Dealing With the 'Soft' Challenges of Remote Work
I have worked from home for 30 years, but never in forced isolation. Many of you reading this are probably now in the same boat.
Although the technology for remote collaborative working has been around for 30 years, the adoption rate had (until recently) been slow but steady. The adoption rate has shot up to almost 100% in recent weeks as all non-essential industries are working remotely to help flatten the COVID-19 infection curve.
This rapid adoption of remote working technologies raises a number of challenges. Yes, there are strains on bandwidth (especially with the increased prevalence of video conferencing), and yes, people have struggled with WebEx and Zoom, getting the right software, getting cameras, etc. But by now, after more than a week to deal with these problems, my guess is most organizations have solved those issues. The big challenges that remain are: learning to trust those working remotely, dealing with a rapidly shifting corporate culture, keeping up the morale of remote workers, and how to adapt critical processes to the technological limits we're currently working with.
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 or office 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 (RedHat, Rosetta Stone, Support.com) 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. The elimination of status meetings alone should increase productivity by 25% to 30%. Multiple project management tools are available that show the status of a task whenever you want to look, or notifies you when someone updates a project.
Recreating processes to fit the technology is no easy task. 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 I needed to convert many of the sources I use to documents that everyone in the meeting can view through a screen share. Mostly this means I have converted things to PowerPoint or Word documents, but in some cases I have had to resort to survey software (e.g., when giving tests), and making most questions multiple choice.
Related Article: Virtual Workspaces: How to Do More Than Just Meetings Online
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. I have heard of programming shops that insist on having the video camera on whenever anyone is coding, or doing things like paired coding, but for most of us that's not only unfeasible, 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 having someone looking over my shoulder. The best boss I ever had when I worked at Oracle 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.
Which raises another issue: 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 the agreement and consensus, in the second, you feel more like an indentured servant being assigned work by the master. Most employees bridle at this kind of treatment, and productivity diminishes as a result.
There will always be the tasks no one wants to do. 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) yourself. Once you volunteer to do some (and actually do them), other team members will deal with other tasks, and pretty soon they are all done, and no one feels resentful for having done all the dirty work that no one wanted to do in the first place.
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When you work remotely, no one can know everything you do, or are working on, so it is a good thing to over-communicate. 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, working on many projects like this, is it usually takes much less time to do the task than it takes to communicate it.
For example: let's say I need to do task B, but 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. Checking the progress of antecedent tasks, while extra work, often helped me complete my part (task B) more quickly, and I would be sure to tell the person doing Task C when I completed my part, and where to find the work output. In many cases the project management software can automate all of this for you, if you set up notifications correctly. One issue here though is if you are working on a large project and get notified about everything, you can get overwhelmed with notifications, and miss those that are critical to you.
The way you communicate, and what you communicate, and to whom, is a large part of corporate culture. Since the way we work has shifted, the way we communicate is shifting, and so our corporate cultures are shifting. It will remain to be seen when this giant social experiment is over, if companies shift back completely to the way they did things prior to working remote. My guess is no one will. Some will find that remote work 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 physical. That process will probably not change, but the quarterly touching base, getting lab results and discussion of treatment progression will probably be done through e-medicine and video conferencing. It is safer for the doctor, the hospital and the patient. I don’t have to look for parking, or commute to and from the appointment.
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Dealing With Remote Worker Morale
People are social animals. I too am suffering from not being able to 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. Other friends have managed to do a family-wide video conference, 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, update each other (transfer information), but also a way to build morale, and help people feel like they are not in it alone. I know the first 5 to 10 minutes of most video meetings are wasted dealing with technical difficulties, or operator ignorance or error, but after that, have people share (work appropriate) things about themselves that their 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?”
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About the Author
David Coleman has been writing about collaboration for over 30 years, and has written four books on the topic. He is a regular contributor to CMSWire, and writes about the social aspects of work, as well as about the technology supporting it.