March 10, 2020

Remote Work Social Distancing

News has been dominated recently with stories about the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) and the impact it’s having around the world. The highly contagious nature of this virus is forcing government leaders, public health officials, and businesses to consider drastic measures to keep people safe and reduce its dramatic spread. For public policy leaders, this has involved measures to encourage or even enforce social distancing measures to reduce the chance of exposure in public places. For many business leaders, it means encouraging or mandating remote work for employees, either working directly from home or for certain businesses, asking people to work at remote locations.

At the time of this writing, the stock market is seeing wild swing and experiencing historic single-day losses. The uncertainty of how this virus will impact the economy has investors and politicians on edge. In the US, the impacts of the virus are still unknown, but if similar to what we've seen in China, South Korea, or Italy, the wild ride isn’t over. Conferences are being canceled, schools closed, and people are being told not to travel. But work must go on. This pandemic isn't a vacation; businesses still need to function.

The Era of Remote Work is Here

Over the past several years, technology has improved to the point where remote work is possible for many kinds of employees. Laptops are ubiquitous, and high-speed internet is available to most people in their homes. Everyone has email and messaging tools like Slack and Teams which allow workgroups to stay connected throughout the day. Cloud services Microsoft Office and Google Docs offer easy access to productivity tools. And OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, and Box offer simple file sharing for team collaboration. While video conference technology has been around years, applications like FaceTime, Instagram, Snap, and others have made people comfortable with “selfies” and being on camera. In the work environment, this has translated into more acceptance of video conference services like Skype, Zoom, and GoToMeeting. No longer do you need to reserve a particular conference room with expensive video gear, you simply open your laptop and join a conference.

Technology has not been the issue holding back the broader adoption of remote work. Some businesses have embraced it as a cost-saving measure, while others have been reluctant. How can they trust employees to do their jobs when nobody is around to watch them? Won't they waste time and take advantage of their freedom? Isn’t it critical for teams to be together? The list goes on, but what it reflects is outdated management thinking. An idea that people need to be physically present to be productive. That employees can’t be trusted unless they are monitored. Monitoring is micromanagement and a need for control. Despite numerous studies that show companies that offer more workplace flexibility have happier, more satisfied, and productive employees, many employers resist implementing more flexible work policies. 

Remote Work Statistics

One of the most significant factors is that companies have not adopted a Results-Only Work Environment. This framework focuses on results; not hours spent sitting in a chair. When goals and objectives are clearly communicated, but employees are given more freedom in achieving results, it provides flexibility in how the job gets done. Specific goals allow employees to adjust their work and personal lives around a task that needs to be completed, rather than by the clock. Flexibility allows for increased productivity, and by focusing on results, it facilitates a transition into more remote work flexibility.

Remote Work Experience

I’ve had the opportunity to be a remote worker for much of my career. For almost 20 years, I've spent the majority of my time working from a remote office. I've had periods where I was required to be in an office as well, so I have a pretty good comparison between the two kinds of work environments and the underlying cultures. There's no doubt in my mind that remote work was my preference. Not having to deal with commuting, eating out every day, and managing everything in my personal life outside of business hours, was a massive win for remote work.

Top Remote Work Benefits

In fact, according to Buffer's 2020 State of Remote Work survey, a flexible schedule, ability to work from anywhere, and not having to commute, were the top 3 benefits from working remotely. But there are some downsides as well. Based on my experience, here are some thoughts on how to optimize remote work for you and your employees:

Technology

As mentioned before, the technology is here today. All the tools to work from a remote location successfully are available. Employees can use cloud applications to access productivity tools. VPN (Virtual Private Networks) can be used to secure data transmission, which is especially important when workers choose to do their work on a public network. Data encryption can be used to secure laptops in case of theft or loss. Collaboration tools can be used to keep team members in communication, and phones can be routed to virtual handsets and answered from a computer. The technology is there to take your office on the road.

