It’s been said over and over, but it bears repeating – we are currently experiencing the largest work-from-home experiment in the history of the world. To be clear, working from home as a concept is not really an experiment anymore. However, the situation we have today barely resembles a normal work from home scenario.
Entire teams and organizations are now needing to work from an unprepared location, with improvised tools and processes, under the guidance or managers that aren’t comfortable with it, and against a backdrop of considerable personal stress. This is a difficult and uncomfortable situation for many organizations, managers, and individuals.
However, there are ways to see net-positive results through this current chaotic scramble, if you’re ready to set aside assumptions that working from home is inherently evil OR that it’s possible for things to go on the same way as before. You may even find that there’s a place for both on-site and remote work at your organization in the future. The key is to keep a couple of fundamental principles in mind as you navigate this situation and the changes it entails.
1. There are some things you can’t control.
- It’s not safe for many to physically be in the office together.
- People are not currently in the ideal situation to work from home.
2. There are other things you can and should change to make the situation better and more productive.
- You can adjust expectations, corporate culture, and the tools available to your employees.
- You can model flexibility, consideration, and responsibility.
Leadership involves a lot of things that you have likely gotten very good at - making difficult decisions, setting appropriate expectations, providing what your employees need, and setting a tone by your example. Those are all the same things that this situation requires from you, and here are some strategic suggestions to help you make this a net-positive experience for you and your organization.
1. Focus on the business case and the ROI for this
There’s a big difference between ‘we have no choice, so work from home’ and ‘working home is the most practical solution to the problem we’re facing’. Your perspective will set the tone for your organization. It helps you make decisions that are positive and helpful, and to communicate them in a way that fosters productivity rather than distrust.
This is not a normal situation, and there are good reasons for you to allow / require employees to work from home in this crisis. Framing the topic in terms of the business and personal benefits helps everyone from executives, to middle managers, to rank and file employees start rowing the same direction and doing their best in a difficult situation. An article from Forbes this week made this statement.
“…make an educated and intentional decision about how telecommuting will impact your business, research the processes and understand the benefits that you can expect by making the change…
(Spoiler alert: the average is $11,000 USD per part-time worker.)” - Forbes
ROI in this situation is not just cost savings from a temporarily shuttered office. It’s continuity for your business, increased employee loyalty due to treating them well, and happier customers from those employees keeping levels of service high. Focusing on these benefits can help you follow through with the second principle.
2. Set reasonable expectations to ensure consistent flexibility
Nothing destroys morale like unreasonable expectations, inconsistent flexibility, and mixed messages. Step back from the immediate problem, and look at the big picture. If you don’t have a policy for remote work that provides for the current scenario (few organizations really do, this is unprecedented…), give some serious thought to what you can reasonably expect from your employees. Many of your workers won’t have a dedicated home office and will also be sharing their improvised workspace with a spouse and kids who are also stuck there. They have the added stresses of how this crisis affects their loved ones, which will likely require some extra care and attention. Determine what slack you can cut your people, and what outcomes must be prioritized above others.
A brave example of this type of leadership is Katherine Maher, CEO of Wikimedia. She set the expectation that during the crisis it may not be practical for employees to really work more than half of their normal schedule, and then she communicated that clearly and positively while noting that it wouldn’t change their pay.
“We all have loved ones who need care, groceries that need purchasing, doctor’s appointments to keep, neighbors who need a phone call. And you know what? We trust our colleagues. People will work when they can, and when they can’t, we trust they’ll be right.”
- Katherine Maher, CEO Wikimedia
That’s the kind of positive, realistic leadership that inspires people to work responsibly unsupervised, do the right thing, and take care of what is important – both personally and professionally. Not every organization could do that exact same thing, but see how close you can get to the mindset that made it possible there.
Identify what's really important, and be positive about that. Keeping your employees safe and healthy is near the top. Also identify and clarify what is key to keeping the business healthy, and help everyone prioritize their activities on those things. If they can't get everything done, what goals and tasks must be kept in focus?
3. Provide the best productivity tools for this situation
One of the difficult decisions to make is how employees will access the things they need to continue working remotely. A common pitfall is to assume that everything should just keep on going the same as if everyone were in the office. Working remotely for weeks is different than doing it for a day here and there.
