Coronavirus, or COVID-19, changed the nature of work – possibly forever. Millions of employees, normally office-bound, are now getting used to working from their bedrooms, living rooms, bathrooms, and home offices — if they are lucky enough to have one. This pandemic will be with us for a while, with weeks or months of remote work ahead of us. After the worst has passed, there may still be distance limits. Lastly, many enterprises may choose for productivity or even economic benefits to continue telecommuting for a large swath of workers, as a Forbes article, CFOs Plan to Permanently Shift Significant Numbers of Employees to Work Remotely, indicated.
If your organization depends on remote work, it might as well be done properly — and to the benefit of workers and the enterprise alike. That demands a remote work policy. We are in a crisis, so months of research and meetings (virtual of course) to craft the policy will not cut it. You need a remote work policy now. It does not have to be perfect or 100% comprehensive – just good, crafted quickly and designed to be built upon as you learn new things.
We Work Remotely (WWR), a job site for remote employment, offered advice in its 5 Best Practices for Managing Remote Teams blog.
The first step is actually having a remote work policy and set of best practices. “It sets a professional standard that every employee — new and existing — should adhere to. This keeps the work environment fair and eliminates favoritism issues,” the web site advised. “A remote work policy also ensures that everyone knows what to expect and what’s required of them. As you establish rules for what everyone should be doing, your team will run like an efficient, streamlined, modern-day digital assembly line. These protocols prevent surprises, confusion, and training discrepancies.”
A similarly named but entirely separate WWR blog, 5 Tips for Building a Remote Team, dives deeper into policies. One key is how managers connect with workers. Is it entirely ad hoc, or more structured as in scheduled check-ins and update calls? For group and individual calls, will participants be required to be on video?
Ivy League Advice
The Harvard Business Review in a piece A Guide to Managing Your Newly Remote Workers, offered Ivy League quality guidance to managers now charged with keeping remote workers productive.
Productive remote work starts with the right technology. “Email alone is insufficient. Remote workers benefit from having a ‘richer’ technology, such as video conferencing, that gives participants many of the visual cues that they would have if they were face-to-face. Video conferencing has many advantages, especially for smaller groups: Visual cues allow for increased “mutual knowledge” about coworkers and help reduce the sense of isolation among teams. Video is also particularly useful for complex or sensitive conversations, as it feels more personal than written or audio-only communication,” HBR wrote. “There are other circumstances when quick collaboration is more important than visual detail. For these situations, provide mobile-enabled individual messaging functionality (like Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.) which can be used for simpler, less formal conversations, as well as time-sensitive communication.
The key here is that, once you have chosen a platform, have a policy to encourage its use, and define how it is used. If you are a Microsoft Teams shop, for instance, you can define how much communication is done through chat versus email, and whether Skype is still allowed for calls, meetings and instant messaging, or if this should all migrate to the far more robust Teams.
The Microsoft Take
Microsoft has been living in these remote working trenches for weeks now as the Pacific Northwest fell victim to COVID-19 early on. Last month, Microsoft asked 50,000 Seattle-area employees to immediately switch to working from home if they can. In fact, Bill Gates is running the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation largely through Microsoft Teams. Gates mentioned the role of Teams in several recent interviews, even joking to Geekwire “I’m learning about the rooms people have in their house, and cats jumping up on their desk.”
Microsoft Corporate Vice President for Microsoft 365 (Office 365 is becoming Microsoft 365 later this month) Jared Spataro blogged about using Teams for remote work, and how best to approach it.
Everyone has a different home, or remote workspace, so the main issue is finding a place that is comfortable and quiet. While some take their laptop from space to space (that is what I do), Spataro advises having a special area for work. “It’s important to have a dedicated home workspace where you can be productive and signal that you’re in do-not-disturb mode. A breakfast nook, a quiet corner of the bedroom, an underused game table in the rec room—any focus-friendly area can double as a workspace. And don’t worry if it gets a little messy throughout the day, you can always use background blur during video meetings so your teammates focus only on you,” Spataro argued in his blog.
Communication is More Than Just Checking in With the Boss or Employees
It is crucial for managers and workers to establish how and when to communicate. The same is true for the overall team, Spataro believes. “Make it a habit to offer frequent progress reports to your teammates. Fully remote companies tend to emphasize documentation, since it is a key way to stay connected when you work apart. We recommend posting updates, insights, and helpful resources you have discovered in Teams channels, so your teammates can stay connected with what you are up to even without the benefit of a chance hallway conversation. Later, they can search within the channel for ideas or content when they need them,” he wrote.
HBR suggests having a disciplined approach to check-ins, advising daily conversations. “Many successful remote managers establish a daily call with their remote employees. This could take the form of a series of one-on-one calls, if your employees work more independently from each other, or a team call, if their work is highly collaborative. The important feature is that the calls are regular and predictable, and that they are a forum in which employees know that they can consult with you, and that their concerns and questions will be heard,” HBR argues.
Fully Embrace Web Meetings
Now that online meetings have replaced the physical conference room, make sure video offers the same, or nearly the same experience. This is true for business meetings, and social get togethers with teammates. “As you move meetings to Teams, make sure all meetings have a virtual “join” option to create an online conference room. Also, we suggest that all participants turn on video if they are comfortable doing so. The face-to-face interaction goes a long way to help everyone feel connected,” Spataro said.
Making Sure Online Meetings Embrace All
Electronic communications is ripe with misunderstanding. How many times has someone misinterpreted a text or email? Jokes are taken out of context, feelings get hurt, and messages are missed. The same is true with Teams. “Moving to online meetings may remove some of the visual cues we rely on to see if a colleague has something to say in a meeting. And overcrowded conference calls can make it difficult for people to share their opinions,” Spataro said. “The meeting organizer should pause frequently to invite questions and remind attendees that they can also use the meeting chat window to share their thoughts.”
The Importance of Recording Meetings
A great Teams feature is recording meetings. This is not only ideal for those that missed the call, but perfect for planning sessions where team members can refer back to a meeting recording to fully absorb marching orders. Moreover, remote work can lead to meeting overload. “To compensate for lack of face time, some remote workers schedule extra meetings in order to stay connected with customers, partners, and coworkers. Double-bookings can be hard to avoid,” Spataro argued. “If your organization allows it, record meetings in Teams so coworkers can catch up later. If you cannot attend yourself, remind the organizer to record in your absence. The automatically generated transcript is also super-useful when you’re trying to remember information covered in a meeting you attended.”
Setting Expectations and Establishing Rules of Engagement
HBR, as a premier business thought leadership publication, argues that remote work benefits when work expectations are set, and communication is organized. HBR suggests using videoconferencing to conduct daily check-in meetings, but instant messaging for quick communication such urgent issues. “If you can, let your employees know the best way and time to reach you during the workday (e.g., ‘I tend to be more available late in the day for ad hoc phone or video conversations, but if there’s an emergency earlier in the day, send me a text.’) Finally, keep an eye on communication among team members (to the extent appropriate), to ensure that they are sharing information as needed,” HBR advised.
Don’t Forget to be Social
The marketing department at CoreView includes seven people, six of whom already worked remotely. Our group calls are always on video as a way of really connecting, and always getting to know co-workers better. During the pandemic, we have a weekly Friday aperitivo where we all enjoy a beverage of our choice, talk about the week and share plans for the weekend.
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