs. working from home – what are the key differences?
Comparing working from home and remote working is a bit like comparing T20 cricket to test match cricket. (Apologies to our international readers for a very British analogy.)
Not only is the length of time involved in each vastly different (a T20 cricket match lasts three hours compared to a test match which lasts five days), you also need to think about:
- the skills required to be productive (in test match cricket batsmen need different skills and abilities to play longer innings over five days – stamina for example)
- the rules that your organisation has regarding how and when work gets done (in cricket shorter matches have stricter rules about the format of the game)
- the strategies that individuals adopt to be more productive (shorter forms of cricket are usually more formulaic and most teams adopt very similar approaches)
- the most effective environment for work to take place (T20 cricket often takes place at night in large venues, whereas games that go on all day are often more suited to smaller grounds with open space for people to walk around)
- the role of leadership in modelling the skills and behaviours required (in test match cricket, captains need to show more patience, perseverance and creativity compared to T20 cricket where fewer decisions are required and their role is less strategically important)
Rules for remote working – respect the workstyle
Once you acknowledge that remote working is a different proposition to working from home, you need to adopt a different set of rules around how your team communicates and does their work.
You need to ask some key questions:
- When are people expected to be online?
- Now schools are closed and the kids are at home, are parents still expected to be online 9-5? (And try to be really realistic with this one.)
- How should people dress – particularly if they are just on internal calls?
- What are the default channels for communication, collaboration and decision making?
The most important thing for leaders to do is to discuss and agree this with their teams upfront, perhaps in the form of a team charter like this or a trust and communication agreement.
There is no right or wrong set of rules – it simply depends on the context of the organisation. But agreeing your rules with the team, rather than imposing them, will not only lead to much greater compliance with the new working norms, but also much better engagement and improved motivation.
We think it’s best to keep these rules simple. Our key rule from which everything else follows is this: respect the workstyle.
Workstyle is a term used by everyone in our organisation to describe their working pattern. Some people have flexible workstyles that change week to week, others have the same strict workstyle every week and will be online for a few hours at specified times, on certain days.
People are of course completely free to flex their workstyle if their individual circumstances change, or if they’re applying to a project that will have certain commitments or requirements. But the decision to empower individuals to make this choice is fundamental to our purpose. We want our teams to be judged on output, rather than where or when they choose to work.
The power of the term workstyle is that it breaks down the cultural barriers and norms that we have around our working habits. Now that work happens remotely, in many roles, should there still be a requirement to be online between certain hours? We don’t think so. Instead, we empower the community to do their best work, at a time that suits them.
However, this only works when there are adequate processes and support networks in place. For example, do you need to agree on an overlap between the workstyles of people in different time zones so that they can still catch up face to face? If you don’t, written communication skills become incredibly important.
Remote working strategies – workstyle enables efficient asynchronous work
Remote working and respecting the workstyle enable a number of new strategies for getting work done. For many teams, it’s no longer necessary to be working at the same time to produce a presentation or to write a report, for example.
Our way of working forces us, as an organisation, to collaborate in a very different way. We need to have clear individual accountabilities and deadlines, with total transparency in communication.
Slack is our default channel for all communication (internal email is banned) and we use G-suite to ensure maximum collaboration on all documents, presentations and spreadsheets.
This can lead to huge productivity improvements, cutting out endless emails back and forth with reviews and iterations, and avoids duplication of effort. Slack also means conversations are grouped into channels and threads, so individuals can prioritise certain subjects, projects, or clients rather than needing to wade through an unmanageable inbox (for all the rest of our ‘Slack hacks’ look here).
Working in this way opens up access to a more diverse, global talent pool. And could make your organisation more inclusive to those with disabilities, caring responsibilities, irregular commitments and more. Increasing diversity within your organisation makes for more high performance teams and businesses – and who doesn’t want that?
Remote working environments – the importance of workstyle to mental health
Coronavirus, and the government measures taken to combat it, means that people now need to balance work with other priorities – such as looking after children or helping vulnerable friends and family.
