4 remote working tips from a remote working veteran
I’m working from my home office for many years. It’s not strange when you have a team that is scattered all over the world and you regularly interact with people sitting in different countries and different time zones. Remote working gives me the possibility to be very flexible, to accept meetings at any time of the day while balancing this with my personal life. I am talking to India and a minute after I’m supporting someone in Germany. I’m happy because I go to the local office just from time to time. I love the personal interaction, but it comes with a cost in money and above all in wasted time: 2 hours in commuting, traffic and stress. Companies that allow remote working are providing great benefits to employees and themselves. They are more likely to attract talents as they can hire everywhere and not forcing people to move to usually costly areas near their main offices, they can better organize physical spaces, and they have people that are used to collaborate remotely, cutting travels. A few months ago this was not so common, above all in some countries, but now the COVID-19 emergency forced everybody to do that. It’s working, so the chances are that it will stay as a common practice, even if just for a few days a week. But even if we implemented it, it does not mean it is going smooth.
I have long-term experience and a strong opinion on what is working and what is not when your interactions are mostly virtual. So, let me share them with you
1 It is not about the technology
I think this is the first misconception. Let’s take MS Teams as an easy and well-known example. It is a useful tool. I’ve used it for a couple of years. But if you just tell people to install and use it, what you will experience is a proliferation of working teams to which you will be invited, information that will be scattered all over the places, probably duplicated multiple times. People will be pinged in chat every 10 minutes, getting distracted from their work. Meetings will ramp up. Does it sound familiar? Listen to this: how many videoconferencing tools are now available to you? Many companies have something like Zoom, WebEx or GoToMeeting, together with Teams, Google Hangouts, Skype. Your calendar is automatically picking up one of these tools when you set up a meeting, but you put the link to another tool in the meeting description: When the meeting starts, half of the team is on the wrong platform.
What I mean is that we have all the tools we need. They are available, and IT departments can buy and implement them. But companies are made of people, not tools. Everything is about their interactions, the information flows, how they contribute. If you start from technology and not from the processes it has to serve, you will fail. If you don’t create rules about how to use the tools, about how to manage information, you will have a problem soon. As a manager, you must always design processes and optimize them, to be sure your people can perform their job efficiently. And be careful: sometimes the process that works offline is not working online.
2 It is not about maximum efficiency
A huge mistake I’ve seen in planning for virtual interaction is to try to exploit every drop of productivity out of them. My typical schedule was a list of calls, maybe 4 or 5 in a row. It’s 5 hours with my headsets on, jumping from one subject to the other without having time for the “bio-break”. All of them were very operational, straight to the point, in the sake of efficiency. Well, this was not working. Why?
First, we cannot forget that we are dealing with people. We are social animals, designed to create bonds and relationship. If you ignore this, you will never have a team but a working group. Read HERE the differences. My experience is that a virtual team needs to take time to have virtual fun, not only very efficient – straight to the point calls. It could be a few minutes of relaxed time before jumping into the subject, a virtual coffee machine group, or anything that promotes personal passion.
Talking to people that are now forced to work only virtually, I hear a lot of complaints about the proliferation of meetings. Their calendar is becoming full of video calls, sometimes very long. I’ve been in quarterly business reviews lasting up to 10 hours. Your brain will shut down soon. A thing that worked well for me was to avoid having more than 2 hours of virtual meetings in a row. As soon as I see this happening, I add a slot in my calendar to do something else, to avoid someone else to book me for another meeting. If there is something very urgent, people will call you, and you can always make an exception. A good habit is also to keep meetings limited to 45 minutes, with the last 10-15 to summarize the ideas and plan for actions. It forces people to be prepared and work on the outcomes while you will have a few minutes to recover between calls. It’s essential as virtual calls induce fatigues, as you can read HERE. Keep things working in a way you can always be at your best when you interact with your colleagues. So, it looks like that not looking for maximum efficiency is making you and your team more productive.
3 It is not (only) about technical training
When the company I was working for decided to adopt MS Teams, I was already using it since a while. It was already available among the company’s resources, and I had found it was useful to structure communications with my people. It was working well. When the entire company started using it, it was a disaster. Why? I received several e-mails inviting me to compulsory online training. It’s essential to do that, I cannot agree more, but I’ve seen two considerable limits in my training path.
The first one is that the training was very general. This was not about how the company was expecting people to use the tools, but just an overview of all the functions available. We were overwhelmed by information about fancy but useless functions, and we had people using them randomly in meetings, causing a series of questions about how to do it. Without standards, this created a huge mess and a lack of homogeneity that lasted for years.
The second one is that working remotely requires an enhancement of soft skills. People need to get better on project and time management, self-management, develop a stronger emotional and social intelligence to connect with others through a webcam. This part is always wholly neglected. I’ve seen a few team leaders deploy it, with an important impact that is, of course, limited because it is not becoming shared among the entire company but stays within that specific team boundaries. In my opinion, it’s time for HR to take more responsibilities in driving the change
It is all about people
I think the secret juice is all here. A company is not developing good products, increasing sales, run a fantastic marketing campaign, generate profits: the people in R&D, sales, marketing, tech support are doing that through their work and interactions. Remote working is a huge opportunity, as if you use it properly, you can have anyone you want in your team, regardless of where this person is located. And you can use his or her talents to support anyone, all over the globe, at any time. This, to me, is by far more important than the savings on travels and office space.
But it means you must think carefully about how you want to satisfy these people’s needs: how you create comradery? How you facilitate personal connections, emotional bindings, a sense of a common purpose? These are all questions a good manager must ask himself or herself quite often, to be sure to give the team the best working environment as possible to perform within. It must be designed, thought, analysed and only after deployed using the right technology. People must be trained, supported not only technically but also emotionally. Rules must be written and periodically reviewed to be sure to encompass the learning generated by doing. This will help us to work much better remotely.
The last consideration. I love remote working, but as soon as I can travel again, I will do it. Business trips can be cut, so many savings can be achieved through virtual conferences, and our life quality can improve. On the other side, nothing can substitute human interactions. We need face to face time; we need dining together, tell jokes, have fun. We need to shake our hands and meet with our professional communities to create relationships and spin ideas around. It’s human nature, and we are not virtual beings.