Remote working has long been a top-up to face-to-face office time, but what happens to a team when all employees work from home for weeks or months?
This new territory is being explored by businesses globally as the quick spread of the new illness Coronavirus has required swift action to protect workforces and the wider public. But the question of how work is done – and not just where work is done - may need some adjusting. As governments impose broad measures to stem the infection’s reach, companies and organisations can more precisely refine operations to the specific needs and skills of their individuals and goals.
With this particular threat, working from home appears the most sensible way to protect employees from exposure in the workplace. Leaders have the task of balancing how this physical distance impacts their team, which is reliant on the talents of each member to reach its shared goal. If the team loses sight of its destination, it becomes a group of individuals working towards a cause.
While virtual connection is relatively easily achievable from each employee’s home, it's the lack of opportunity to be human together – picking up on verbal and non-verbal cues and enjoying the sociability of work and the great ideas that can inspire - that is difficult to replicate. With the tendency for home workers to get their heads down and forge on with the work they are well equipped to do independently, they can forget the team’s priorities. In this churn of solitary work, individuals can form bad habits that could be hard to break once normal service resumes.
Handled well, imposed and lengthy home working could be an opportunity to highlight different skills in the workforce and activate new norms within the company or organisation.
Establishing good levels of trust and autonomy between managers and team members is crucial. For managers, although you may be tempted to check in with direct reports more than usual just to make sure they are doing the right thing, it's important to give your team the time and space to do their job.
By virtue of their mere employment with the company, they have earned the right to be treated as responsible team members who will bring their best even in the un-chartered territory of imposed home working. Previous experience of team members’ lack of productivity when away from the office may not hold valuable insight into how they will operate during a difficult time for the company - your team is likely to pull together in the face of this shared challenge.
Lack of communication in this heads down, self-absorbed way of working can be a minefield of doubling up on tasks, wasting valuable time and resources. Setting expectations on when to update and review their part of a project with colleagues is a starting point but considering how to update is as important.
Telephone calls can lead to missed visual cues to when somebody wants to speak or hasn’t understood a point. Video calls can be a step in the right direction to cover this, but it's still easy to talk over other people and not give everyone a chance to add their opinion. Instant messaging and email leave room for misunderstanding where intonation in a conversation would have been clear.
Be mindful of the strengths and limitations of these mediums and make sure you're taking the time to communicate effectively and appropriately.
Restrictions on one sense can empower another. Team members who rely heavily on face-to-face contact for feedback and approval will need to strengthen other methods of interaction. It can be helpful to ask employees to specify how they prefer to be contacted outside of agreed updates, to avoid video calls when they are inconvenient and to make the most of the forms of communication available.
As days and weeks pass, varying the methods of communication on particular tasks can enliven the energy surrounding the topic. Platforms like Zoom and Slack are great for getting together online for webinars, meetings and calls.
But old-school is good for shaking things up too: where possible, tangible work such as prototypes of a product can be couriered or posted, which will work well in enabling team members to envisage moving towards completion and sticking to deadlines.
Colleagues who rely on each other’s skills to get their work done will no doubt figure out they need to be in touch virtually during long term remote working conditions. When it is not as simple as walking across the office when a colleague seems free to talk over key points, there need to be clear methods of sharing thoughts.
An ongoing visual representation of tasks in-hand can help all concerned manage their workloads. A shared to-do list or whiteboard app for remote workshops can help in deciding when and how is best to get involved.
Trying out every collaboration platform or teamwork app is not necessary all in one go. Ring-fencing time when these tools can be researched and piloted with your team will mean they can get on with their to-do list without the extra bedding-in time with new tools. And when your team has found something that is working, don’t be tempted by the next shiny new software for the sake of it.
While the novelty of working from home may carry a few days’ of good productivity in itself, it is not easy for motivation to remain high in isolation. Focus and praise can be communicated in a myriad of ways, privately and within team calls.
The stimulation of being involved in rewarding and meaningful work tasks can be highly valuable for employees, many of whom are likely to be grateful not to be exposed to difficult work conditions in exchange for working from home.
It's possible to build highly successful remote teams, whether it's part of your company's policy over a long-term period or by necessity due to a shorter-term issue such as Coronavirus. By thinking carefully about how to do things well, just as one would with a team working face-to-face, it's entirely possible to make your remote team a success.