Today many businesses are working differently from the way they normally operate. The shutdown has suddenly granted people their wish to be able to work from home. But some are finding that working from home is not as easy as they thought, and their employers are discovering that communication and productivity can suffer greatly if their employees are not equipped or trained for remote work.
Matt Shaffer, a former Air Force crew member and software solutions entrepreneur, presented some fundamental guidelines to help companies increase the productivity of their remote workforces. These guidelines include tips for utilizing technology effectively, as well as tips for maintaining supportive communication to keep team members in a positive and empowered mindset.
Recent surveys have found that over 90% of CEOs have instituted work-at-home policies in response to the shutdown of commerce. Remote work policies are in fact expected to be the most common change instituted by companies in the next month. Remote working has allowed companies to keep employees on the payroll, while keeping some operations active.
There have been some problems observed in having large numbers of people working from home. A Fishbowl survey revealed that 42 percent of workers were consuming alcohol while on the clock, 31 percent are feeling "less synergy with coworkers", and 62 percent of parents feel they are unable to juggle working from home and caring for children. These are just some of the obstacles that can be avoided by establishing a defined work space and practices for working from home.
Matt listed some essentials for the work-at-home routine:
- Have a dedicated work area
- Separate spaces will help you develop separate mindsets for work and home life.
- Have a consistent routine
- Dress for work, take breaks as you would in the office, and respect that you are still on the clock and need to be available for coworkers.
- Don't consume alcohol or recreational drugs during the work day
- Respect the work space just as you would in the office.
- Plan proactively for child care needs
- Determine when child care may be needed and have back-up care options that are available during work hours.
- Make clear to your family that you are working
- Communicate to your family that you need to work during set work hours, and designate times appropriate for attending to family matters.
Information security is also crucial for remote workers. Matt advised small- and mid-sized companies to seek guidance from an IT consulting firm if they do not have a dedicated IT department. A professionally created remote infrastructure can provide security and peace of mind for businesses, and can usually be completed quickly so companies can get to work rather than trying to develop one on their own.
Companies that do not currently have a VoIP phone system to direct calls to employees' computers or mobile devices should consider using a VoIP subscription service. These services provide solutions to connect clients with your employees without sending their calls to voicemail. This will provide a seamless experience for clients as they call your employees.
Ideally, remote workers should use a dedicated PC or laptop provided by the company to avoid any infection from viruses coming from personal emails or websites visited for non-work purposes. Employees should use multi-factor authentication when possible, as well as anti-virus or anti-malware software. If their router allows it, employees working from home should create a separate network just for work with a unique password.
Physical security also becomes important. Work laptops can be an attractive target when left in a car, or left unattended in a coffee shop. Physical security also includes being cognizant of where you use company equipment to avoid damage from impact or liquids. (And yes, Matt was talking about your favorite beverage sitting next to your computer!) While it may be tempting to work outside, employees should really try to make sure they are working in a space that subjects company equipment to no higher risk of damage than exists on their desk in the office.
It is also important to verify that your internet provider is providing sufficient upload and download speeds, which can be checked using speedtest.net or similar network testing websites. Your network's upload speed will affect the quality of video and audio when videoconferencing with clients or colleagues. Using a wired connection (e.g., a LAN cable) can provide more reliable network speed than using Wi-Fi, as well as better security.
For improved video and audio performance during video conference calls, some will want to consider getting auxiliary cameras or microphones. While most laptops will have a webcam and microphone built in, image or sound quality can be significantly improved by purchasing a $40 - $60 webcam or similarly priced microphone. If you will be participating in active videoconferences with multiple speakers and frequent interaction, a headset with microphone will eliminate the feedback which can result from the microphone picking up sound from the speakers.
Videoconferencing options include:
- Microsoft Teams
- Google Hangouts or Google Meet
Microsoft Teams is included in most Office 365 business subscriptions, and the other platforms allow free use with basic functionality by non-subscribers. Most platforms will allow viewers to participate without a subscription, but may charge for advanced functionality for presenters. These platforms all have mobile apps, so workers can connect to scheduled meetings when they do not have access to their computers. Employees should be instructed to download the mobile version of the platform they use, and connect their account with their mobile device to ensure they are ready to participate in online meetings immediately.
