Remote Working is back……

March 23rd. “You must stay at home”. Boris ordered what the smarter people and smarter workplaces had implemented a week or two earlier. “Work from home if at all possible”.

Everyone, from contact centre staff to the top executives had to forgo their offices and work from home. Many believed it would last just a few weeks and so they treated it like a brief emergency that required all hands-on deck to cope in the short term – a sticky plaster whilst the wound healed. Business heart-rates increased, rash IT spend occurred and a sense of foreboding gripped the corporate world.

September 23rd. Exactly 6 months later, and we are here again. “Work from home if you are able”. Sharp intake of breath. No ‘Must’ [yet], but the same message….but this time it feels more comfortable, familiar almost. We knew it was coming. We knew why it was coming. We know how to deal with it.

Six months ago, some of my older/more traditional clients were pessimistic, having always shunned the notion of working from home, hiding behind excuses of impracticality, lack of team cohesion and ideation, technology constraints etc….but most simply didn’t trust their workforces to work from home, assuming productivity would plummet.

Six months later, even the most steadfast, anti-flexible working business leader has realised two things.

  • Working from home is the new norm.
  • It’s actually quite good.

I caught up with one client in early September (before the latest guidelines), an owner-MD, 35years of running his business, that had for 35 years refused to allow people to work from home. It had cost him some great staff over the years, but still he refused to relent, even making international sales managers be in the office before catching an evening flight for a multiple-night business trip.

“I was wrong”, his admission of a U-turn a politician would envy. His pivotal moment being when he sent an email to his direct team of 5, close to midnight, 15 mins before heading to bed, only to have 4 responses before his head hit the pillow.

Even beyond from the societal, human and employee benefits, there was a hard-nosed commercial upside. Productivity actually increased, not decreased.

Asking around, every leader of a newly remote team admits that they’ve been pushing themselves and their teams harder, but that their teams had more than stepped up to the plate. Flexibility had its benefits.

Microsoft conducted a survey in July and found that in the four months after their teams moved to remote working, employees worked an average of four more hours a week, attended 10% more meetings but spent 15% less time in those meetings.

True work/life blend has become common as people combined home duties (caring/teaching children being top) with their professional obligations.

Microsoft further analysed this and noticed that a “night shift” emerged: Employees sent 52% more instant messages between 6 p.m. and midnight and worked more hours on weekends utilising dead-time.

But whilst home and remote working clearly isn’t going away across the board anytime soon, such a crisis approach to the daily schedule must.

Chatting with clients, there is a consensus in the need to figure out how they and their teams can work remotely and productively over the long haul while protecting everybody from burnout.

Teams need to work in different ways with different tools, adopting (and recognising) a new approach to the workday and understanding new norms of behaviour and stresses that come with remote work.

As a fellow-cycling fanatic MD of a Business Services client told me: “At first, we viewed it as a short time-trial, then a 100km fondo, then a week-long transcontinental ride. Now we realise it is a way of life.”

I asked 4 different Transformation specialists for their tips on how managers can cope with the new way of life/working, without exhausting either themselves or their employees.

New Norms

The Covid crisis has rendered many old cliches about workplace behaviour as obsolete or at least, incomplete. The old way(s) of working were so old and established that most workplaces don’t give them a second thought, let alone realise they are outdated and largely irrelevant.

When do people arrive at the office? And Why?
How long should a meeting last? And Why?
What time it is deemed appropriate to call home? And Why?
Who sits where? And Why?

More forward-thinking businesses had long realised it is good to analyse these behaviours ahead of Covid, but the new remote world has forced everyone’s hand.

Which behaviours are still relevant and beneficial? Which are getting in the way and acting as a hindrance to growth and performance….to say nothing of employee satisfaction and happiness.
…..Which new behaviours ought to become the new norm?

Recognising the need to review those behaviours, and then following through with the review is enlightening for most businesses. But discussing and communicating those findings is just as important. When teams understand, agree with and follow any shift in workplace norms, they typically work more efficiently and experience less confusion.

Several years ago, before setting up my business, I had to host the Monthly Management Meeting, due to an absent MD. I changed the time of the meeting to 4.30pm, and the venue to a smaller meeting room with no chairs in, with the excuse of the board room being busy, so quick chat then out for an after meeting drink. The four of us stood. After initial consternation, the meeting went on as normal; except it didn’t. We concluded the agenda within 15mins against a norm of 90-120mins. Indeed, the first 15mins of the traditional meetings was spent with oft-repeated pleasantries and small talk.

