How different is remote working during a pandemic and what can technology do help?

Author: Laura Green

16th April 2020

Business as (un)usual

Remote working. It’s a topic that is often under a lot of debate in the working world. The ability to work from home is something that many companies allow and almost all have policies about – but what’s the difference pre- and post COVID-19? There are pros and cons to it certainly, but the recent pandemic has thrust many of us suddenly and unexpectedly into working from home full-time. And many people are talking like it’s a global litmus test for remote working, period.

In the US, a recent survey found that ‘80% of employees want to work from home at least some of the time. [State of Remote Work 2019, Owl Labs] But this isn’t working from home just some of the time, is it? It’s working from home during a global pandemic and that’s certainly likely to change things a little. Whether it’s something that was previously sought after or perhaps dreaded, what’s unarguable is that this is remote working like no other. For most of us it’s pretty surreal.

In response, some businesses are already leveraging technology to adapt and facilitate working from home for their teams. Many companies have the advantage of already allowing remote work or being at least partially distributed or remote. For others, this is all new and perhaps a little fraught. The pressure of supplying the best tools and offering the right support can feel challenging and this blog aims to tackle some of these concerns head-on and provide appropriate solutions in the form of technology or best practices.

Finding new ways to operate and support employees whilst maintaining as much productivity and culture as possible has become necessity. The current global situation demands quick and reactive changes if companies and their teams are to thrive. A healthy happy workforce is key to any business success, but if new policies and practices are needed, what should these look like and how can technology help alleviate some of the obstacles?

Cronofy client, Duuoo shared their thoughts with us on how to try and keep things as normal as possible:

 

Despite the changes and challenges, business as [un]usual should still be a leaders’ key aim. Wherever possible, continue to help your team members work towards agreed upon personal development and business goals, using interim steps or actions to track progress and acknowledge successes. Continue to share feedback and praise, and constructive ideas for improvement; utilize the opportunity to innovate and develop new ways of working and maintaining good communication, as well as continuing to progress with what works.”

 

There are many documented advantages of remote working generally – for the planet, companies and individuals – including the cut to commuting time, reduced congestion and environmental impact, some of which the world is already benefitting from. Ordinarily it can also increase productivity and improve staff retention, with the trust and flexibility offered. Pre-COVID-19, companies reported an annual $2,000 profit per remote employee saved in costs and overheads.

Estimates show the saving to U.S. employers through staff working from home due to COVID-19 is over $30 Billion a day – in what would have otherwise been lost productivity during office closures (Global Workplace Analytics). With these figures it’s easy to see the benefits. For those businesses lucky enough to implement working from home for their staff and keep the lights on with trading, it’s a lifeline.

Yet adjusting to any change in work or lifestyle, can be a challenge and with the restrictions on our home life and social practices changing every day this has been amplified. One thing that’s true is that everyone is in this together – it’s important to try to stay positive and tackle these issues head on. It’s worth reaffirming that these are unusual times and that people can’t just forget what’s happening around them. Things like having kids at home and the additional stress and uncertainty of being in lockdown will impact productivity any way you look at it.

Communication and flexibility

Pre-global health crisis, some very famous companies had publicly rejected ‘telecommuting’ (Google, IBM and Yahoo to name a few) – and it’s their concerns and advice about work and mental wellbeing that we may want to take into consideration to maintain the health of the workforce during this pandemic.

Communication and human interaction are things that have been proven to be a huge and healthy part of the working day. With remote work this becomes even more vital. Face-to-face interactions play a key role in many aspects of business. Some jobs of course demand more and others less, but it’s rare that a day would go by without talking to someone in an office setting – and that’s what most people are used to. With only essential workers going out to work every day, employers and teammates must work harder to encourage and enable the interactions that might not happen so naturally for remote working newbies.

One remedy to the issues facing remote workers currently is great communication and this can be enabled through technology. When it comes to the digital tools that are on offer solutions like Slack or Zoom and their equivalents are essential for checking in regularly and keeping lines of communication flowing. There are many free options available so whatever your budget it’s a good idea to start using these tools. Video conferencing services have seen a spike in usage as they have become central to successful workplace collaboration. Gauging people’s reactions and crucially, keeping people’s attention is much easier when you can see them and they can see you.

