Companies the world over have asked their employees to work remotely in an effort to slow down the spread of coronavirus and protect the health and safety of their workforce. For many people, this was the first time that they had to work outside of their known environment. This change created a new set of challenges for managers to support and stay connected with their newly remote workforce, and this is still a concern with the many advantages of hybrid working.

An immediate response - Working at Home

Most service organisations have experience of some of their people working flexibly, and may already have a 'Working from Home' policy in place.

1. Common Challenges of Working at Home

Working from home can be demanding in ways that aren't likely to arise or become evident in an office environment. Leadership need to understand how their teams' engagement and performance can vary when working out of the office.

Face-to-face supervision: A lack of face-time worries managers and employees alike. Team members can feel the lack of managerial support and can conclude that their manager doesn't understand their needs or isn't supportive about getting work done. Supervisors worry that their team will find distractions around the house and won't work as hard when they do settle down.

Interpersonal challenges: Home workers have limited ability to empathise with a colleague who is having a bad day. This lack of awareness can lead to a brusque email causing offense or doubting that colleague's ability or professionalism.

Social isolation: Employees miss the informal social interaction of an office setting, and WhatsApp banter can seem intrusive or forced. Lack of stimulus and loneliness is a common complaint about working at home. Over time, isolation will reduce the sense of belonging and increase any latent intention to find another job.

Access to information: The time and effort needed to find and obtain information can surprise newly remote workers. Access to network share files may not be there, or just getting an answer from a similarly remote colleague takes much longer than simply walking up to their desk.

Distractions: We should encourage our home workers to have adequate childcare and a dedicated workspace, but the common visual representation of working from home is sitting at a kitchen table or on a sofa, coffee in hand and child playing on the floor. With a sudden transition to remote working, the ideal workspace may not be available, and the child's playgroup or school may be closed.  Unexpected phone calls, newly expected food deliveries, a chance to do the laundry and the need to feed the cat all suck time out the day.

2. Supporting Home Workers

Notwithstanding the challenges faced, there are several simple actions a manager can take to support those working at home.

Daily check-ins: Each team member will take great comfort from having a regular, structured daily call with you, and your team should do so with their teams. Everyone works better to a routine, and if an individual knows when they will speak with you and what you will talk about, then they will be much more content, especially when their questions are answered and any worries worked through. Normally, these calls should be 1-1, but team calls to discuss collaborative work should also be scheduled at a regular time and with a set agenda.

Different communication options: Each of us works in a different way, and that extends to our communication preferences. Using email alone will increase that sense of isolation. Visual cues increase our mutual knowledge of colleagues' actions and inclinations, and video conferencing is very helpful for sensitive or complex conversations. The quickfire nature of messaging tools will provide a sense of working together, and they are great for simple requests and an immediate response.  

Unfettered usage: As long as the tool is confirmed secure by the relevant Cyber/IT authority, allow individuals to use whatever communications channel that works for them, and give all team members time to get used to new forms of communication. For example, some people can be very shy of video calls, but soon get used to seeing themselves as the world does. Make sure that that the team share when each of them has a 'best' time to be contacted, and that their manager has some oversight of the nature of the conversations that happen.

Emotional support: Different ways of working, a sense of isolation and other life-challenges can affect some in your team more than others. It's important to listen to anxieties and to acknowledge stress. If you are concerned, and asking a direct question of a team member is awkward then a general enquiry may allow their strain to emerge in a way that you might not normally hear. Make sure that the focus is on their concerns, not yours, and make sure to listen carefully and to summarise what they've said, so that they know that you have heard. Offer encouragement when you can and empathy when you can't. Positive affirmation of the job they and their colleagues are doing will help them respond with purpose.

Remote social interaction: virtual events can seem artifical, but experience shows that a sense of belonging is increased by informal chat at the beginning of the daily call, or attendance at a virtual 3pm cupcake party. However ho-hum some people are about this type of interaction, everyone subconsciously welcomes informal non-work banter with office friends.

Now that we've looked at the challenges that your team face when working remotely, and some simple actions to take to settle them in, we'll explore how you can take this to the next level.

