COVID-19: Can Working from Anywhere Really ‘Work?’ – Part 1

COVID-19: Can Working from Anywhere Really ‘Work?’ – Part 1

As the working world starts to take first steps to a “new normal”, some organisations will breathe a sigh of relief and ease back into the ‘good old days’, while others will seize the opportunity to positively disrupt themselves, by asking: ‘How can our organisation embrace a new work environment that enables teams to preserve the best of their remote working experience, while also retaining the collaborative benefits of being in the same workspace?’

In this first three-part series, we share some of our experiences and ideas on how you can embrace remote working in the “new normal” – with people and culture at the core, underpinned by sensible technology choices to enable us to work smarter.

Part 1 – Internal Communication

Simply put, communication at work is driven by our need to socially relate, connect and work with others successfully.  It’s always been important but as the COVID-19 crisis forced us home and those that could work remotely did so, we lived through and could truly appreciate the vital role communication plays in the performance and health of individuals, teams and businesses.   

As we co-exist with COVID-19 and navigate towards a “new normal” that includes the need to “work away” and “from anywhere” (offices, homes, ‘on-the-road’), communicating with a widely dispersed workforce, whether delivered by leaders or between colleagues, as we’ve discovered, is complex.  By putting the communication needs of remote-workers at the centre of your thinking, planning and design, you’ll optimise effectiveness, consistency and inclusion.  So what does this look like?

Involve Remote Team Members 

As a result of COVID-19, it’s likely many of your team have now “lived” a remote work experience.  Consequently, they’ll know first hand what works for them, what doesn’t, what they need, what they think and what they’d suggest regarding communication. Involving remote workers in the co-design of company communication practices and processes, particularly those that will impact them, both makes sense and respects them as the consumers of your ‘remote experience’. Importantly, your best practices will arise from continued experimentation and co-creation within teams and across your organisation.

Plan Carefully

Communication with remote workers needs to be more considered, deliberate and planned. Everyone – but particularly, leaders – need to make more conscious and planned efforts to communicate with and include those that work remotely.  Whether it is to support people’s productivity or for reasons that support and encourage them as ‘humans’, managing a remote and disparate workforce is complex and can be tricky.  When people aren’t co-located, opportunities for incidental and spontaneous discussions and engagement, with either individuals and groups, aren’t available. And attempts to simply replicate how we communicate when we’re all ‘on-site’ risk either delivering a less-effective outcome or worse still, overlooking and inadvertently excluding remote workers.  Before rushing to capitalise on COVID-19’s great Working From Home (WFH) experiment, particularly a permanent remote work requirement, leaders need to carefully consider, plan and experiment with delivering the communication needed to make remote work successful for the business and its people.

Use Communication to Embed the Right Culture

Working through COVID-19 has taught us many things, not the least of which is we must trust people to be productive when they “work away”.  Furthermore, tough “lock-down” restrictions highlighted some of the biggest challenges for remote team members – social isolation and disconnection from colleagues and their organisation. Trust, support and inclusivity are important for the productivity and wellbeing of everyone and particularly your remote workers. For example, ‘check-ins’ in a healthy culture are not about ‘checking up’.  Instead,‘check-ins’ should support, guide, encourage, acknowledge, include, and engage others. The hows and whys of your communication with remote workers will speak volumes about the culture you have and the culture you’ll support moving forward. 

Choose Different Channels Wisely 

When we really stop and think about how much of our work involves communicating with others, it’s staggering.  Communication serves a variety of purposes and objectives –  from ensuring an effective flow of information so people can do their jobs to exchanging and stimulating rich dialogue and ideas that support innovation. And while the ideal in many cases may still be communicating ‘in person’, this isn’t possible when working remotely.

Communication with remote team members needs to be efficient, effective and in these days of digital, as human as possible.  Digital channels (emails, SMS, social, group chat, video) have their place but shouldn’t automatically be a default. Before simply pounding out an email, consider whether there is an easier, more effective and ‘more human’ approach.  Don’t assume you need to “Zoom” – perhaps just picking up the phone is best. We should definitely understand and respect the impact of communication timing and channels on remote workers, particularly if they WFH. 

For remote work to ‘work’, managing and optimising an effective and human experience of communication will be both essential and ongoing.

Technical Considerations

Many organisations had to think quickly to get remote communication and collaboration up and running when the spatial distancing requirements were brought in by authorities. This may have resulted in a wide range of different platforms being used by different groups. Some of the more personal tools may not be suitable for business activity from a security or professionalism perspective. Now is the time to standardise on a platform that achieves the core outcomes of portability, security and cost/benefit to suit your organisation. 

At the same time, dealing with external parties may require a number of options being available to facilitate a video conference. Hands up if you have a swiss-army-knife of apps installed across your computers and mobile devices already? You may now need to decide between Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Chat or many other platforms for your internal needs, while still allowing flexibility of tooling for external meetings. Taking into account the devices people may use to communicate will help drive your decision, as will consideration of wider needs such as data storage and collaboration. For example, using Microsoft365 or Google G Suite as a standardised platform can deliver storage, email, chat, video conferencing and much more for cost-effective per-seat pricing, in an integrated and secure environment that is easy to use, but may not be compatible with systems you already have in place. 

Getting your teams on board with these tools may require extensive migration programs, or they may only need a small project to get the urgently-needed capabilities up and running, allowing focus on a bigger program of migration to be considered later. Thought should be given to how to set up the workplace as well – many organisations don’t have sufficient video-conferencing hardware in place in their meeting rooms or on the desktops to allow for a much higher level of remote attendances at meetings. Many of the standardised hardware and software platforms now support Zoom and Microsoft Teams, at least, which makes considering workplace upgrades and re-configurations less costly and more easily able to be tested to see what works best for you.

Conclusions

Communication is one of the most important aspects of day to day life in your organisation. Considering it from new perspectives as the restrictions brought about by COVID-19 begin to lift has the potential to make ‘work’ a better experience – allowing for more inclusive, flexible, productive practices that allow people to feel more connected, trusted, and autonomous. It can also provide us valuable balance in our personal lives, as we tackle the ‘new normal’ we are heading into. Keeping in mind the technical underpinnings needed, while not overcooking the fine detail of implementation until the basics of intent and culture are clearly understood and collaboratively delivered can make for a smoother experience with a better outcome.

Liz Schenke is the MD and Practice Leader of ThriveHR.

Anthony Woodward is the CEO and Founder of Accelera.