 

“Video calls as a platform for communication have seen a huge surge in popularity whilst workers across the globe are confined to their houses for most of the day – in and out of the workplace this face to face contact is proving essential to staying engaged and it’s also boosting morale. The advantages of video over telephone for interviewing are well documented – being able to read facial expressions and experience something that’s as close to human contact as possible and now we need this for our daily work interactions. At Cronofy, the whole team meets over Zoom, once a week for our now more regular ‘all hands’.The leadership team are fully aware that this isn’t normal or comfortable for the team and for that reason we are trying to offer the most supportive culture we can. Great communication is always something that has been prioritized but with it currently being even more vital than usual, we’ve stepped up the number of video calls we do, preferring face-to-face to minimize the impact on collaboration vs just using Slack for everything.”

Adam Bird, CEO, Cronofy

 

Usually a key benefit of remote working that’s mentioned is flexibility, choosing your own schedule and fitting work around commitments and daily tasks, like the school run. The current circumstances are a bit different and a lot of workers will still be expected to keep to core hours. It’s great to have set hours – this means everyone knows who is available and when – but be considerate of the stress and unusualness of this situation – if someone needs to pop to the shops at a less busy time or take a personal call that’s understandable – the key here is once again communication. It’s important that teams can easily communicate in real-time (using live chat for example) and are encouraged to let others know if they need to be offline for more than half an hour at an unusual time.

Health and wellbeing in the home

A FlexJobs survey about remote work showed that 65 % of workers feel that they would be more productive working at home than at the office. Among the reasons for this potential boost for remote workers: fewer distractions, less stress from commuting and less impact from office politics. It’s quite a different matter having remote working enforced upon us though – as is the case at the moment.

Many people are not used to working remotely but are now expected to do it every day. At the same time they have to share their new working space with spouses, children or housemates. This means that instead of being less distracted when working from home, they will more likely be less able to focus.

Even in standard office situations there are days when productivity peaks and troughs and this is likely to be amplified in the current stressful climate of a pandemic. Talking about these challenges openly is the best way to alleviate any anxieties.

 

“While some teams already have members who work from home part time, or who are even fully remote, the situation we now find ourselves in is a change of pace for even seasoned home-workers. Many locations have closed all school and childcare provision, meaning that even if you ordinarily work entirely from home, you might suddenly have some new, less than qualified “colleagues” to keep an eye on. The lack of freedom to leave the house and work when, and with whom you like can also negatively impact motivation, focus and drive. Leaders should be keeping a very close eye on the emotional and social well-being of their teams – not only because it’s the right thing to do – but to ensure engagement and motivation levels don’t drop. Airtasker‘s Survey found that remote workers, given the right tools and communication practices, are often actually more productive, so focus more on communication, engagement, and wellbeing than crunching the numbers.”

Michael Sica-Lieber, Duuoo

 

For remote working to be a success, employees need as much support and understanding as possible from their managers and companies – and this comes in many different formats. Although the working environment is now very dependent on an employee’s individual home, a good equipment setup will go miles to improve the comfort and wellbeing of this situation. A second screen, appropriate chair or webcam can all enhance the home setup and physical wellbeing.

It’s also important that employees feel they can openly discuss the challenges they face without fear of being judged or penalized, which will add extra stress. Checking in regularly, arranging group calls and helping employees to know what is expected are all good practice.

There’s also a danger that stress at work now bleeds into personal life and vice versa. Being supportive is crucial – use the tools on offer to foster and deliver that supportive message. What’s important currently is to overcome the negative sides of working from home. Be aware of and resolve these issues and employees will thank you for it.

 

“Team wellbeing has to be an especially important focus at the moment. The normal lines of communication have changed as have the opportunities to passively observe whether a colleague may be struggling. It’s crucial that we engineer situations where the team can discuss how they’re feeling and share the challenges of their particular situation so we can be there for them. Be that as a mindful group of colleagues or giving one on one support.”

Adam Bird, CEO, Cronofy

Remote work shouldn’t mean isolation

Many employees and their families have been plunged in at the deep end working from home full-time and this is bound to have unique challenges. Others may live alone or be separated from family and this comes with trials of its own. Without the natural interconnectivity of an office it’s also much easier for staff to feel socially isolated. Being in an office helps with any potential negative impact from working alone – it’s why full-time remote workers often spend some of their week in a coffee shop or co-working space.

Remote workers are most acutely at risk of isolation and loneliness. According to a report, feeling alone is becoming an increasingly common physical and behavioral health concern for this group. ‘Even without the commute, remote workers have some unique struggles to work through. Loneliness (21%), collaborating and/or communicating (21%) and distractions at home (16%) are the biggest struggles of remote workers.’ (Buffer https://open.buffer.com/state-remote-work-2018/#benefits)

With loneliness being recorded as one of the major pitfalls of working remotely, try to get ahead of it and introduce prevention measures. When employees are working from home it can be especially hard to identify these issues as you may not see the impact without being physically close to people. It’s a good idea to create an open forum and not shame or challenge employees who are struggling to adapt or have ‘bad days’.

