Covid-19 forced many businesses to undergo a rapid transition to a work from home model. Suddenly, remote work has become the new norm. How do businesses and we as individuals cope with this change? Even though the technology to facilitate working from home has existed for some time, many businesses did not make conscious attempts to integrate remote working into the company culture.
Working from home, what’s the big deal?
If you are working at an organisation that was able to transition into remote work -- consider yourself lucky. In these trying times it is a privilege to work in a business that is capable of maintaining operations through distance work.
Among businesses that transitioned to remote work some will be more successful than others. While some may struggle to maintain team cohesion and effectiveness others might find that their output as well as team spirit in fact improved. The same goes for individuals that make up these organisations. Once the Covid-19 threat is dealt with some people will be yearning to get back into the office while others will be pushing to continue working from home on an ongoing basis.
I believe there are four dimensions that influence how successful working remotely will be: (1) Does the organisation have the technical capabilities to support remote work?; (2) Is the corporate culture supportive of remote work; (3) Can the individuals use the remote tools provided?; (4) Do individuals have the personal traits that are conducive to successful remote work. Getting these four ingredients right will be crucial for organisations that undergo a transition to distributed teams.
1. Organisational Technical Capabilities
To assess if an organisation has the technological capacity to facilitate remote work effectively we need to look at what systems are required. At a basic level this means having access to corporate communication channels and work files. Luckily most businesses already use cloud services for emails and file storage. However, organisations that rely on centralised, on-premises, file storage need to facilitate access via Virtual Private Network (VPN) or similar software.
Facilitating external access to corporate networks poses a serious risk of cyber attacks. To mitigate this organisations should maintain a sufficient level of IT security measures; both systematic (anti-virus protection, multi-factor-authentication, etc.) as well as personal (IT security awareness among staff members). At the same time the system has to be easy enough even for the least technical staff member to use.
Companies that are serious about effective remote work understand that online collaboration means more than just emails and shared drives. The ever growing number of collaboration tools includes chat rooms, real-time document editing by multiple users and video conferencing software.
2. Organisational Cultural Readiness for Remote Work
Organisations that suddenly transition into remote work will most likely try to replicate the office routine as closely as possible. That is how we end up with strict office-like rules such as: We expect everybody to be logged in and ready to go at 9am, at 10:30am we will have a mandatory Skype call, lunch is from 1pm to 2pm., and so on… This may seem like a good idea in order to maintain discipline but it is bound to suppress employee autonomy and creativity. Not to mention that it doesn’t take into account individual family concerns -- something that is particularly pressing as we all shelter in place. Instead of accounting for time the employees spend in front of their monitors, managers should consider switching to measuring their output more closely.
There is also a case to be made for reducing reliance on email in favour of team chat tools. A lot of progress at work occurs in informal settings, when chatting over a coffee or overhearing your colleague talking about a problem that you know how to solve. We lose this dynamic when working from home. Companies that embrace remote work choose to use chat tools like Slack or Teams to restore multidirectionality of communication.
3. Personal Technical Readiness for Remote Work
In this section we will give you some questions that you can use as self assessment to determine whether you feel confident in your knowledge and skills to use the tools provided by your organisation for remote work.
IT Security know-how
Basic IT Security awareness allows you to detect and respond to IT Security issues appropriately.
Self assessment questions:
- What’s your level of understanding of your organisation’s security policies?
- Do you know how to recover your password if you forget it?
- Do you know how to recognise a phishing email?
- Do you know who to contact if you answer a phishing email?
Basic technical skills will allow you to deal with problems without immediately referring to technical support staff.
Self assessment questions:
- Can you solve basic technical issues without contacting your organisation's IT Help Desk by researching the problem on the Internet?
- Do you maintain your own backups or make sure that your work is stored in the cloud?
- Do you know how to use services such as Dropbox or OneDrive?
Home office setup
Your office setup should be comfortable and safe.
Self assessment questions:
- Does your desk space have sufficient lighting?
- Do you have a headset for conference calls?
- Do you look after your posture when sitting?
- Do you have an ergonomic office chair?
Last but not least, I’d like to mention the importance of writing skills. Writing is the main medium of communication during remote work. While it is not a barrier to remote work in itself, improving your writing skills will make you a more effective communicator overall. There is no easy recipe for becoming a better writer but it’s definitely worth the time and effort as most of your interactions will be through email, chat or reports.
Self assessment questions:
- How are your writing skills?
- Can you write clearly and without grammatical errors?
- Can you condense a complicated message into a simple message
Tip: Check out this video by Tim Ferris for some great tips on how to become a better writer.
4. Personal Traits and Remote Work
Apart from technical skills you also need to assess your personal traits and attitudes to see if you can thrive in a remote work environment.
Remote work requires you to be more mindful of how you communicate with others and be more sensitive to limitations of various modes of interaction. It is very easy to misread a piece of text as it doesn’t contain the same emotional cues as a face-to-face interaction. We normally tend to read messages in our own voice. While doing that we run the risk of applying our emotions to it. It’s quite likely that they do not match the emotions of the sender. In that respect it is always better to assume positive intent of the sender. This is easier said than done and remote workers will need to consciously practice their ability to empathise with others.
Working from home also underlines how important it is to be able to work autonomously. For some people breaking out of the office can be liberating and open doors to more creative modes of working. Suddenly it becomes possible to experiment with how you like to go about your workday. Maybe you are most productive late at night, maybe early in the morning, who knows. Now you can try and see. Others might be a bit overwhelmed by the extra responsibilities. You will need to establish your own routine, manage your work, schedule breaks, maintain your work-life separation. Many decisions that have been made for you previously, now are up to you to decide.
If you do feel excited about the prospect, remote work is probably for you. If you can honestly say to yourself that you don’t need a manager with a stick hanging over your shoulder to be productive, remote work is probably for you. It might in fact turn out that your productivity has increased after you have optimised your working space and your habits. Maybe the office environment, the rigid rules or the daily commute were weighing you down. This could be the opportunity to tap into previously undiscovered potential.
A question remains whether organisations that were slow to adopt remote working in the first place will be able to foster, notice and appreciate talented remote workers.
Organisational change that under normal circumstances would take years was fast-tracked, with organisations and employees learning as they go what remote working methods work best in their culture. Organisations that were technically capable of supporting remote work but would otherwise be reluctant to adopt it at a large scale will find it hard to roll-back these changes after the Covid-19 situation is under control. Personally, I hope that organisations can reinvent themselves and embrace remote work to a greater capacity in the future
I found these books very helpful in providing actionable strategies on becoming more efficient and autonomous.
- ‘Getting things done’ by David Allen
- ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport
- ‘Managing Oneself’ by Peter F. Drucker