Remote working in the time of Covid-19
It’s an interesting time for flexible working advocates, because as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, we’re living through the world’s largest work-from-home experiment. Although the panicked conversations aren’t much focused on the benefits of remote working, it is an opportunity to look out how to do it well and hope that it becomes the norm for many more companies once the crisis is over.
It’s an unprecedented time for the global economy and businesses are turning to remote working either as a contingency for if or when governments announce quarantines, but also to reduce the spread of the virus. For most office workers, technology means that they can ultimately work from anywhere that has an electrical socket and wifi. Companies have been embracing flexible working at varying levels for many years, from Gitlab, the world’s largest all-remote company, to businesses that allow employees to work from home once a week.
A progressive employer that has realised and advocates the benefits of having remote staff - when implemented well - is Sara Tateno of Happity, a baby and toddler classes booking platform. Sara explains, “I run Happity as a 100% remote, flexible working team. When I retrained as a web developer in 2015, it really opened my eyes to the possibilities enabled by modern remote working tools.
“Before that I’d been working in the City, despising the long commute and late pick ups from nursery for my kids. My personal experience meant I could really appreciate how attractive a truly remote working company would be for some of the best talent out there - talent that’s currently being missed out on by many other companies!”
Businesses that are new to remote working have a great opportunity to learn from best practice - and there are plenty of companies shouting about what works well.
Getting Set Up
The infrastructure required to enable employees to work remotely may largely already be in place: email accounts and online messaging systems, cloud-based document storage, and a mobile phone. Office landline numbers can be redirected to mobile phones. Companies will need enough laptops to share among employees but in emergency situations some employers could enable remote desktops or simply access files from the cloud on their personal computers. Data security is a big concern that will need strict protocols and technology in place.
Allowing employees to work remotely does not mean working at home the same way one would at the office. Employers need to be clear that it is a different way of working and ensure that there is a common understanding of expectations and tools are utilised in the most optimal way to accommodate a remote team.
Getting communication right is key to successful remote working. “Setting up for remote working is of course not without challenges. Clear communication and organisation is absolutely key when you’re not in the same location - especially if you don’t all work the same office hours. When teammates are working at the same time, we aren’t afraid to use the good old fashioned telephone to chat and thrash out ideas quickly,” says Sara, “or a video conferencing tool - especially when a screen share is handy.”
There are many apps that can help with team communication and building a culture remotely, including Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Yammer are a few examples. The benefit of these communication channels is that employees can still have the office chatter from home. Colleagues can feel connected to each other and have a better understanding of what everyone’s up to.
Before filling up the days with online meetings to check in on project progress or tasks, ensure that meetings are even necessary in the first place! To schedule productive meetings make sure everyone updates and shares their calendars. This helps everyone to see when most people are available and avoids a long stream of reply-all emails as five people try to coordinate 30 minutes together.
Having regular meetings on a set date and time and with clear purpose manages expectation for all involved. Set up an agenda where everyone can share what they’ve achieved and what they still need to do. There’s plenty of conferencing tools that can help with this. Zoom and Google Hangouts work well for groups, as does Skype.
Set some ground rules, such as whether to use video or just audio. And members should go on mute when not talking to avoid background noise.
Most parents won’t choose to work around their kids but if its unavoidable (in the outcome of school closures), then it may happen that smaller, more curious children pop up in meetings! Especially if there is video on (who can forget the South Korean expert sharing the limelight with his children). Employers should be conscious of the impact on nursery and school closures on parents working from home and managers should remove work expectations accordingly.
One of the fears that employers have around remote working is that their staff are not as productive as when they are in the office. If this is a concern, then you can put in a reporting system focused on outputs and outcomes. Either include it in updates in your regular meetings or use a project management tool like Asana or Trello that allows everyone to see how far work has progressed as the week goes on.
For Happity, Sara explains that “tools like Trello, Asana and Basecamp help projects stay organised and on track by collating all tasks, communication and documents in one place, even when that communication is happening asynchronously. And Google Drive is brilliant for organising and collaborating on documents.”
It is too easy to lose all sense of a routine when your commute is one from the bedroom to the kitchen table. This is why it’s important to set some boundaries. One of the best things about working remotely is that you are not tied to the rush-hour commute, you can work different hours, and you’re more likely to work to your natural rhythm.
“Everyone at Happity shares their work schedule for the week, so that we can easily see when each of us is working and anyone can see what another colleague currently has on their plate,” says Sara. “We also set boundaries as to when we’re available for live chat so that everyone gets a couple hours of concentrated ‘head down’ time every day that’s free of interruption. That’s particularly important to us because we tend to work intensely in compressed hours, typically only 5-6 hours a day!”
The downside of this is that it’s very easy for work to slip into the whole week. Quickly checking emails over breakfast, sitting up and just finishing that spreadsheet at night. It creeps in and becomes the norm.
“There is definitely the danger that companies or employees think ‘remote flexible working’ equates to an ‘always on’ 24/7 culture, which is really unhealthy for both productivity and mental health,” advises Sara. “We don’t expect anyone to work or reply to messages outside of the working hours they’ve set and we use the settings on our tools to make sure notifications are switched off out of hours. In a rare situation where you aren’t able to wait until a colleague is next working, then we do permit a Whatsapp message - but only as a last resort! By having this as a backup, it means everyone can safely switch off all of their work tools and relax when they’re not working.”
Hopefully once the outbreak has been contained and the country moves back to business as usual, it’ll be in a slightly reformed world of work. If through this period more employers can realise the benefits of remote or flexible working, such as increased wellbeing, increased productivity and greater customer or client satisfaction, perhaps this way of working will be the new business as usual for many more people.