What to do next - transition to a Remote Workforce

The speed at which cirumstances have changed can mean that the current guidance on working at home is not sufficient, and there is no leadership infrastructure in place, especially when an entire workforce is affected. Whilst your company may have got its people up and running in their homes, you now need to transition to an efficient and effective remote workforce.

3. Create a leadership team for Remote Working

Working remotely brings different challenges to managing people in the office.  However good you were at that, as a company there would still have been pockets of great practice and areas where management oversight was poor or non-existant.

You should establish a cross-functional leadership team to co-ordinate information and to guide how work should be done remotely. This team should also take time to get soundings on how the workforce is coping and on any particular challenges that they may have.  This leadership team must prioritise an appropriate response to the trading or staffing challenges, then document and communicate their resolution widely.

If your Execs have a Chiefs of Staff, then those in this role, and at least one of their direct reports would make a good basis for this team. The remote leadership team will itself, most likely, be remote, so it will help if its members already know each other or they make the effort to bond early on.

Even as hybrid working becomes more normal, the remote leadership team still has a role in informing best practice.

4. Centralise new Knowledge

Your leadership team will be on point to provide information on adjusted ways of working, revised client interaction, new tools, access to existing data stores, etc. The information will be centralised, updated and communicated across the company.

This respository of information can be basic at first, but must be the single source of truth for urgent questions. As soon as possible it should be 'self-serve', and there should be a mechanism to process and include new information contributed by the workforce at the coalface.

This knowledge management capability is essential to minimise dysfunction and to reduce confusion.  

5. Invoke continual communication

One of the biggest benefits of working together in an office is the continual nature of communication. Yes, there are formal announcements and weekly newslewtters, but there are also regular functional and project meetings, hello's and nods in the corridor and casual conversations by the coffee bar.

The spontaneity of office communication can be replicated - to an extent - by regular engagement interactions - through video lunch clubs, knowledge cafes to an always-on video channel for people to 'wander in' and linger. It's important to show intent around informal communication, to ease the transition to remote working.

Leaders should be at the forefront of formal and informal communication. Their participation is vital.

6. Reduce proliferation

Over time, many companies bring out new systems and new tools, and 'just in case' they don't retire what has been replaced. Partly, this is because of the culture of capital expenditure rather than on-demand operational expediture, but that is discussed in another article.

To be effective, your remote workforce needs access to a reliable and easy to use VPN, to use as few systems as possible, and a stripped down tool stack. Think Google Docs or Microssoft 365, Slack and Teams/Zoom.

Your workforce also needs clear written instruction. Again, you only want to write (or republish) what is needed, so funnel it to one place of publication to circumvent fragmentation and silos. Solve to avoid wide confusion when it comes to finding policies, protocols etc by centralising new knowledge, as per the earlier comment.

7. Drive cultural change

Transitioning to remote workling is a process, not a binary decision, although it has approached that state of immediacy in recent months. Humankind is particularly resistant to forced change in uncertain times, so this reality must be accepted and each change and incremental, iterative move to the new operating model, must have feedback loops in place to allow messaging and collective responsibility to move forward.

Most people will understand what is needed when the why is explained.

Longer Term - become a Virtual Company

Leading a company is about trust, communication, and wide support of shared goals. It's no different for a virtual company.

You may assume that you'll go back to your old ways of working after Covid-19 has run its course, or a hybrid version, but - wait - consider the benefits of being a completely remote, virtual company.

The benefits are immense.  Your employees save on commuting time and get the flexibility they need for a meaningful work-life balance. With interesting work and a market-rate salary, your staff retention percentage will significantly increase.  You won't need large offices and can cut down on reception, paper and coffee costs. Your workforce becomes anyone with the right skillset and experience, not just those living close enough to travel to your office.

To become a virtual company, the working practices that you'll need are exactly those that you'll need in order to turn your company digital, and stay relevant as markets, consumers and technology evolve. So, even if you don't want to go fully virtual, then what you must do anyway, to stay in business, will help you on that journey.

