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Remote control: Getting to grips with the new world of work

Working from home for the first time and finding it all a bit daunting? Here’s some expert advice on how to make it work

Vanessa Tierney of Abodoo: “My one fear about remote working and the coronavirus is that people won’t do it professionally. If you imagine the current situation as a pilot, if people don’t do it well, they’ll be back to the office.”

Vanessa Tierney of Abodoo: “My one fear about remote working and the coronavirus is that people won’t do it professionally. If you imagine the current situation as a pilot, if people don’t do it well, they’ll be back to the office.”

 

As you read this, we’re already well into the new normal; a world of remote working, virtual meetings and video calls. Face to face? That’s just so 2019.

So how are you getting on?

According to Jonny Cosgrove of MeetingRoom, a provider of “virtual space as a service”, week four of a lockdown is where it most likely “isn’t great fun”.

At this stage, the novelty of working from home has well and truly worn off and we’re all champing at the bit for the chance for some real, live human interaction that doesn’t involve our family members/flatmates/the postman.

Making arrangements to have a “virtual coffee” can help relieve the tedium, he suggests, just one of a number of tips he offers for those still struggling to adjust to these strange times.

Another is not expecting there to be a one-size-fits-all solution to remote working for business. Rather, remote working for many of us will be a mix of tools, from old-fashioned phone calls to social FaceTime to collaborative tools such as Slack.

“There is no silver bullet, and this is not the new normal. The things that work for larger companies will not be the same for smaller companies. This is going to take teamwork and patience,” says Cosgrove.

For employers, it’s important to recognise the stress the newly remote employees are living under.

It’s not all PJs and daytime TV. Rather it’s pressure on household budgets as working from home causes utility bills to rise. And while data usage, electricity and heating bills are all on the way up, employees’ personal time is going down, shorn of traditional head space breaks such as commuting and, now that the kids are off too, school runs.

This is not the new normal, this is the normal for now, so limit your expectations over the coming weeks while your workforce adapts

Encouraging them to create some boundaries, take regular breaks, and to stick, as far as possible, to a regular work routine could help.

In China, divorce rates reportedly surged when Wuhan first emerged from its lockdown phase. “This can be a trying time for relationships,” says Cosgrove.

While it is the preponderance of digital tools that has enabled us all to continue working, the attendant risk of being ‘always on’ is greater than ever. This is particularly so for novice remote workers who haven’t yet learned the importance of steely discipline – and closing the spare room door. “You can easily become over-connected when working remotely without a plan,” says Cosgrove.

That way lies burnout, particularly when allied to stress about jobs, careers, socially isolated family members and, of course, the virus itself.

All meetings should have an agenda, even if it’s a virtual coffee, he says. Before scheduling a meeting, be clear what you are meeting about and how you want to work through the issue. Establish the point of the meeting and make sure everyone is set up to attend, with the right equipment, he says.

If you’re the host, ensure everyone’s voice is heard – both literally and figuratively. If it’s your first time hosting a meeting using a new technology, do a sound check first to ensure everyone is comfortable. Once the meeting is up and running, try to ensure everyone contributes. With video conferences, never be tempted to work on something else, such as send that one email – once the meeting is in progress, it’s rude.

Managers should make a point of continuing with one-on-one meetings too, to ensure they have a good sense of how people are really getting on with the new set-up, he advises.

Focus on the team, not the tech

Don’t let the technology enabling the meeting blind you to the human behind it. Right about now their sense of wellbeing may be starting to fray.

“Relationships are going to be stretched over the coming weeks. Families are going to be adjusting to a new way of living. This is not the new normal, this is the normal for now, so limit your expectations over the coming weeks while your workforce adapts,” says Cosgrove.

Don’t forget the social niceties. “Ask everyone how they are doing, make water cooler time throughout the week, and listen, listen, listen,” he says.

His solution, MeetingRoom, provides secure virtual reality meeting rooms that are full of familiar meeting room equipment, like whiteboards and desks, for groups. Each participant is represented by an avatar that can move and look around, allowing them to speak and make presentations.

Although the pandemic has forced so many employees into doing remote work, in normal circumstances companies had already started warming to the practice because it enabled them save travel budget and time, lowered their carbon footprint and sorted out their business continuity planning, all in one fell swoop.

Few will have expected the third to be the most pressing. But MeetingRoom is just one of a number of tools available to help remote teams remain productive.

Be clear about mutual expectations and trust your team to get on without micromanaging. Focus on results rather than activity

One of the most popular collaborative platforms is Zoom, which offers a free service that cuts off after 40 minutes, or an upgraded one from just €15 a month.

It allows you to hold meetings, record them and share your screen. It also solves the pressure some home workers feel around the need to disguise the fact they are working in a corner of their utility room, by providing a virtual background function. Slack, Microsoft Teams, LogMeIn, Blue Jeans and GoToMeeting are alternatives. 

Mind your manners

Whichever you choose, it’s important to follow standard protocols, such as turning off your mic when you are not speaking. And don’t try to undertake work on some other project on the sly, particularly if you are video conferencing.

