Communication is key - not just between employers and staff, but in bringing teams closer together too
Momentum appears to be growing for making remote working a permanent change in a post-coronavirus world, but it will be important for employers to understand staff psychology. Emma de Sousa, UK senior vice-president and managing director at global IT services provider Insight, looks at how companies can adapt to new staff needs.
Even strident advocates of remote working were shocked by how quickly we had to adapt to a new way of working – this new normal – in recent weeks. Projects that might take months to complete were implemented almost overnight.
Whether this new reality lasts much longer is still unclear. But what is evident is that we are going to have to continue adapting for remote working to succeed in the long term.
Many supposedly large hurdles – such as which technology to use and encouraging working from home – have already been overcome through sheer necessity.
In the current situation, tools such as Microsoft Teams that are, if not in place already, easy to install and use, have been pressed into service.
Similarly, employers have had to change their mindset when it comes to employees working from home.
At Insight, we have seen the benefits of flexi-working for some time – in fact it’s something I am a strong believer in.
A change of scenery and flexible hours can boost morale and help employees to feel valued and trusted.
In recent times, many employers have had to quickly adapt to this model, removing the very notion that select employees should or shouldn’t be given the capability.
The biggest challenges to overcome are social and psychological – compensating for those things that office workers have, perhaps subconsciously, taken for granted.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
There is a huge amount of communication in an office we don’t immediately recognise.
First are non-verbal cues – showing someone you’re listening or understand them or that you want to contribute in a meeting.
Even with the best video connection in the world, these are easy to miss – especially on a teleconference with 10 other people.
At the same time, there are the small conversations we barely notice happening – for instance sharing updates, or double checking on a question.
With all these taken away, over-communication becomes essential. Updates and questions that might normally seem like overkill in an office environment will be far more important, to avoid missing crucial details or losing track of what’s happening.
Similarly, with fewer or no non-verbal cues, conversations need to include time to check that everyone is following and ask any questions.
Taking time to turn off
When in the office, simple rituals such as going out for lunch or even the commute will help employees “switch off” from work and take valuable time for themselves.
At home, without those cues, employees can find it hard to break out of their work mind-set – working long stretches without food, exercise or socialising.
This in turn can lead to stress and burnout, let alone the effect on families who also have to home school.
Part of leaders’ responsibilities is making sure employees are taking breaks from work – either through checking in with them or encouraging teams to check in with each other.
There must also be reminders to take a break – whether trips outside for exercise or simply a replacement for the work coffee break.
Similarly, if you see an employee is working late, check that it’s because they’re working flexibly, not because they’re stuck in work mode.
Replacing human contact is important for remote working psychology
One new experience for home workers is the lack of socialisation. Again, we don’t notice how much we rely on human contact in the office until it’s torn away from us.
One important step is to replicate or replace opportunities for social contact as much as possible.
For instance, meeting over Teams so there’s at least face to face contact – or substituting the camaraderie of a team lunch with a recipe club so colleagues can make the same meal at the same time.
Similarly, this may be an opportunity to start new initiatives. From bingo, quizzes, and charades, to Pictionary, Pilates and Yoga – teammates can find a virtual way to do it and reap the benefits of staying connected during these trying times.
Whatever form it takes, if it’s a book or film club, or even playing board games or video games online, the important thing is to encourage engagement and maintain a much-needed sense of normality in a difficult and stressful time.
Will employees want to return to the office post-coronavirus?
The big question is what happens if or when normality returns. Will employees who thrive in a remote working environment willingly return to old ways of working?
This situation is turbo-charging a slow evolution in how we understand, measure and reward work.
In more and more roles, we can’t measure productivity from how many hours employees spend on the job.
Instead, judgement has to be based on people’s achievements – not whether they took hours or days. Understanding this and acting on it can demand a major evolution in thinking.
Employees need to be given clear goals that they can achieve, with performance judged on how well they meet them. At the same time, recognising employees’ success will be even more crucial.
The need for communication when working remotely will make it essential, and it will be a hard habit to break when employees return to the office.
Ultimately, while this is a trying time for everyone, it will also be the catalyst of great change in the way we work. Leaders and employees alike need to be ready.