Here again, the importance of respecting individual workstyles mustn’t be underestimated. Organisations have a duty of care towards their employees’ mental and physical health which will be greatly impacted by the physical space and working conditions they have at home.
For instance, junior staff might be living in shared accommodation without much space of their own to work or parents might have three kids crying out for some attention while they’re trying to do their job.
In the short term, you need to help your employees understand the importance of looking after their physical and mental health. No longer is working from home a benefit. It’s being imposed and for a prolonged period of time. There are lots of good resources on this topic here and here.
One practical thing which organisations can do is to help employees retain the ability to switch off from work by creating a clear delineation between when you are working and when you aren’t.
That’s why we think it’s best to avoid using WhatsApp chats and keep all communication in systems such as Slack. That way individuals can manage their notification settings and don’t inadvertently look at work messages when they’re chatting with friends during downtime.
It’s also really helpful if leaders encourage everyone to keep their status up to date, so workstyles can be respected, and expectations managed as to when that individual will next be working.
In the longer term (once we’re allowed to, of course), it’s important to remember that remote working doesn’t need to mean working from home. Cafés, parks, libraries, hotels, and even beaches are all potential remote offices. So long as there is a stable internet connection and the background noise is manageable, encourage individuals to choose what works best for them to be at their most motivated and productive.
Remote working skills
Compared to working from home every once in a while, remote working requires specific skills to be effective. From our experience, these are the most important ones;
- Self awareness
- Self motivation
We’ll be discussing these skills further in a future post – they’re all forms of ‘emotional intelligence’, for which there are a number of excellent training providers such as The School of Life (who also run virtual training workshops for organisations).
In addition, it’s worth remembering that it’s more challenging for teams to learn from one another in a remote working setup. It’s estimated that 20% of learning comes from this although the evidence is disputed and probably varies greatly between organisations and industries. That’s one of the reasons we’ve started a project to help new remote workers buddy up with someone more experienced.
Leadership and remote working – be a role model
As a leader, once you’ve set the remote working rules with your team, it’s also critical that you follow them and act as a role model. Only when leaders live words through actions can they influence behaviour.
Our founders, Alex and Lizzie, relentlessly promote and encourage the use of workstyle through video blogs, Slack communications and consistent messaging in project work. They’re also clear about setting, sharing and sticking strictly to their own workstyles.
Helping everyone to think about what remote working means to them, how to set their workstyle and how to stick to it becomes one of a remote leaders’ primary functions. A good way to start this is by organising a virtual coffee to check in with your team. The key is to keep this regular video contact up over the medium to long term.
In a remote team, you need to be attuned to your team enough that you notice any small changes in behaviour, and remain available so as to encourage your teams to be open with potential issues that they might be facing.
At times of crisis and change, people look to leaders for guidance, and the most important thing at this moment in time is to set a good example for people to follow.
Set up good remote working behaviours from the start
Organisations that adopt their ‘working from home’ policies in response to the coronavirus pandemic will only be able to sustain productive working for a very short period of time (if at all).
Just as when key staff go on holiday, some roles and tasks can be covered, and key meetings can be put on hold. The trouble is that adopting this attitude over three months or more could jeopardise a company’s productivity or even threaten a firm’s very survival.
The sooner organisations accept that significant changes are required to adopt remote working practices, the more they will mitigate the risk of engagement and productivity dips. Once new working practices are entrenched, they’re extremely hard to change. Businesses must act now in order to set up good behaviours from the start.
By embracing the opportunities presented by remote working, when the crisis passes, you’ll be in the best possible position to embrace the new world of work, with practices fit for the digital age we live in.
If there is any further information that you would find useful in moving to a highly productive remote team during the Coronavirus pandemic, please do either contact us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag #remoteagainstcoronavirus - we are keen to do whatever we can to provide the right tools and stop the spread of Coronavirus.
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