Some symptoms of isolation include increased stress levels and bad decision making. For an employer, these are concerning characteristics for someone who has crucial responsibility. Unfortunately, being isolated also means these symptoms are difficult for employers to detect. (Forbes)

In order to foster a healthy and social workplace, even when everyone is remote it’s a good idea to ensure that team members are encouraged to interact frequently and not always just about work. Don’t forget the ‘water cooler chitchat’ – especially for those new to working from home. These interactions will be missed!

There’s no denying that this is a stressful time and having a healthy support network and work culture goes a long way to helping with that. Don’t discourage non-work related chat – in fact where possible implement ways to enable it. Ideas for this include lunching together on video, dedicated Slack channels for amusing content and non-work discussions and drop in video calls for casual chats. At Cronofy we have set up twice daily ‘coffee-time’ on Slack which generates a Zoom link at a set time for people to just drop-in and we use our ‘random’ channel to share entertaining articles, games and talk about nothing or everything dependent on the day.

As much as possible make all engagements fun. We’ve been playing with Zoom backgrounds for meetings and organizing online gaming between team members over lunch – it’s definitely keeping spirits up!

Using technology in this situation is hugely advantageous and allows individuals to stay connected and track conversations both casually and formally, as required. 

Great employee management has never been so important

Getting remote employee management right when it may be a totally new skill can be tricky. People don’t want to feel spied on but it’s important to check in regularly. Err on the side of over communication to start and then scale back if need be. For many managers this is an entirely new domain. Switching to managing people who are distributed when they’re used to managing a team in a physical office is a big change.

Frequent touchpoints and 1:1s are now even more important. If these were already happening regularly consider upping the frequency of communication with direct reports and if they aren’t happening – introduce them. It’s a good idea to use an agenda, record actions and include an additional focus on mental health and wellbeing. Make these sessions an open forum to discuss the challenges of this exceptional situation.

 

“What’s key in the uncertain and unprecedented circumstances we’re now all facing is social connection and team cohesion should remain a priority while remote working is in place. Perhaps even more important, is ensuring your teams feel informed and have a good understanding of leaders’ plans and expectations, and feel empowered to continue working through clear, supportive and frequent communication. It’s one thing to have a running and informal conversation through email or Slack, it’s an entirely different thing to carve out space for formal and deep communication. This can come in the form of 1:1s and check-ins, ongoing feedback and/or collaborative goal setting and tracking. Whatever form such dialogue takes, it’s crucial that it happens. Don’t postpone – don’t cancel. Take the time, be present. Your team deserves it.”

Michael Sica-Lieber, Duuoo

 

Enabling team collaboration is still vital even when distance feels like an obstacle. Tools like MetroRetro allow for group ‘brainstorming’ sessions with sticky notes like you’d have in an office and Whimsical is great for any charts or wireframes that need to be accessed by multiple people.

The scheduling of these meetings has never been so important. You can no longer just call across the desk or pop downstairs to arrange a meeting. Some things may be lost in translation in text communication and need a telephone or video call. If it’s about a meatier topic it’s a good idea to pre-arrange. Nothing will be able to replace the face-to-face human  interactions but there are tools that can help this process work better.

 

“Scheduling has always been an important part of working life – people are really busy. It’s important not to lose sight of this in the new remote working scenario. Don’t assume that people aren’t busy just because they are at home – they might be even more busy! And crucially, it’s harder to judge if they are in a meeting or trying to really focus on something because they aren’t physically in sight or nearby like in an office. Real-time scheduling and availability can help human interactions happen and continue to happen efficiently in these challenging times. Email chains get out of hand. Live chat isn’t always switched on or available. Scheduling tools can allow businesses to continue to operate in a way that is as close as possible to normal.”

Adam Bird, CEO, Cronofy

 

Ultimately there will be undeniable challenges facing all employers and employees in the coming weeks. What matters is how these are overcome – and mostly they can be overcome. With a little effort and patience new ways of working and communicating can be introduced quickly and easily. Companies should use the technology on offer and find what works for them on an individual basis. Most importantly keep communicating and be as transparent as possible with your teams. Trying not to make work an added source of stress or dread in a world that is already full of it isn’t always easy but fostering a supportive and reassuring work culture will go a long way to helping employees feel better.

Avatar of Laura Green

Laura Green

Date: 16th April 2020 | Category: Productivity