Right now, it’s particularly important to cut those working from home some slack. It may not be possible for them to ensure their cooped-up tots, or teens, are inaudible throughout your call. Be cognisant of the additional pressures they are under and keep remote meetings short.

One way to support team members with family to look after is to hold off from scheduling virtual meetings until after 10am, so that they can sort out family commitments first, suggests Cosgrove.

Managers in particular should not make the mistake of thinking a video conference is a presentation and hog the mic. In fact, everyone must be given an opportunity to be heard, points out Vanessa Tierney of Abodoo, a platform that matches remote workers and employers.

Abodoo, which recently raised £250,000 to fund its growth through UK crowdfunding site CrowdCube, quickly moved to provide assistance to employers looking to get to grips with remote meetings during the lockdown.

“A lot of people are getting in touch with us about remote meetings because all of a sudden they have been thrown in at the deep end. We’re a jobs platform but we’re helping companies do this because we could see that they need the help,” says Tierney.

Just as in a real-world meeting, be conscious of the ways to manage both extroverts and introverts, to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. Different tools allow different methods of participation, she points out, from raised hands to virtual hands, to a comments box onscreen.

If possible, a tool that provides screen sharing can be hugely helpful. If you don’t like looking at yourself in a meeting, minimise your own image. “I get self-conscious and I find the image of me is a distraction, so I minimise it. After all, I don’t hold meetings in a mirrored room,” says Tierney, who also coaches directors for video interviews.

Watch your body language

She advises people to be aware of their body language, ensuring they use their hands and arms and don’t let them simply hang limply by their side, and guarding against absent-mindedly scratching their head or blowing their nose.

Pay attention to your setting. “People think that no one will be able to see their background but really they will. You need to look at the room behind you from the screen, not just with your own eyes,” she says.

Set a clear agenda and let people know at least 24 hours in advance what you expect from each meeting in terms of reporting, Tierney says.

Abodoo is currently working on the development of talent heat mapping services which, she believes, will be of particular interest to Government, local authorities and employers alike in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.

In the meantime, it has also launched a subscription-based service, “Enabling Remote”, to help small and medium businesses manage the current situation and work across disparate teams effectively. 

“It offers everything they need in terms of hardware, mobile, communication, e-learning and legal to roll out remote safely and effectively, based on a fixed monthly cost. I’ve just now finished an online broadcast to over 100 accountants in Ireland and UK about it, as so many people are using their own devices at high risk,” she says.

Dublin Chamber’s recently launched Smarter Working Guide suggests some form of remote working can be possible for many workers, and that, in normal, non-pandemic situations, can be facilitated in a number of ways. This includes either on an ad-hoc basis or by agreeing a set day a week. Like all flexible work practices, it can aid the recruitment and retention of key talent.

CIPD Ireland, the association for human resource practitioners, offers a number of practical tips which will be of help to those coping with mass remote working for the first time.

This includes making sure every team member is clear about how they will work together remotely, how they will keep each other updated, and how frequently.

Be prepared to “flex” yourself, it suggests. “Review short term goals regularly and adjust as needed. If some staff can’t carry out all their usual work, consider other skills they can lend to others, to meet team goals.”

Trust your team

Trust is a huge part of managing remote teams. “Set expectations and trust your team,” CIPD advises. “Be clear about mutual expectations and trust your team to get on without micromanaging. Focus on results rather than activity.” The pandemic has made a nonsense of presenteeism, for once and for all.

Make sure they have the support and the equipment they need, including any coaching required to get online or to download the apps they need to join in conference calls. “Keep your calendar visible and maintain a virtual open door,” it suggests.

Make time for social conversations. This increases rapport and eases communication between people who may not meet often. It also reduces feelings of isolation

To the virtual coffee and watercooler, add a virtual huddle, it says. “This is essential for keeping connected as a team, to check in on each other’s wellbeing and keep workflow on track. It needn’t be long, but regularity is key.”

Where possible, keep the rhythm of regular one-to-ones and team meetings, it maintains a sense of structure and continuity for all.

“Share information and encourage your team to do the same. Without physical ‘water-cooler conversations’, opportunities to pick up information in passing are more limited. Share appropriate updates or learnings from other meetings and projects and invite your team to do the same.”

In this together

Be aware that some staff members may be feeling isolated or anxious and take this into account in your communications. “Make time for social conversations. This increases rapport and eases communication between people who may not meet often. It also reduces feelings of isolation.”

Remote working aficionados such as Tierney, and organisations such as Grow Remote, have been pushing for greater acceptance of remote working for years, and for a variety of reasons. These range from greater flexibility for workers to greater access to talent pools for employers and better towns and villages countrywide.

“My one fear about remote working and the coronavirus is that people won’t do it professionally,” says Tierney. “If you imagine the current situation as a pilot, if people don’t do it well, they’ll be back to the office.” If it does work out well, “this could be the cultural shift we’ve been looking for”.