“The principles of remote work are different. The approach to conducting work is different. Just as multi-level office buildings required elevators and phones to be functional as workplaces, teams working remotely should embrace tools that enable asynchronous communication and should reconsider traditional thoughts on items such as meetings and informal communication.”
While security is important, not all parts of your work require the same level of security. Consider this analogy – you don’t lock up the butter in your refrigerator with a combination lock like you might for jewelry in your home safe. Recognize that a blanket requirement for all work to be done from a corporate laptop or remote desktop with a VPN connection is not going to lead to the best productivity. VPN's almost always slow down network performance, and right now that infrastructure is supporting far more people than it was ever intended to. While some tasks will require internal software or network access, many things your average user needs to do probably don’t require that (unless you decide to make it that way).
Rather than handcuff people to old-school email and VPN, encourage the use of modern file-sharing tools like OneDrive, SharePoint, Google Drive… and team collaboration tools like Slack and Teams. These are tailor made for this kind of situation, because they allow people to connect with their team flexibly and efficiently in a variety of ways. The standard email and meeting treadmill that is a staple of office life is more exhausting and difficult when working remotely. Allowing people to find a way to be productive is crucial in this environment, and these tools adapt better to different devices, locations, schedules, and conditions.
If you’re not currently using anything like these products, work with your IT department to pick a platform and get something started quickly in response to current needs. You may get push-back if they like to plan and test longer before taking something live. At it's core, this reticence may be based in the concern about being held responsible if / when something goes badly. Inspire them to make a difference in a time of crisis. There are ways to start cloud platforms without months of planning, and still minimize common mistakes and problems.
Call it a beta if you want, to set expectations that this may not be permanent. Decide on a default collaboration unit in your IT department’s technology of choice and then automatically provision team channels for known department and project teams. Allow an easy way for users to create or request ones you didn’t think of. Configure bulk options like automatically pushing client applications, controlling bandwidth use and disk space, and so forth. Focus on what makes the day easier for the employees. The decisions don't have to be perfect or permanent to make a big difference in the average day for your employees.
4. Reduce friction of a new situation and new tools
Encourage all levels of management to change to a remote-first mindset and adapt normal processes and habits to variations that are more flexible for remote participants. Post a quick video of your home office setup and what you’re enjoying about any new collaboration tools. Expect your direct reports to change their way of working with you in order to leverage these new tools and habits. Do this in a positive way, and they’ll be more likely to set a productive example of flexibility for the next level down in the organization.
In addition to these personal adjustments, find ways to communicate announcements, expectations, guidance, and so forth in context where your users are working. For example, if you’re asking employees to start using Slack or Teams – you should also start communicating things to them in these tools. It simultaneously gives them a reason to start using it and shifts the culture to a modern remote mindset. This is crucial, because in a remote-work scenario email traffic snowballs almost uncontrollably. Everyone instinctively falls back on email as the way to say anything to anyone, which means everyone’s inbox is always overflowing with emails (most of which are not productive). You must find a way to make important top-down communication stand out of the clutter.
In addition to using these alternative collaboration tools to communicate, consider using an in-context help system like VisualSP. If you don't currently own one of those tools, we are currently offering a free package of our product that is targeted to this use case. It allows you to configure popup messages in virtually any web site or platform without requiring custom development. It’s like airlifting important announcements and guidance to your scattered workers in a way that they’ll actually see, instead of burying it in their flooded inbox. We can also work with your budget to include how-to content on demand in bite-size chunks to help your people learn tasks as they work rather than investing time in a class.
There are many things about this situation that you can’t truly control – when government stay at home orders are over, what situation people work from at home, how much time and attention those people can give us during the crisis. However, by setting a positive tone, clear and reasonable expectations, and proper priorities you can frame things in a way that is flexible and productive. By giving people the tools most appropriate for this unusual situation and purposefully removing friction points from its use, you can boost productivity and help prevent common pitfalls that plague new remote workers.
You can make a difference for your organization. If you approach this challenge as an opportunity, you can minimize negative impacts now and in the future. Some of the lessons learned from these adjustments can pay dividends long after this experiment is over. That's how all experiments work, right?
How these change principles specifically apply to other roles varies, based on what they can and can't control. If you're a manager, team leader, or individual contributor, watch for those articles to come soon.