Here are five steps to transition to being completely remote company:

8. Get Exec buy-in

You're probably not planning to become a virtual company overnight, but you'll need to get your workforce involved sooner rather than later. One of the key reasons for people to come into the office is to be seen by, and perhaps informally chat to, senior leadership.

Simply telling employees that they are allowed - and encouraged - to work elsewhere won't change behaviours. However, if they see their leaders in a downtown coffee shop word soon gets around, and if they then meet them on a client site they get those permission signals that makes them feel more comfortable.

If leaders ask their direct reports to join the weekly meeting by video conference, then that becomes the new normal. And when those managers hold their meetings by video conference, and use Slack channels to manage work, then the behaviour is reinforced and it begins to seem a bit pointless to travel to an office when you can just as well do it from home.

Bottom line for reducing presence in you office is that top-down leadership must show the way.

9. Boost transparency and communication

In any age and in any industry, communication and collaboration have always been the biggest challenges of working remotely. Matters that could have been solved in an instant by turning to a colleague or walking to a desk to prompt a response just can't happen. So an alternate approach must be found.

With fewer informal opportunities for your staff to talk to each other, you can't assume that information will flow to all corners of the company, so you need to foster a culture of constant communication and one of transparency in organisational matters, so that everyone feels - and is - informed.

Don't leave this to chance, or your quota of natural gossips. Give your staff tools like Slack or Teams and encourage them, to use it.  Gamify use at first to get people over their caution. Make sure that there a regular virtual meetings, and that minutes and actions, don't get circulated by email.

Have you managers participate in depth, and gain a view of who is talking about what and why and when. And who is not, and needs a nudge. All in a positive sense, of course.

10. Many participants, one decision

One of the challenges of a global company is that the talent that sits in timezones in distant parts of the world are hard to consult before decisions are made. One of the benefits of a virtual company is that its workforce could work anywhere in the world. Teams spanning different time-zones is always going to be a challenge, and you don't want operational decisions to be waiting on part of the world to wake up and start their day.

One of the key features of agile working is that team members are empowered to make commitments on what they can achieve together and to make decissions together, without negative repercussions if things go badly.

That same paradigm is used in the virtual company world.  The small team makes its commitments and defines its definition of done. The consensus of opinion is facilitated by the servant-leader role, who as necessary makes the decision without having to explain their action, as long as it is the best interest of that work, that team and the value they are delivering to the customer.

This topic is explored further in the post on Leadership Tensions.

11. Work in short, fast increments and iterate regularly

Work in progress (WIP) is work that is not yet delivering value to the end-customer. The best way to avoid this is to break work down into small packets, each of which has a clear outcome and which can be completed by a small team in a short period of time.

There is more on this in the article on the Law of the Small Team.

The approach has the added benefit that incremental changes either works or it doesn't, making visible its status and easily stopped if it turns out to be the wrong thing.

Further small items of function, can be iteratively updated and tested and signed-off with all parties confident that the outcome of this loosely-coupled function won't break the bigger function it is part of.

12. Corporate Knowledge Management is essential

Similar to the centralisation of knowledge that we spoke about in step 4 in this post, a virtual company must have a corporate body of knowledge, and encourage its staff to look for answers in it before turning to a colleague.

Of course, it is vitally important that, as well as being easily accessible and used, the corporate knowledge management tool is capable of being easily updated, and that the knowledge contributions are verified for accuracy, relevance and completeness.

In a virtual company the information which may be in the head of someone in another time-zone is instantly accessible, saving time.

There are two additional benefits:

  1. If the policy is to document the knowledge and then share that knowledge by pointing to the knowledge repository, it avoids the common pattern in office-based work when decisions are made and communicated to those who need to know, but then time-pressures or ignorance prevent that knowledge nugget and the context around it from being recorded.
  2. A carefully designed knowledge management tool becomes the corporate memory, essential to our future selves for understanding why things happened and who was involved. Without this 'memory' it becomes difficult and expensive to change systems, comply with regulators and maintain reputation.

Final thoughts

Flexible and remote work arrangements are becoming increasingly important tools for attracting and retaining talent — and strategic levers with which companies can control costs. The world of work has changed in recent years and we may never go back to the way it was.  You will need to think about how you get the most out of your future workforce.