In Australia and the rest of the world, our entire work paradigm has shifted in less than one month.

The government is now encouraging and even mandating that employees work from home amid global health concerns over the coronavirus.

Many are accustomed to occasional remote work, but a sudden shift to a fully distributed work environment brings unique challenges and very few businesses are prepared for this new way of working. The impacts on the employer and the employee are non-trivial and consideration and planning needs to be given to how distributed workforces will operate effectively and productively from remote locations.

Combined Management Consultants has been operating as a distributed organisation for over 2 decades. The key to success is to keep a company moving forward whilst ensuring that staff remain culturally aligned, engaged, and motivated when they are not able to be in the same physical space.

Employers and managers still need to run their businesses and take responsibility for the financial and operational outcomes of their organisations. The key is for companies to implement remote work policies so that they can monitor, manage and measure the required outputs of their workforce.

Benefits of Distributed Working

There are many benefits to distributed working including less commuting time, flexible work hours and increased productivity. In this article we address the key challenges involved with making the transition to a distributed workforce, ensuring that each employee is equipped with the tools necessary to perform their jobs and provide uninterrupted service for customers.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”

Viktor Frankl

1.     Technology and Security

Over the last decade the distributed model has been embraced by tech start-ups and they developed an infrastructure that allowed systems to thrive. The distributed working model has now become the new normal. Businesses require a frictionless technology experience to keep projects moving forward and security to protect their data and IP.

The first step is to set up the technology for your remote workers and to ensure that your company data is safe.

Cloud computing is the foundation for distributed work environments. Without cloud technology it is very difficult to build reliable and sustainable work practices for your employees and teams who are working remotely.

Support Systems

Support systems include:

  • VPN: A Virtual Private Network, allows workers to access sensitive data and information securely when working from home or on a public WiFi connection. Logging onto a VPN might be an extra step workers need to get used to, but it’s worth the effort. For others who use “Windows 10 Direct Access and Always On”, there may be no discernible difference to the way they work at home.
  • 2FA: Multi-factor authentication for personal laptop or desktop access to corporate systems should be mandatory, some might be direct to email or SMS, other might use apps such as DUO, Authy or Google Authenticator which allow workers to verify their identity before accessing applications and sensitive logins.
  • Password Managers: Password managers such as 1Password, Dashlane or LastPass, makes it easier for workers to access the different logins they normally use for work, no matter what computer they’re on. It also reduces the risk of passwords being maliciously accessed from typical storage locations such as contact cards in email systems and other non-encrypted areas.
  • Device Management Software: Installed on mobile devices (phones, tablets and laptops) will ensure that they are secure and up to date when accessing sensitive company data.
  • Essential Accessories: Tools such as a laptop, second screens, charger, keyboard, mouse, multi-adapter dongle, and headphones for video conference meetings will help the staff member’s ability to comfortably work remotely.
  • Develop Processes for Remote Support: This is critical and requires that companies re-think onboarding and offboarding, addressing hardware needs, and considering remote desktop takeover software for IT support. It’s crucial not to take these processes for granted. They must be enabled remotely to keep business functioning.

File Storage

File storage is no longer an issue with Cloud technology and most of these are well integrated with the other tools mentioned.

2.     Leadership and Responsibilities

Maintaining Productivity and Morale

These are challenging times and it is critical that managers encourage behaviours that build trust whilst maintaining productivity and morale with their remote teams.

  • Key messages need to come from senior managers to ensure that all staff and clients feel supported and connected.
  • Managers should be as open and transparent as possible. Listening skills and approachability is paramount so that staff feel you care about them.
  • Increasing frequency and means of communication including business continuity plans with staff is vital.
  • Management should be clear on roles and responsibilities with clear definition of work schedules. Personal schedules may also need to be shared to avoid work conflicts.
  • Staff should be allowed to go “offline” to ensure boundaries are set between work time and non-work time.

3.     Reporting and Performance

In a virtual office situation, it isn’t possible to just walk up to someone’s desk and speak with them about the work they are doing so it is important to document guidelines to keep your teams engaged and projects on track.

Work policies may include the following:

  • Create a very task oriented system of accountability to help monitor progress with your team both as individuals and as a group. Project management skills for the team leader or department head are a key success factor in this area.
  • Ensure that company KPIs are well understood and that staff actively work towards their achievement.
  • Maintain a proactive effort to stay in touch with your team and ensure projects are moving in the right direction.
  • Create a sense of accountability for each individual to ensure they understand the value of their contribution to the project.
  • Be very clear about your requests and deadlines.
  • Schedule team stand up meetings first thing every morning to maintain a workplace structure and ensures staff know key priorities, latest corporate strategies, are engaged and ready to work.
  • It is important to enforce that staff behave no differently than if they were continuing to come to work at a physical location. This will prevent a slide into atrophy and eventual lack of productivity that will affect overall profitability.
  • Schedule regular during, or end of day review meetings.
    • This brings the team together one last time.
    • Discuss what was accomplished during the day.
    • What is on the agenda for tomorrow.
    • Reinforces additional communication.
    • Signals that the day is over. When there is no physical separation for work and life, these boundaries need to be clear.

