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“You’re on mute!”
For the 24% of workers in the UK now based at home due to Covid-19 (source: ONS), those three little words encapsulate a new way of life. Spare rooms have been cleared and kitchen islands commandeered, with webcams strategically angled so as not to reveal laundry piles or evidence of DIY endeavours gone wrong.
As research for this article I opened the floor to friends working remotely, inviting them to share with me the highs and lows of their new status quo. “You don’t see anyone” was many people’s observation, in both a positive and a negative sense; some feel their productivity is boosted by working in isolation with fewer interruptions, while others describe the struggle of not having colleagues around, whether to discuss ideas or simply to engage in some healthy banter. While the lack of commute and/or office politics are resoundingly popular, “WfH guilt” features heavily – you would be forgiven for assuming that remote workers feel less motivated than they do in the office, but I was given the impression that employees find themselves doing more work (with some avoiding leaving their desks) in an effort to prove that they are pulling their weight.
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Everyone feels differently about remote working and, given the opportunity, we could all wax lyrical on the pros and cons of our own situation ad infinitum. However, as a business owner or senior executive whose organisation has made the transition, you will be aware that the commitment to creating a virtual environment in which your remote workforce can flourish and succeed is both crucial and complex. Employees staying in pyjama bottoms or having sleeping dogs under their desks may take some getting used to, but can actually be an advantage - here are some suggestions on how you can embrace remote working with a view to keeping your people engaged and growing your business:
1. Understand the technical challenges. Think strategically about how to create the right tech environment to help your people deliver; though not every organisation is in the position to offer each remote worker a sum of cash to purchase what they need, you should be willing, for example, to assist anyone whose internet connection may struggle with video conferencing and file sharing. In addition, IT support needs to be robust and readily available; we’ve all experienced the frustration of technical issues and the disruption it can cause to our day in an office environment, so imagine how difficult it would be for a remote worker to stay focused and engaged if they couldn’t access the support they need, not to mention how isolated they could feel. Technology can help you, too – reviewing data on what’s working well and what needs more attention can help you identify how best to further support remote workers. Splunk’s executive dashboard is just one example of the tools available to capture insights into remote work metrics.
2. Widen your talent pool. Remote working obviously increases geographical reach when you are recruiting, and that is a massive advantage for any organisation looking to hire the best people. Have you ever considered, though, that it can also present the opportunity to make your workplace more diverse and inclusive? The flexibility of working remotely can attract gifted individuals from an array of different backgrounds with a wealth of varied experience and expertise.
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3. Embrace working out loud. This concept encourages openly sharing work in progress, adding and co-creating offline, and facilitates faster decision-making. So-called “Zoom fatigue” is a very real phenomenon for remote workers who find that every question they once asked or discussion they once had across a desk now has the potential to turn into a 20-minute video call. This doesn’t just boil down to people not wanting to be on camera, it can also affect how they think, engage and collaborate. While you can’t replicate face-to-face contact, there are lots of business tools available to support working out loud (e.g. Slack, Yammer, Trello) which will encourage remote teams to adopt more agile ways of working, such as instant messaging and project boards. These new ways of sharing and communicating will ultimately mean that quick queries can actually be quick, and with so many available you can easily find the right one to fit the needs of your business.
4. Create a culture of trust and humanity. As I’ve already mentioned, remote workers have a tendency to work longer hours and can therefore burn out quickly. By creating a culture of trust, you will demonstrate that your organisation embraces all aspects of remote working, from parents being able to walk their children to school, to those who need to step away from their desks to accept a delivery or those who prefer to work in the garden when the sun is shining. The Harvard Business Review notes that “Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.” Trust also creates psychological safety – the freedom to speak up and get involved, even from a distance – and in turn increases resilience on the part of the individual. This kind of culture will engage remote workers by affording them the freedom to work to their strengths and positively influence the performance of the organisation.
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5. Be there for your people. This “new normal” (a phrase undeniably overused this year, but nonetheless apt) has created many challenges, and adapting to working remotely is so much more than finding a quiet place and connecting to the VPN. Nuffield Health reports that 80% of British remote workers feel that it has taken its toll on their mental health, and as an employer you have a responsibility to recognise this impact. It’s crucial to remember that you and your leadership team are not mental health experts, and that while you may carry out a passive listening role, advice should only be given by those who are qualified. You can support your remote workforce by offering an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which provides access to help and support and can be accessed confidentially. In addition, consider that small gestures go a long way; for example, if you normally buy pizza for everyone in the office on a Friday lunchtime, you can adapt by offering vouchers for everyone working remotely to have pizza delivered. Employee perks programmes and subsidised fitness schemes will demonstrate that you encourage your staff to strike a balance between their work and personal lives, even when the physical environment overlaps.
6. Accept the quirks. Remember the now-infamous interview Professor Robert Kelly gave to the BBC in 2017, during which his children burst into the room, swiftly followed by their mortified mother? Kelly later noted that he thought he’d “blown it in front of the whole world”, when in fact we all loved it. Where remote working is concerned, we have to learn to laugh at the unexpected cameos of dogs or children, or the noise of construction outside. These idiosyncrasies are par for the course - let’s make good use of that vexatious mute feature and move on to more important things.
So - like it or loathe it - remote working is here to stay for the foreseeable future. However, by graciously accepting the concept and welcoming what it has to offer, you may find that it’s the best thing to have happened to your business in a long time.