No doubt COVID-19 is impacting the world of work and has probably changed it forever. For those with desk jobs, work is being disrupted in a big way. Companies have responded to the threat of COVID-19 by setting up workers to work from home. Outside having the capabilities to work remotely, like a place to sit, access to company VPN, high-speed internet connection, a video conferencing login, and a laptop, I’ve yet to see a business continuity plan that provides a “how-to” approach when it comes to working away from the office.
These 11 tips for working from home can help make remote work (and teamwork!) feel, well, less remote:
- Set expectations upfront. You don’t think some things need to be said out loud, but they should. Avoid requiring people to check in with their managers on a daily basis. Think of this as clearly setting expectations around availability, communications, outcomes, appropriate responsiveness and the use of collaboration tools.
- Keep your calendar up-to-date and make it accessible to the people you work with. This isn’t about checking up on people and shouldn’t be perceived that way. Freely offering this as an alternative to someone peeking into your office to see if you’re free. It’s just plain helpful and time-saving to have some insight into what’s happening on your calendar during the day; it gives teammates an idea of when you can connect.
- Let people know your working hours. Seem silly, or think people should just know? Setting the right expectation for responsiveness upfront. Something as simple as letting people know when you plan to be at your desk sets expectations and gives people a good idea when it makes the most sense to connect with you and when they could expect to see responses from you.
- Just because you can’t see someone, doesn’t mean they aren’t working. Even if you see someone sitting at their desk, you don’t necessarily know what they are working on or if they are working, at any given moment. Start from a place of trust. Set clear expectations with your employees around outcomes and availability and then trust them to get their jobs done.
- Get used to using online collaboration tools, even if you’re more comfortable with a notebook. I would never suggest technology for technology’s sake, but when it comes to flexible work, having the ability to collaborate in a virtual environment is key. If your company allows it, download these collaborative tools onto your mobile device as well as your desktop.
- Most companies have some sort of file sharing for collaboration like Google Docs/Sheets/Slides/Forms and Sharepoint. This helps with version control and is a good way to allow people to update documents concurrently.
- Lots of companies have also implemented chat or instant message channels such as Slack and Microsoft Teams. These are real-time communication tools that can be used to keep projects on track, generate new ideas, provide updates on work and generally help people stay connected. In some respects, these tools can almost replace emails, especially long chains of emails that would be handled just as easily (if not more easily) in a group chat. These threads are easier to find and easy to follow and don’t need to be filed away. They can just be archived when they’re no longer needed. There are lots of tools out there and some that even offer free conferencing.
- If your company hasn’t implemented some sort of video conferencing and voice-over IP (VOIP) capabilities, they should. There are a ton of products out there ranging from Google Hangouts, to Zoom, GoToMeeting, Webex and Microsoft Teams. Everyone needs a way to connect from home and providing a way to connect face-to-face is a must. See #6 to find out why.
- Turn on your webcam or camera when you’re on a video conference call. If you can (and your VPN bandwidth can support it), use video conferencing for as many meetings as possible, including your 1:1 meetings with employees. I can’t tell you the number of people I know who say they HATE having to flip on their camera while on a conference call. Bad hair days happen; I get it. Nobody wants to see you eating your lunch on camera; probably true. But what better way to connect with your colleagues than to see their faces and look them in the eye? Nobody I know loves being on camera, but sometimes it’s the best way to check in with people - and you get used to it! Set the expectation with your team that being on camera is important, and lead by example. You may want to buy an external webcam for your computer. This is especially helpful if you use an external monitor and generally keep your laptop closed (which means there’s no internal camera access).
- Regularly check the temperature of your team. In this case, this isn’t meant literally (too soon?). This just means it’s important to stay in tune with your team and their morale. Incorporate a segment into your team meeting or into individual 1:1s where you ask how things are going (that simple) to help you gauge what’s working and what’s not.
- Encourage water cooler talk, virtually. A lot of people enjoy the social aspect of being at work. When you’re working from home, you don’t get the chance to run into each other at the proverbial “water cooler.” This can be isolating and even depressing for some, especially extroverts. So what to do? Tell some Dad jokes. Take time to check in with your colleagues using company instant messaging if you have it. Instant messaging (e.g. Skype, Jabber) or other collaboration tools (e.g. Microsoft Teams or Slack) are real-time ways to check in and won’t get buried in email. When used with discretion (AKA: Ground Rules), these tools can be a great way to connect people who aren’t sitting together and to make people feel less isolated.
- Manage by walking around (MBWA), virtually. In the office, lots of leaders like to MBWA. It’s a great practice if you are working with people in person but has obvious limitations for virtual work. How can you do MBWA with employees you can’t connect with in person? Reach out to folks regularly throughout the day. If you are a leader, say “Good morning” via chat to people or set aside time on your calendar to reach out to people by phone or via chat. You might want to have a quick 5-minute “stand up” meeting once a day, at least at first, to get everyone grounded for the day and check in. Take some time at the beginning of meetings to check in with people. Ask them about their families. Connect with people as much as you can. In fact, try to connect more often than you would while in the office. Be deliberate about reaching out to people. Let people know that “out of sight” does not mean “out of mind”.
- Allow for mental breaks. I work from home when I’m not at a client site. If I didn’t think about it, I would sit at my desk all day, only taking the occasional bio break. Encourage people to take a 5 minute break and get up and do something. It could be walking to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, or taking a quick break to stretch. It could also be a quick chat with someone online or reaching out to a colleague by phone to connect. Sometimes I just walk out onto my porch and look up at the sky. What’s important is to let people know it’s OK and expected that they get up every once in a while to take a break.
- The 11th tip for working from home effectively would be to be patient with others, have compassion, and remain flexible. Some people aren’t comfortable with new technologies, and others will have their hands full with kids who are also home from school. Teach and encourage those who struggle with new tools and new ways of doing things. Those of you who have colleagues who are juggling school-aged children and working from home, find times that work to connect with them and check in often. These are extraordinary circumstances. Express kindness and compassion to help others; it will make you feel good, too.
In quieter times, we can deploy an approach to working away from the office in bite-sized chunks. We may pilot it with a small group of people. This just isn’t possible right now, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are at an inflection point. It’s a good opportunity to try new things, fail fast, and improve the way we work in a meaningful way so we emerge stronger than where we started. A helpful list of available resources to help you navigate these times can be found here, and may all of us work well and be well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne Bell is an HR practitioner and consultant with more than 20 years of leadership experience in Corporate HR strategy, talent management, technology, strategic workforce planning, analytics, and change enablement. Suzanne’s HR experience comes first-hand from an insider’s perspective at companies including Toyota Financial Services, Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, and IBM.
Suzanne’s recent engagements at Leapgen include work in the areas of integrated talent management strategy, digital workforce experience, service delivery, change enablement, process redesign, solution selection, portal design and content management.