Of course, if you’re in a business that still deals with paper, that presents some challenges. There are also some jobs where remote work simply isn’t an option because you directly interact with customers, or the tools you use simply aren't accessible remotely. Remote work is not a solution for everyone, but when you drive past these huge office parks and downtown skyscrapers, you know that many of the employees housed inside could work at least part of the time remotely. Technology is not the limiting factor.


Interaction

In my experience, the most significant factor in a successful transition to remote work is the continued interaction between employees. It's essential to build teamwork and a sense of community within the company. Unless you make a conscious effort and make this a priority, it's easy for remote workers to feel isolated. We're talking about remote work and social distancing, which in times of a pandemic are essential, but when things return to normal, social distancing is not the desired side effect.

For companies new to offering remote work options, I'd advocate going slowly. Allow employees to work from home one or two days a week while you work out the bugs. Get people used to the experience and make sure any technical problems get resolved. Working from home shouldn't have any significant limitations over what an employee can do in the office. As the bugs are corrected, offer more flexibility. Some people prefer being in the office, while others would prefer to work mostly from home. For people with children or those taking care of elderly parents, working from home can provide much-needed flexibility. It's also a massive win for those with long commutes. Offering remote work flexibility can be a significant boost to productivity and job satisfaction for those employees in particular. And that’s a big win for both employers and the employees.

But as remote work options are made available, it's important to consider team dynamics. Getting people together both virtually and in-person is critical. Bring people together once or twice a month for meetings or social gatherings. It's important that employees get to know and interact with their team members. But don’t have meetings just to have them. Make sure they are worthwhile, and you're taking advantage of people's physical presence.

On a more regular basis, have video conference meetings. Bring the team together once a week on a video conference to make sure people can see their teammates. Body language gets missed in email and text chats, so it's essential that you provide opportunities for people to interact visually. 

Remote Work Tools

One important thing to note is that video conferences are windows into people’s personal space. Not everyone has a beautiful home or a designated home office environment. It's essential to make employees feel comfortable sharing their environment without judgment.

The same is true for personal appearance. It’s reasonable to expect that if someone is not going into an office or out in public, they’re not going to dress in their Sunday best or do fancy hair and makeup. A perk of working from home is that you can be more casual. While it wouldn't be appropriate for someone to show up to a video conference shirtless and in their boxer shorts, it's also unreasonable to expect everyone to dress the same as they would in the office. It's crucial that you set expectations but are open to a more casual style when employees are working from home.

Monitoring

One of the biggest concerns I hear from companies considering remote work is how to monitor employees. How can you trust that employees are doing work? This is a bit of a trick question because it's often less about the employee and more about managers giving workers autonomy. Don't get me wrong; there are some employees who will try to take advantage of remote work. Some people are not good with independence, aren't self-starters, and require specific guidance to get their job done. These are not ideal candidates for a flexible workplace. But you could also argue these aren’t the best employees in an office environment either. After all, you should be able to trust your employees no matter where they work.

To be successful with remote employees, a manager needs to set expectations, delegate work, and the authority to get it done. Then focus on the results of the work. It's not about the hours spent or the time of day the employee is online; it's about getting quality work done in a timely fashion. Those need to become the measures. If it gets done early in the morning or late at night isn't the issue. As mentioned with a ROWE, it becomes about the results.

A mistake some businesses make is thinking they need to monitor employees. I had a friend who worked for a big bank and was told he needed to sign into their group chat every day by 8:00 and be online until 5:00. The manager would check every morning to make sure her team was showing active in the chat app. The app itself showed people as inactive if they didn't do something within 15 minutes, so there was constant pressure to push a key so the app wouldn't show you as inactive. This manager demonstrated a classic example of remote micromanagement. It's a morale killer and a ridiculous management technique. In this example, my friend was not in a role where he needed to be at his computer, answer calls, or deal with customer service issues. He was a developer. He didn’t need to be tied to an 8:00 – 5:00 schedule as long as he was present to interact as needed with team members and attend required meetings. His manager was simply trying to exert control and micromanage his time from a distance. She wasn't focused on results; she was focused on managing people's time, which is the wrong way to handle remote workers.