Matt suggested that companies using Microsoft Teams take advantage of the recording feature to record meetings for employees who may have missed them. If the videoconferencing platform has a chat feature, employees should use these to ask questions or make comments without interrupting the speaker or the main conversation happening on video. This allows individuals to address concerns or seek clarification while keeping the meeting moving and on schedule. Matt also suggested that speakers take advantage of programs like OneNote or Whiteboard while sharing their screen to make a "virtual whiteboard" that they can use for brainstorming just as they might do in their office conference room.
Creating sub-level meeting groups within your online meeting groups allows for "breakout meetings" where specific team members can leave the main meeting to work on a particular problem, and then bring their solution back to the main meeting. Some videoconferencing platforms have this feature built in, but others may require you to determine participants in the breakout meeting beforehand and create a meeting including those participants.
Starting on time is important to cultivating a culture of punctuality for meetings and remote work in general. Meetings should have a defined purpose, which is communicated prior to the start of the meeting. Any newly added items to the meeting itinerary should be mentioned at the start of the meeting. If the meeting is to be longer than 45 minutes, breaks should be planned so that valuable information is not lost to boredom or inattentiveness. Notes should be taken and posted in a shared location along with any action steps determined in the meeting.
General etiquette for online meetings includes the following:
- No multitasking
- No eating
- Mute your microphone when not speaking (or wear headphones/headset)
- For significant interruptions, turn off camera and microphone, and leave brief message in chat notifying others of your brief absence
- Try to speak for less than 60 seconds at a time to give others a chance to contribute
Connection with fellow human beings is an important part of work for many people, and the lack of communication with coworkers can have negative effects on team cohesion and productivity. Matt recommends choosing at least three coworkers to call on the phone each day just to ask about their concerns, as well as how they feel they are managing their responsibilities remotely.
"Stand-up" meetings can also be a valuable way to connect with people each day, and reinforce a consistent and punctual work routine. These meetings can begin each day and offer an opportunity for each team to briefly discuss:
- What they accomplished the previous day
- What they expect to accomplish today
- Any obstacles preventing them from completing their tasks
This simple and efficient meeting style can help identify any issues or deficiencies holding back tasks or projects from being completed so they can be addressed.
Weekly meetings or a weekly address recorded on video can be used to keep employees focused on team or company goals. For assessing employee opinions, employers can use surveys with tools like Survey Monkey or Survey Gizmo. Communicating expectations and getting honest feedback from employees can be invaluable for maintaining productivity with a distributed workforce.
Perhaps most importantly, leaders need to project a positive mindset, and do so in a more proactive, observable way when connecting with employees remotely. Employee efforts should be recognized to maintain a spirit of optimism and purpose, especially when those efforts demonstrate a company value. Establishing a consistency of purpose will help keep workers connected to their own goals as well as the goals and values of the company.
Clarity of expectations is key to productivity in the office, and becomes even more important when people are working remotely. To illustrate the need to establish responsibility, Matt quoted Extreme Ownership by former Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin:
Once people stop making excuses and stop blaming others,
and take ownership of everything in their lives,
they are compelled to take action to solve their problems.
If an employee is not producing the expected results in their work, Extreme Ownership suggests that the leader may be the problem. Leaders need to ensure that they have made expectations clear and that they have tried to remove any barriers keeping the employee from achieving expected results. If employees are failing to meet expectations while working from home, leaders should seize the opportunity to determine the obstacles preventing productivity and eliminate them if possible.
In the remote-work environment, leadership needs to get creative. Matt cited the Air Force's definition of leadership:
"The art of moving people towards a common goal"
He noted that leadership is not science or math, changes with the times, and requires flexibility and creativity. Leaders need to observe the work habits of their employees and adjust their leadership style to one that best motivates and supports the employee fulfilling their responsibilities. He explained that Situational Leadership Theory, which was created by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, provides a model for tailoring your leadership style to match various employee mindsets. Certain employees will be self-directed and more responsive to open-ended discussions exploring possibilities, but others will require more hands-on direction and clarification of responsibilities.
Leaders need to be facilitators of productivity, and should be motivated by the question, "How can I make my employees' work life better today?" Asking questions is an effective tool for the leader's communication with employees, as well as the inner monologue that guides each of us. Allowing employees to reach the conclusion you want them to reach will always be more effective than telling them the conclusion they should reach. Asking questions is a gentle way for leaders to guide realization in their employees; and they can also use this method on themselves. By constantly seeking to understand the motivations, concerns, abilities, and limitations of the employees who work for them, leaders can help their employees better understand their responsibilities, and how those responsibilities serve the goals of the company.
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