Many of our colleagues are working to adapt to the new reality of working remotely. As a team that has been operating this way for sixteen years, we say, welcome! In speaking with colleagues about this stay-at-home time reality, it is good to hear that so many are having an easy time setting up the remote technology to allow employees to make the transition while maintaining productivity. The unfortunate news is that there never was a technology problem; solutions like Skype, Zoom, TEAMs, and Webx have been effectively implemented for years. The truth is that the actual challenge is more complicated than laptops and file-sharing; it’s a cultural shift.
As a leader of a firm built upon a remote business model, I have been asked many times over the years about our “work from home structure” (yes, often in air quotes). The dialogue almost always includes a statement of “that won’t work for us.” But what people are really saying is, this won’t work for me. It’s true, working from home is not for everyone. Many will struggle through the new set up, both employees and executive staff. As a company, we have refined our business model over the years to maximize the remote structure and would like to offer up some insight and advice that we feel might prove helpful.
Many companies offer the flexibility to work from home on occasion while maintaining a central office. It is our opinion that this structure works for very few businesses. When someone works hard for four days in the office and then attempts to work from home on Friday, the mental shift and can prove to be too great, and it feels too much like a day off instead of a typical, productive day. Additionally, those working from the office may look at the empty workstation and assume that the person is merely taking the day off and may not reach out to them to join an internal meeting or ask for their input on a decision that needs to be made.
With the current shelter-in-place order, having the entire staff working from home is a benefit to trying out a remote business model because it has leveled the playing field. Managers might see that although there will be an adjustment for all, the younger professionals are likely able to focus on completing tasks and are less dependent upon in-person meetings to be productive. When our stay-at-home order expires, many bosses will likely be approached by staff to be more flexible in their work-from-home policy. It is, after all, gratifying to have the uninterrupted environment that only a home office can offer. Upper management has to believe in the model; in our experience, a company is either committed to a virtual business model or not. Employees will fail in an at-home work arrangement if management is not comfortable. If you get the sense that the boss is not really on board, then go back to the office because out of sight, out of mind, out of a job.
The question I received most often from my peers is, “How do you trust that your team is working?” My response: if you can’t trust your people, you should not have them on your team, no matter where they work. The trust a leader has in their employees is paramount and yet delicate in a virtual situation. Some team members will hide and try to look busy, while others will be more transparent in their workload. There are a few strategies and tools that have proven effective for us. First, delegate an appropriate workload that won’t allow for too much downtime. Specific deliverables and deadlines keep employees focused. Another strategy is to use a workload management tool that plots the time staff is spending is on each project and when each will conclude. This forecasting intelligence allows for assigning new work to keep schedules full.
A timekeeping tool is another valuable system, but be careful, it is not for the faint of heart. If you have not already implemented a system, introducing it now may be a poor choice because it could send a message of distrust. The benefit of this management tool comes from the insight that management gains from reviewing time cards weekly. It is easy to see where each person is spending time and determine if they are working on the most critical items.
One of the most simple and powerful tools to keep staff honest is a shared calendar. The Microsoft Teams platform that we use shares staff calendars in real-time, providing an easy way for everyone to know when others are available. Our team fills their calendar with their work plan for the week scheduling projects, marketing, and administration tasks. The system reduces the need for leaders to call and ask, “what are you working on?”, a question that can make a boss come across as accusing and out of touch. (Leveraging Remote Technology)
Without a central office, staff are not able to walk into the human resource director’s office to ask for advice or report a concern. Management, including myself, consistently encourage staff to call their supervisor to talk through any concerns or ideas for improvement. An open-phone policy wins the day.
Be purposeful in your team-building strategy. Collaborative technology alone can not replace the benefits gained from in-person interactions between staff. To bridge this, we hold two all-hands-on-deck online meetings per week: a town hall meeting on Monday to talk about priorities for the week (cameras off) and a virtual happy hour on Friday (cameras on). We also hold (held) in-person staff meetings every six weeks.
During this unique time of being under a stay-at-home directive, families are being asked to be full-time employees, teachers, and parents – a near-impossible task to pull off during an 8-hour workday. This is the time for employers to understand the need to allow flexible hours, especially for those with younger children who can’t entertain themselves all day long. After years of experience, I can tell you that it is okay to allow workdays to spread across a longer timespan than the normal 8 to 5. For families with two parents working, this is a shared responsibility that requires time during the workday. Embrace emotional intelligence and be respectful that parents are juggling and that sometimes the best time to work is late at night when the house is quiet. Ask employees to block out time on their calendar when they know they will be busy tending to children and accept this new reality that comes with these unprecedented times.
If you continue to allow staff to work from home once the restrictions are lifted, I implore management to have one-on-one conversations with staff and instruct them to keep a detailed calendar that includes personal tasks. Nothing, I repeat nothing, breaks trust faster in a virtual environment than calling a team member who is scheduled to work on a specific project to find out that they are at the grocery store or other personal tasks. Honest transparency keeps trust levels optimized.
Not everyone is cut out for a work-from-home arrangement. We have had more than one employee depart after only a couple weeks citing the primary reason of feeling isolated. If you think about your team members, you already may know who will struggle. It is those that spend time walking around the office telling others how they’re going to have to stay late because they are so busy. These social creatures will feel isolated and disconnected at home, which can lead to loss of focus and productivity. For employees who fall into this category, I recommend that managers engage them online more than others.
I anticipate that most businesses will return to the structure that was in place before the coronavirus-mandated restrictions. After all, it is what has made so many successful. This temporary shift to virtual offices will likely raise questions about allowing for the option to work from home, particularly by those who prove their ability in a remote set up. Only you can decide what is best for your operation. Be honest in your evaluation of yourself and your team to gauge the effects it will have.
This is a challenging time, but a time to adapt and share strategies. We invite you to share your management techniques and to call on us directly if we can offer advice.
Paul Wember, Owner’s Representative
If you and your team are looking for guidance on the cultural and technological shift, our team has the advice and insight to offer. Don’t hesitate to reach out. We are happy to exchange our guidance for a donation to the Food Bank of the Rockies.