Availability

As a remote worker, being available is essential. While a benefit of workplace flexibility is that you can more easily incorporate activities in your personal life with work responsibilities, it’s critical you don’t take advantage of this freedom. Taking a break to do a load of laundry or pick the kids up from school, is perfectly reasonable. Mowing the lawn over lunch is probably a better use of time than going out to eat. But missing calls and meetings, being slow to respond to emails and chats, or pushing work off until late in the day, is taking things too far. Just like managers need to trust employees by focusing on results, employees need to earn trust by showing that being out of sight doesn't mean they're slacking off.

The freedom to work remotely can be a massive boost to productivity and job satisfaction, but it relies on establishing trust. If an employee starts missing deadlines, shows up to meetings late, or often seems unavailable, suspicion will grow, and confidence will be eroded. Managers need to understand that employees aren't glued to their chairs and should be allowed to mix in their personal responsibilities with their work tasks. As long as work is getting done and meets expectations, that mix should be reasonable. But employees must also understand that they’re still getting paid and their employer has a right to expect their attention. If managers or fellow employees start to feel that they're working around an employee's personal life, then that flexibility has probably gone too far.

Environment

For workers who are going to work regularly from home, it's essential to create an environment conducive to work. While everyone doesn't have the option to set up a home office, it's important at least to create a workspace dedicated to working. If you work from home once a week, there's nothing wrong with setting up shop on the dining room table, but if you work at home every day, you need a more permanent setup. Having a dedicated, private workspace is especially true if you have children. While having the flexibility to be home for your kids is a great benefit, your kids should not be part of your work environment. Coworkers do not want to hear screaming babies on conference calls or see kids playing in the background. Your workspace needs to be relatively free of distractions. I see too many people make the mistake of taking their home workplace environment too casually. Managers and fellow employees can be easily turned off if it appears you’re spending too much time parenting and injecting that part of your world into the business setting. Remember that in the office environment, that wouldn’t be a factor at all. It is your home, and kids are unpredictable, but that's why it's crucial to create a separate workspace and make sure you set some ground rules at home.

Remote Work Struggles
Networking

One additional thought on interactions, for some, their team might be very remote. Team members might be geographically distant or even have a boss that located far away. In these situations, it's challenging to frequently get employees together physically. Travel restrictions or budget concerns may prevent in-person meetings except for special occasions. This makes regular video conferences even more critical. But in these work situations, an employee might find that they have almost no physical interaction for work. When everyone is remote, and get-togethers are rare, they might have no reason to leave the house for work-related business. Staying at home too much can be very isolating and, over time, even career limiting.

It's essential to interact with people, build a network, and get out of the house. Managers should encourage these remote workers to join local meetup groups or get involved in community activities as a way to get out of the house. And employees should look for opportunities to meet with other professionals over coffee or at local events. It's important to stay active and visible; don't become a hermit. With the digital tools available, it's easy to merely be an online presence. Remote workers need to move beyond that limitation and make sure they have a public presence as well.

Conclusion

As businesses deal with the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) concerns and the need to offer workplace flexibility, remote work, and social distancing are becoming hot topics of conversation. I believe companies should embrace workplace flexibility and view this moment in time as an opportunity to expand options for remote work. If it’s new, begin some experiments and work out the kinks. If it’s something already rolled out, make it more broadly available. Trust your employees by focusing on results, not monitoring their workday. And as an employee, create a designated space and be available.

Remote work can be a win-win when done correctly. It's not for everyone or every role, but many white-collar jobs can just as easily be done remotely as they can in the office. For businesses, the cost savings on office space, the boost to productivity, and job satisfaction can be real impacts to the bottom line. Social distancing is forcing companies to deal with this rapidly, but I predict it will usher in a new era of workplace flexibility.

About the author 

Eric Dickmann

Eric Dickmann is the founder of The Five Echelon Group, host of the weekly podcast - The Virtual CMO, and a CMO On Demand for a variety of small and midsize companies. An executive leader with over 30 years of experience in marketing, product development, and digital transformation, he has worked with large, global companies and small startups to develop and execute marketing strategies and bring innovative products to the market.

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