The silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic this year is that it has allowed many of us to try remote working. All of a sudden, millions of people were forced out of their noisy office buildings and back into their homes to try to get their work done.
While the pandemic has been disruptive and destructive, it has shown that our workplaces can adapt when we need to. In most cases, I’ve heard good stories about the move to remote working. However, it’s not the same for everyone and we do need to change the way we lead.
So what have we learned?
In this post, I’ll cover a few things that I’ve learned over the past few months about leadership and work. If you’re someone that has recently needed to work from home, hopefully this helps to improve the way you do things, too.
Remote Working Lesson #1: Communicate and Collaborate With Intention
I’ve found that one of the benefits of working remotely is that it makes you think hard about how you communicate. Since you can’t see your team, you can’t just shout across the room or walk over to someone’s desk or office.
While this can be annoying and stifle productivity, it has made me rethink how I communicate and collaborate.
When working remotely, there are an abundance of tools that are used for collaboration and communication.
Firstly we have email which is the same as always. Then we have collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Sometimes we might use different messenger tools like Skype for Business.
But wait, there’s more!
Then we have platforms to collaborate and store documentation, like Confluence or document management systems. And of course, we still have older methods like phone calls and SMS messages at our disposal.
Cut Out the Guesswork by Setting Rules About Collaboration
As you can see, I’ve just listed a few types of tools here, but you may see many different options in your workplace. The combination of different ways of communicating and collaborating can be extremely confusing, especially if there are no rules.
It’s useful to set standards for how you will communicate and collaborate in your team, including:
- Where different types of information should be stored
- How you’ll communicate informal and formal information (chat vs. official messages)
- Where work will be tracked, such as progress on tasks.
This helps to cut out the guesswork for you team. It also stops people from wasting time searching for documents or other details in the variety of different places it could be.
Let’s get a bit more intentional about how we communicate, shall we?
Remote Working Lesson #2: Get More Organised With the Work
Many leaders have been struggling with the concept of remote working, and prefer to be able to see their team more easily.
“How do I know they are working?” is a common question.
Well, we simply need to make sure we’re measuring output based on deliverables and outcomes, rather than hours worked. To do this, we need to be more organised.
Instead of just watching when people start and finish work, or whether they are chatting or working, we need to shift our thinking to be more outcome-focused.
Set Clear Expectations to Start Focusing on Outcomes
When you set clear expectations about deadlines, milestones and the level of quality required, you don’t need to see your team all the time. You just need to see the outcomes. If your team member works six hours instead of eight and they deliver the right outcome, is this a problem?
As leaders, it’s our accountability to work out whether our team members can handle more responsibility and workload. Then it’s up to us to determine how the team member should be rewarded if they deliver more than asked.
We need to stop stressing about hours worked and look at outcomes. If the right outcomes are being delivered, then how the team member spends their time is not your concern… unless they are working around the clock to get things done. (We’ll look at that point next).
Let’s get more structured with our work and focus on outcomes.
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Remote Working Lesson #3: Mental Health Matters
Remote working is a whole new ballgame. When you’re all working in the same place, you can see your team members each day.
You can observe how they behave and pick up different signs about how they’re feeling. You can see frustration building, disagreements and emotional outbursts.
When you’re working remotely, these can often be harder to notice.
Importantly, when you see people in-person, you can observe changes in behaviour.
For example, if your team member usually starts work early at 7am but suddenly starts to work later, this can be a sign that something may be wrong. Maybe they aren’t sleeping well… maybe it’s nothing… but it could be an issue.
If your team member is usually bubbly, sociable and expressive but has become withdrawn and quiet, this can be another warning sign. Mental health problems are often observed through a change in behaviour patterns.
Similarly, we need to be cautious about workload. Delivering on outcomes is good, but not if your team members are struggling and working extremely long hours to do so. You might not notice this if you’re working remotely.
Communicate Often and Openly to Spot Mental Health or Stress Problems
To give yourself the best chance of spotting behaviour changes or stress in your team, you need to become structured in how you engage with them. In a normal work environment there is the possibility to just bump into your team members and have a chat – this doesn’t happen remotely.
Set up occasional check-ins with your team members both individually and as a team, to make sure you have a better chance to see how they are feeling. In these check-ins, try discussing topics like:
- Workload: Is it appropriate? Too much? Too little?
- Motivation levels: How are they feeling about the work, the team and their role?
- Remote working: How are they adjusting to remote work? Do they enjoy it, or find it a struggle? Is their home set up to be able to work remotely, or are they uncomfortable?
- General life: Not everything is about work. Sometimes conversations about life can reveal issues or challenges that you might not be aware of.
Remote work can be isolating, lonely and stressful. Not everyone deals with it the same way and you may not be able to see the problems you normally would. People may also find it hard to separate work from home life when they do both in the same place.
Let’s start thinking harder about mental health and stress levels.
Remote Working Lesson #4: Stop Being Obsessed With the Status Quo
One of the things that I have noticed about many of our workplaces and organisational cultures is that we love the status quo. We like the familiarity of doing what we’ve always done.
Most people seemed happy (or at least accepting) about the need to travel to work every day, until we couldn’t do it any more.
Change can be uncomfortable and disruptive, but once again I feel as if many of our organisations are on the back foot, always one step behind. Instead of initiating positive change and moving towards it, we tend to respond only when forced to do so.
In other words, we are more reactive than proactive. We keep doing the same old things even if they aren’t working, until some catastrophe forces us to stop.
Some examples of being stuck in the status quo include:
- Working to unreasonable deadlines, even when we know it’s not possible to achieve them. We’re happy to say that we’ll meet the next milestone, even if nobody in the team really believes it.
- Failing to focus on improving the way we work. Instead, we just stay on the hamster wheel of work, never getting ahead. We keep working the same way we always have.
- Tolerating overwhelming workloads when we know we can’t do it all. We’re happy to load Bob up with work and have him working 60 hours per week, until he has a heart attack and then we’ll stop.
- Staying silent instead of speaking up when we know something is wrong. We’ll let unethical behaviour or poor decisions happen without calling them out, because it’s easier than speaking up.
- Failing to address performance and behaviour issues, until they are too big to ignore. We’ll wait until someone gets really upset before we look at fixing the problem.
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Let’s Start Thinking for the Long Term
The obsession with the status quo is just short-term thinking in action. Instead of proactively trying to fix problems, we wait until things break or until there is a crisis.
I’m not saying that we should have predicted the pandemic and been working from home for years. However it has brought home to me how often we stay stuck in our current rut, instead of trying to make positive change for ourselves and our teams.
This is why I love my teams to focus 80% of their time on their core role, and the remaining 20% of the time on improving the way the team works.
This means you’re always getting better, rather than standing still.
Related: Overwhelmed? Start Working at 80%.
Remote working can be a great way to cut the commute and introduce more flexibility into our working environment. However, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns, there can be some downsides too.
Let’s learn something from our remote working experience and be better leaders for our teams.
Have you had to start working remotely? What have you learned? Leave a comment below and let us know!