Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, working from home is now the new normal, and millions of people have switched desks for home offices, kitchen tables, attics and even bedrooms.
This is a significant change that brings with it inevitable challenges for employees, managers and businesses. Employees will need to get themselves together in a practical sense to ensure the materials, tools and resources they need are to hand, that they stay in touch with their colleagues, prioritise their work, be flexible and remain productive and effective.
Regrettably, misconceptions about working remotely are still rife. Despite advances in working practices, you still don’t need to scroll too far through your social media feed to find memes about lazy home-workers sitting around in their pyjamas. Those of us who do regularly work from home know how far this is from the truth, and just how much discipline is required.
The question for managers is how they can help their colleagues work at home successfully, to ensure that the requirements of their business continue to be met while preventing the feeling of isolation. Here are a few ideas:
While challenges facing your team or business will likely differ from those facing other businesses in other sectors, or of a different size, there will also be some problems we will all face (because human beings are social and emotional creatures).
For example, members of your staff might believe that they are not suited to working from home, feel vulnerable to other distractions, or worry that home-working will prove a lonely experience.
Have open conversations with each colleague, co-create strategies and flex these strategies as much as needed. At the same time consider what will be best for your own business, team and location.
You may also need to reassure others. Insights’ research into globally dispersed teams discovered that physical proximity to others helps develop empathy. For example, if I email someone who works from home and they don’t get back to me for a week, it might lead to my least respectful interpretation of them, whereas if I see them in the same office, I am more likely to see if they are just really busy so understand their slow response - I’ve developed a more empathic response.
On the flip side, remote working can lead to employees feeling the need to justify themselves or prove their worth by slipping into an unhealthy pattern of long hours.
So be human, and empathetic. Speak to all your colleagues individually and aim to understand their needs. Ask how they would prefer to work. Also foster group discussions - you may not have a solution for a problem they’re experiencing but the team might.
Ultimately, what works for your team will support their wellbeing, be beneficial to their performance, and support the continued success of your business. Time spent understanding your colleagues is time well spent for any manager.
It is also vital to consider the practicalities. What can you do to help your employees set up a workspace, away from the hustle and bustle of the home? You wouldn’t expect colleagues to do the job in an office without the correct tools and an uncomfortable chair - so make sure they can access the right things in the new workspace too. Equipping your colleagues with the right technology is only going to be beneficial to their productivity and to your business.
The three Ps
There are three Ps which can help you reframe this disruptive time for employees
1. Help your people to gain perspective. Try to communicate that this experience will be different - it may be unsettling, but it can be positive and will not be permanent. If you can respond to the challenges collectively there could be opportunities to enhance your team’s work-life balance and the services you provide.
2. Plan. For some - particularly those who have never done it before - working from home can feel overwhelming. So encourage each member of your team to take the first few minutes of each day to consider what they will do, how they will approach tasks and where they can be flexible to support business needs.
3. Prioritise the things that are most important. What outputs and outcomes do you need from members of your team today, and over the next week or month? Be clear about your shared objectives. After that, allow your team to prioritise their mental health and to work in a way which supports this. Do they like to stay in touch, or just get stuck into their tasks? Whatever you do, encourage regular breaks and limit working hours to support wellbeing.
Nurture belonging, trust and support
At Insights we conducted research looking at what makes global teams effective and found that trust, belonging and support were the most important factors for colleagues.
Trust is key. For homeworking to be a success, your colleagues need to feel and to be trusted to deliver. Communicate to your employees that you trust them and demonstrate this through your actions: involve them in decision-making, be flexible over working hours and take their views on board.
Belonging. While there are many benefits to working away from the office, it is important to continue to feel part of the team. All team members must be given ample opportunity to shape discussion. Consider non-work-related chat too - technology can help with this, can you have messaging boards for socialising, cameras on during meetings or virtual coffees?
Support. Members of dispersed teams still need clear and realistic expectations and access to the right technology and training. Creating a positive culture - with a good role model at the helm - will set the right standards for other members of your team.