Working remotely

Working remotely

As Australia starts locking down due to the COVID-19 CoronaVirus, businesses are sending their workers home to work in an effort to control exposure to the virus. But working from home or remotely isn't a new concept.  Many have been working this way for many years, and over those years they have learnt how to do it effectively.

Technology has transformed the modern workplace. These days many business functions are conducted from the comfort of the home office, a neighbourhood coffee shop or anywhere that’s connected to the Internet.  High costs of parking, transport, and lengthy travel times, have encouraged workers to make their office more mobile. The birth of the cloud, made working remotely even more attainable. Why limit themselves to one geographic area?

Employers are finding the remote worker even more attractive because of space requirements, costs, and the knowledge that those working remotely have a higher productivity rate.  Those that learn how to use remote teams productively, have infinite access to an constantly expanding talent pool. Why limit themselves to one geographic area?

Understanding how to lead a remote team and doing so effectively will be critical to your future success.

Tools & Software

This dramatic shift to remote working means adapting to a lot of changes in how & when we work to where & how we communicate. 

The key to remote working is good tools.  From time tracking tools to to-do lists, there’s an abundance of resources for the productivity lover.  You should have each of the following:

  • Project management software
  • Reliable video conferencing software (and redundancy systems in case of failure)
  • A chat application
  • Cloud collaboration and documentation tools
  • Time tracking software
  • A meeting room with a large screen and high-quality camera and microphone

The tools & software you chose should be mobile friendly or have an associated app.

It is also very important that you have a good Internet speed.  No one is going to pay you to do something that will take twice as long to do at home than in the office.  If you have a good Internet speed faster than in the main office, that is a great incentive because you will work faster.

Group Dynamics

When a team is sitting around a table they can provide each other with facial cues as to how they’re feeling. It's also easier to see when someone wishes to speak. In remote meetings members who want to raise a point or ask a question can be often neglected in the conversation, the ease to gracefully interrupt is unavailable.

The clarity of conference calls can also be an issue. Quieter voices can be indistinguishable, and accents can sound thicker over VOIP style links. This loss of audible & visual cues can deflect from normal human interactions. So it's important to cater to these obstacles from the onset. A few ways of doing this:

  • Don’t regard remote team members as add-ons to your meetings.
  • Check equipment functionality, and make sure more than one person knows how to use it.  Do audio & visual checks with all team members to make sure everything is running properly.  This prevents time wasting during the meeting.
  • Designate a Team Manager who is responsible for observing the online cues. They control the flow of the conversation, and bring the remote crew into the room.
  • Often line speeds can disrupt audio/visual to various remote members. Appoint a note taker to transcribe the main points being discussed into the online chat editor.
  • Have an agenda for each meeting, and designate how long you predict the issue will be discussed. Agendas keep your meetings productive. Email the agenda to all prior to the meeting. Remote workers will know if they are missing out on anything.
  • Remote employees put in extra effort to read the room, which can take away from their ability to contribute to the meeting. A Team Manager can pause the meeting at intervals to summarise & call for the remote team members to comment.
  • Rather than meeting around a conference room table, if everyone sits at their desk on an individual video call screens, the playing field is equal. Faces are easily distinguishable and it’s easier to know whose turn it is to talk.
  • Put the video conference link in calendar invites so no-one is rushing to hook up to the meeting.

Other communications can also occur, so it's important to address them too:

  • Phone/Audio: While phones are better at picking up audible cues, it falls down on visual cues. However, we have been using the telephone for many years & have got used to is as a means of communication. Where the problem lies when working remotely, is that you have no record of the conversation. You are reliant on notes.
  • Email/Text Chat: Emails & text are better for keeping a record of a conversation, but they have no tone. When injecting too much fluff into an email conversation, the reader can lose relevant information among the fluff. Therefore, most times it can be more effective to deliver the facts, bullet points, and keep conversations on topic.  Assume a positive intent when chatting. Tone and nuance do not always translate across chat, so assume your team mate is coming from a positive place to prevent any potential misunderstandings.

Time Zones

It's important to be considerate of the fact that some of the team might be working when others are sleeping. This is also an issue when dealing with clients. Answers to questions may be needed, but unavailable until someone wakes up. So it's important to plan daily workloads, so anything required can be made available.  Know the time zone for all of the people you're working with.  It will help you organise the projects you are collaborating on in the right order.

Depending on where your team or clients are located, it can be impossible lining up a time for all the attend. This is where a meeting agenda comes into it's own. The remote team can prepare their discussions and forward them to the Team Manager. However, it is important to rotate these times, so all team members are present at some time.

Remote Team Building

Building a rapport and an understanding of your remote team can help fill in the communication gaps.  Also, personalities can be hard to translate when the team is split between remote & in-office. Try organising some of these activities for your teams to partake in.

  • Many times team locations can be a pain, so in the absence of personal contact have online games, contests, and maybe once a year fork out the expense to get everyone together (form a social club to pay for it).
  • Employers should encourage employees to establish social channels where they can share pictures of their kids, vacations, or pets.  These channels can be dedicated to hobbies, interesting trends around the world, or for sharing social photos. These kind of experiences help the team feel more connected.
  • Point your webcam out the window.  Show the team a nice sunset, a bird sitting on the ledge, or the city outside.  One of the benefits of videoconferencing is that you get to catch a glimpse of the other persons environment in real time, without ever leaving the comfort of your office.
  • We all work with different equipment, work in different ergonomic environments, decorate our surroundings in different ways.  Take time out to give a tour of your surroundings.  Get to know your remote workers.
  • Organise a jam.  Give team members 3 minutes to talk on their CV, a project they are working on, software or platforms they are nuts about.  

You might find that having a remote workforce, or being part of the remote workforce, is something you find worth pursuing beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

15 Mar 2020

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