4.    Collaboration Tools

When teams are dispersed there can be a sense of loss of community. Utilising online digital tools to facilitate communication and collaboration makes remote working so much more effective.

In the absence of in-person meetings or being able to stop by a colleague’s desk, these become essential to staying organised and making progress. You can even reduce friction between tools by providing digital workspaces where all the apps can be accessed in one place.

Virtual Conferencing Tools

Virtual meetings help facilitate real-time conversations for one-on-one or group meetings. There is a different dynamic that occurs when video conferencing is being used as opposed to phoning, emailing or texting a co-worker.

Tools available include:

Meeting Implementation

The following suggestions are what you should consider before implementing virtual online meetings.

  • Prepare a clear and concise email to each employee, describing your chosen platform and directions on how to install it (if that is required), how to use it and provide links with documentation or FAQs from the provider.
  • Host an internal test or practise meeting to verify that everyone has access to the platform and their microphone and camera are functioning properly.
  • Also, if you have clients that will need face to face meetings, do a one on one test with them as well.

Virtual Team Meeting Guidelines

  • Visibility of attendee calendars – Virtual calendars (Outlook and Google Calendars etc) are a crucial element for teams who are working remotely.
  • A company-wide calendar system assists with providing transparency regarding individual timetables and the ability to schedule meetings.

Meeting Etiquette

Here are some handy tips to be effective, look your best and be prepared for the video call.

  1. Stay focused and make sure you behave like you are in the room with real people.
  2. Sit close to the screen. Your face should fill most of it.
  3. If you can, use an external microphone or headset.
  4. Dress appropriately.
  5. Maintain professionalism proper business etiquette.
  6. Mute yourself when not speaking.
  7. Don’t eat during the meeting.
  8. When you’re on mute on a video call, act like you’re truly engaged. Nod your head. Focus on the screen or camera and be attentive.
  9. Don’t sit with the window behind you. A little effort on good lighting goes a very long way.
  10. If you have a busy background with people or movement behind you, use the option to “blur or use a virtual background”. Enlist family support for minimal interruption where possible.
  11. You can use apps like Zoom, MS Teams or Go-To Meeting to dial in using your mobile and this will enable you to use your laptop or computer to take notes.
  12. By turning on Video Chat during a meeting, colleagues can relate more to each other and can react based on their body language.
  13. When you’re talking, spend some time looking at the camera, not the screen. You’ll appear more earnest and honest this way.
  14. When you’re talking, go slow. No one is going to steal your slot.

Chat Communication

Text communication is still needed in modern business and Chat technology was built for the “cloud”. There are numerous chat tools available that are really helpful for distributed work teams where employees need to keep up with relevant news and contribute to discussions or share ideas.

The key is to work out which communication channels you need and to keep these to a single tool or at most a very limited number. Too many channels can be distracting and can waste time.

Consider a separate chat channel for each project and follow the same guidelines for set up and expectation management as virtual team meetings. Managers / leaders should send out the first message of the day to set the scene and work habits that are expected.

These include:

5.     Remote Workspaces

It is critical that we consider the conditions of our remote teams and their physical workspace. Not everyone has a dedicated home office and with everyone at home there can be many distractions.

From experience, the people finding it the hardest to work from home are those with school age children and partners who all trying to work and learn from home at the same time.  It is very important to ensure that days are effectively structured so that each person in the household has the capability to focus on their required work and study activities while supported by other family members.

It is important to designate a single space where work will be done. This also ensures the employee is mentally prepared, present and active. Managers should also ensure staff are comfortable in their workspace and have the necessary equipment, including a chair and desk.

Whilst it is important to maintain productivity levels, managers need to anticipate that some employees’ working hours may change. Working from home may be impacted by childcare and other responsibilities. It is important for all staff to adopt behaviours that enable them to work best and to respect colleagues’ needs when collaborating on projects.

Tips for the Home Environment

  • Designate a singular place for working
  • Ergonomic furniture, 2 screens preferably
  • Quiet (noise-cancelling headphones)
  • Ensure you have the right software tools and equipment available for productivity
  • Maintain normal working times wherever possible and allow for flexibility when needed

Summary

We are all in this together and everyone on your team is most likely in the same boat. A dog barking or doorbell ringing while in a meeting isn’t the end of the world. Do your best to prepare your workspace and adjust to your new routines and work setting.