Listen Up: The “Soft” Side of Remote Work Can Work

Posted April 2, 2020 | Leadership |
Listen Up

Remote work can be a challenge. But the technology to support it has been around for 30 years. Why is it not the predominant way we work? Yes, every year a few percent more work from home — the rise of the Gig Economy, and all that! I have worked from home for 30 years, but never in forced isolation. Many of you reading this have been thrust into the new normal of remote working. But maybe you work for a company that cancelled remote working in the past, or had only let you work from home one day a week. And they certainly didn’t expect casual Friday to be in pajamas!

Although the technology for remote working (collaborative) has been around for 30 years, the adoption rate has been slow but steady. Now, all of a sudden, the adoption rate has shot up to almost 100%, as just about all nonessential industries are working remotely to help flatten the COVID-19 infection curve.

This rapid adoption of remote working technologies has had a number of challenges. Yes, there are strains on bandwidth (especially with the increased prevalence of videoconferencing), and people are struggling with WebEx and Zoom, getting the right software, getting cameras, and so on. But by now, with time to deal with these problems, my guess is that most organizations have found workable solutions to them. So the biggest challenges right now are: learning to trust those working remotely, dealing with a rapidly shifting corporate culture, the morale of remote workers, and how to adapt critical processes to the current technological limits.

Modifying Critical Processes for Remote Work

Let me start with the last issue first, since that is the one that most organizations are probably dealing with this week. In the past, when we did not have to work remotely, collaboration (working together for the same outcome or goal) meant we could go over to someone’s desk and ask or show them what the problem, issue, or challenge was. Now we can’t do that. Some companies that have always worked remotely (e.g., Red Hat, Rosetta Stone, have designed their processes to be technologically compatible. This means the elimination of paper, the use of e-signatures, tools to track the processes (workflow and project management), and the elimination of “status” meetings. Simply eliminating meetings to update others on a project’s status should increase productivity by 25%-30%. Most project management tools are available to show the status of a task whenever you want to look, or whenever someone updates things and you are notified.

This is not an easy task, recreating processes to fit the technology. In my case, since I do a lot of training and can’t teach in-person classes or workshops anymore, I have had to adapt my curriculum to what is available in the technology. This has meant that many of the sources I use needed to be converted to documents that can be viewed by everyone in a meeting through a screen share. Mostly this means I have converted things to PowerPoint or Word documents, but in some cases I have resorted to survey software (e.g., for giving tests, making most questions multiple choice).

Dealing with a Rapidly Shifting Corporate Culture

Once you were the king (or queen) of all you surveyed. Not any more. It is very hard to micromanage remote workers, but for most of us that is not only infeasible, but it rapidly lowers productivity. A better way to deal with this (for you control freaks) is to break down tasks to small components, with a short time span to complete, and then checking your project management tool(s) to see the status update for the task and review the attached documents.

Not being a micromanager myself, I hate someone looking over my shoulder. The best boss I ever had used to say to me, “I hired you because you are smarter than I am, and can probably figure out a better way to do this, so go do it and let me know if you have problems or challenges I can help you with.” That boss is today a millionaire venture capitalist, and I believe he still has the same philosophy of hiring (or funding) people smarter than he is, and then helping them complete the task or goal they agreed to. He is a smart man!

Resentment is a productivity killer. It is much better to have people on your team volunteer or agree to do tasks, rather than just assigning tasks to people. In the first situation, you are collaborating and getting agreement and consensus. Most employees bridle at being told what to do, and productivity lessens.

But what about those tasks that no one on the team wants to do? I have found that the best way to deal with this is to lead by example, and take on some of these onerous tasks (usually tedious paperwork or reporting) myself. Once I volunteer to do some (and actually do them), other team members choose to deal with some of the other onerous tasks, and pretty soon they are all done. And no one feels resentful for having to do all the dirty work no one wanted to do in the first place.

When you work remotely, no one can know everything you do, or all you are working on, so it is a good thing to overcommunicate. Make sure your boss and others know what you are working on and when. Especially if you are doing tasks that are precursors to tasks others will have to work on after you.

That brings us to critical path tasks. What are the tasks required to get a job done, a report filed, or software released? These tasks, and their timing, are usually critical to a successful outcome. What I have found on many projects is that the time it takes to do the task is usually much less than the time it takes to communicate the task.

For example, let’s say I need to do task B, but I can only do it once someone else does task A. That person may complete task A in 20 minutes, but since no one let me know it was done, I waited days to start task B. I found that checking the progress of prior tasks, while extra work, often helped me to complete my part (task B) more quickly, and I would make sure that the person doing task C would know I have completed my part and where to find the work output. The other problem is getting so many notifications that you are overwhelmed. If you get notified about everything, and it is a large project, you can miss those that are critical to you. In many cases, the project management software can automate all of this for you if you set up notifications correctly.

The way you communicate, and what you communicate and to whom, is really a large part of corporate culture. Since the way we work has shifted, the way we communicate is shifting, and so are our corporate cultures. It remains to be seen (when this giant social experiment is over) whether companies will shift back completely to the way they did things prior to working remote. My guess is that no one will return 100% to the way things were. Some will find that working remotely gave them a better and more efficient process, which they will continue to use, and some of the other processes will revert back to the way they were done prior to remote working. For example: I go in to see my doctor every year for an annual physicial. That may not change, but getting lab results and discussing treatment progression will probably be done through e-medicine and videoconferencing. It is safer for the doctor, the hospital, and the patients. And I don’t have to look for parking or commute to and from the appointment.

Dealing with Remote Worker Morale

People are social animals. I, too, am suffering from not being able to hold and hug the ones I love who don’t live with me. But people are finding ways around this. I attend at least two Zoom meetings a week with friends, and others that I meet with on a regular basis. Others I know have managed to do a family-wide videoconference, just so everyone can check in with each other and see each other’s smiling face. This helps to deal with a lot of the anxiety that comes from being isolated.

The same thing works for remote workers. A video team meeting for a project team is not only a great place to socialize and update each other on project progress, but it is also a way to build morale and help people feel like they are not in it alone. I know the first 5-10 minutes of most video meetings are wasted dealing with technical difficulties or operator ignorance or error, but after that, have people share things about each other (that are appropriate), but that your teammates may not know. This helps to build both trust and social connection. One of the best things I have shared was, “Did you know I have only been skydiving once, and on that first (solo) jump, my parachute failed!”

About The Author
David Coleman
David Coleman is the founder and Managing Director of Collaborative Strategies, Inc., and has been an industry analyst on collaboration for the last 25 years. His current focus is on the critical role of collaboration in digital transformation. Mr. Coleman has worked with companies in many different vertical markets where he has led organizations through the process of determining their readiness for collaboration, social networks, and online… Read More