Once in the bar, I explained my motive – we’d all saved 75mins of our lives (or gained 75mins ‘drink’ time, dependant on one’s perspective.)

No wry smile

One area clients have cited an issue with remote working is the greater use of email to share/gain information – email usage has gone up by an estimated 33% since March – those small ‘stick your head round the door’ questions, casual words of praise or off-the-cuff brain picking in the kitchen, as well as more formal discussions and requests are now being undertaken by email. All fine up to a point, but with two primary downsides.

  1. Committing thoughts to writing needs a more considered approach, even before you consider the audit trail of words written/sent.
  2. Only 7% of any message conveyed is down to the words – body language, tonality to say nothing of a wry smile, facial expressions, dirty looks or use of strategic silences often say more, or at least contextualise both the message sender, and recipient. 

Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School (and author of the book “Remote Work Revolution.” ) urges teams that adopt virtual collaboration to make their often unspoken and subtle expectations more explicit by use of video more than merely electronic messaging.

One CEO client in particular noticed that on Zoom-based Senior Leadership Team meetings, both his HR Director and his Sales Director were private messaging him repeatedly, both about a colleague for whom they felt was acting in a too controlling fashion. Aside from the ethical quandary, the CEO was aware of the breakdown in the team’s cohesion that would have been more easily rectified had the meeting been face-to-face. She addressed the issue by tabling a discussion point at the next meeting to forbid private messages, instead giving everyone a set amount of time to discuss their points.

This has in-turn led to many businesses adopting what Dr Neeley recommended in his book; the notion of a post-Covid/Remote-Working ‘Pre-Nup’ – setting out the expected behaviours, platforms for discussion and ethics in this virtual world.

Use of Rituals to Habitualise Behaviour 

James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, talks of the need to habitualise behaviour in order to effect change. Humans are great at adopting and habitualising bad habits (for they usually bring immediate gratification), but for more positive change, that reward is often invisible, or at least slow to be evidenced.

This behavioural shift can also be used within teams adopting rituals to communicate and reinforce new ways of working, routines and responsibilities.

James cites that people often struggle to abandon ingrained habits, thus a considered approach needs to be employed to help people accept it is time to let go. Never more the case then when a cohesive team is suddenly all based remotely. These rituals can be employed to “smash the old ways”, sometimes literally – a client of mine many years ago invited employees to physically smash their old desktop computers after adopting a mobile-tech strategy; several teams members actually used sledgehammers to smash some of the worthless old desktop computers.

Other, less dramatic rituals can be adopted by teams to ensure universal acceptance of change. Sharing around the ‘chairing’ of meetings; requesting each attendee use a prompt item to detail a challenge faced in the preceding period; or detail a positive outcome/lesson remote working has enabled. Even just changing the format of certain meetings – one client company put in place the directive that certain video meetings being held when the weather was good were done whilst each attendee was outdoors, walking.

Co-Ordinated Rhythms

Remote-working has brought about a beautiful ability to work according to personal circumstances alongside professional deadlines. There is nothing less productive than being forced to work at a time when your mind isn’t engaged – for many the ‘dead zone’ straight after lunchtime sees a lull in productivity, working around that makes huge sense.

But coordinating a working rhythm with an entire team brings additional challenges.

The idea of a 9-to-5 job may have all but disappeared a long time ago, especially within private businesses, but there still remained a sense of rhythm amongst teams. Start times were broadly the same in time, structure and format.

Any office I have worked within saw people arrive within half an hour of each other, typically all ahead of a notional start time. The rhythm was set, arrive, make coffee(s), swap small talk then by some unwritten guidance, be ready for the start of the business day.

During the day, core business hours, or peak times would dictate a more solo-working approach; individual team members ‘getting their heads down’, minimising the distraction for others. Some businesses adopt the red hat/green hat mentality (red hat meaning I need to be left alone, green hat meaning I can be interrupted – an organic DND button).

The end of each day would be similar, once the business day had quietened down, the exit process started – for some at set times due to public transport, for others just a shift in a more relaxed working style, increased conversation, as each individual began to shift the balance from work to life.

Physical teams develop a natural crescendo and diminuendo bookending the day, and an unwritten cycle of quiet activity and more outwardly vocal collaboration.

But within virtual teams especially with remote working, and even more especially during such a crisis as we find ourselves within, teams often struggle to define and figure out when and how to start and stop work, and equally difficultly, when to work alone and together.

In place of organic rhythms, evolved over time, teams (and their team leaders) need to design new rhythms.

An MD client explained to me how his teams started each morning with a stand-up meeting, helping them make the transition to working from home. Much as when they worked in the same office, every morning at 8.30a.m., each person would stand in front of their laptop or mounted phone, with or without the coffee that would typically accompany the early interaction in the office, and describes their goals and challenges for the day whilst soliciting advice for areas of challenge, or understand shared challenges.

Again, at the end of each day they would ‘meet’ online, again standing up, demonstrating and discussing what they had accomplished, struggled with or merely sought to discuss, and again share opinion and advice. Some Fridays, the MD would arrange for a bottle of wine/case of beer to be delivered so they might allow the week’s mop-up to transition into a more relaxed forum, as it did in real life at times as they retired to a bar, to signal and toast the end of the week as well as protect the team spirit as much as possible.

These daily rituals help teams to coordinate their work with fellow teammates but also to aid communication, knowing what to work on each day, and when each person’s time (or the whole team’s time) is constrained and when it is more flexible.

The end of the day ‘mop up’ session is also useful to indicate the end of the formal part of the working day.

Some clients I spoke to have adopted ‘Airplane Mode’ afternoons once or twice per week. A set period of time when wi-fi and phones are turned off, thus preventing team communication and allowing all team-members to focus on work, undistracted.

A study by Harvard Business School extolled the benefits of what it termed collective silence. Having studied numerous teams that routinely interrupted each other so much that many team members had to work nights and weekends to complete projects, the study enforced “quiet time” for three half days per week. It worked. Over 70% of teams taking part hit more deadlines than ever before.

Communicate efficiently. 100% to 0%

Shared rhythms as above are instrumental in getting teams to perform; Knowing when to work, when to collaborate and when to bond helps maximise both efficiency AND enjoyment whilst also minimising the risk of exhaustion  help people get work done and avoid exhaustion because they know when.

The more dramatic the switch from communication to silence, the more dramatic the output. Numerous studies have shown that having short bursts of intense communication, brainstorming/sharing problems/sharing ideas following by more prolonged periods of quiet working time elicits far greater results than allowing more continuous communication – short bursts being more direct and more focussed to gain a quick result.

Several clients have adopted 2 or 3 times during the day designated as communication bursts – often by group message, as well as video where ideas are introduced, discussed and rationalised but interruptions to ongoing productivity are minimised. After each short session, communication ceases for a couple of hours. The productivity win of such an approach is often dramatic.

Switch off to switch off

It’s been sh*t. A year that started with optimism, micro and macro economies showing stability, confidence and financial sure-footedness, suddenly exploded. And exploded dramatically. Overnight we went from calm seas to crisis management.

For many suddenly forced to work from home with just hours’ notice, it was a huge upheaval. Many individuals struggled with the ability to get into ‘work mode’, sitting at their kitchen table with the breakfast dishes unwashed behind them, the washing machine on its second fast spin and home-schooling children screaming for help.

People, and entire teams have struggled to find a new-world cadence during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Working from home became more like living at work. The constant temptation to monitor devices and communicate at all hours of the day and night; responding to every buzz, beep or plink as an urgent matter that must be dealt with immediately. The ‘work desk’ being ever present; the mind never disengaged.  Those new to home working often had no idea when to stop, risking exhaustion, despair and burnout, as well as further disconnecting from family at a time when the opposite should have been occurring.

The smarter, more balanced people minimised such risks by putting their own physical and mental health at the forefront; not treating life as one long emergency.

The human mind & body has a great ability to deal with stress; fight or flight – our bodies produce cortisol, shutting down non-essential functions and diverting all energy to combatting the problem in front of us……but we are biologically designed to have to deal with such an attack for seconds, not as a permanent state.

Learning how to deal with stress is critical for medium and long-term health. Those who have swapped their ‘we need to give 120%’ to ‘I need to reset for 30mins’ will perform better, for longer.

And with that, I’m going out on my bike for a couple of hours…….

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