• Cairo Walker

Office Work Cancelled Until Further Notice — How to Survive ‘Sudden Remote Working’

Updated: Apr 29

Disastrous events such as the outbreak of The Coronavirus and bushfires that caused a recent state of emergency in Australia have forced workers to stay and work at home without warning.

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Organisations are continuing to respond by making it mandatory for staff to stay home amongst them are Twitter,Google, Coinbase and Amazon.


Google, Coinbase, and Twitter are telling all telling some employees to work from home. Including most of Googles 8,000-strong office in Dublin…


Coronavirus: Twitter tells staff for work from home.


Work at home — the Coronavirus doomsday plan.


If you find yourself a ‘Sudden Remote Worker’, what do you need to do to thrive? Here is a guide for managers and employees.


Remote Working FTW (For The Win)


Remote working, whether by accident or design, is the hot topic and trend for 2020.


I’m a long-term remote worker and a big fan. It’s been a conscious decision to design my life to minimise or eradicate anything I don’t like and to maximise the good stuff; remote working is part of that design.

I am uniquely suited to remote working. I read an excessive amount and feel energised by time spent alone. I rarely find myself seeking the company of others, and when I do, a virtual or phone chat will suffice.

I am an only child who grew up in a country area; the closest neighbour was some distance away. At university, I studied fine arts and, as such, spent all my spare time alone in my studio working. I tend not to enjoy connecting for the sake of it, preferring instead to have meaning to my interactions — planning something or, ruminating on a thought or idea.


Whether you are, or are not, quite as well-suited to remote working like me, there are a few things that will undoubtedly help. This article looks at the potential pitfalls and gotchas and offers solutions for managers, employees and their families. The aim is to help anyone facing a Sudden Remote Working scenario come to terms with this.


Remote Working is different to Working from Home


Working from home is what you do when you work in an office but work from home one day a week. In this scenario, the organisation will generally tolerate workers operating from home one of their five days each week and will see this as a ‘privilege’. Workers cite many benefits with this arrangement, including increased productivity and ability to complete tasks that require high levels of sustained concentration without the interruptions and walk-ups that take place in an office. It contributes to positive employee sentiment and, also engenders better work-life work balance, ‘I’ll put on that load of washing before editing the board papers.’


Remote working is different from ‘working from home.’ For a remote worker, working from home is the norm and home is the office. To be a successful remote worker requires a high degree of self-motivation and above-parr organisational skills. Proactive and responsive communication will also be required; from communicating expectations for the day; to sharing your availability, communication is vital. For those that can manage remote working, the rewards are significant and, include a flexible lifestyle and ability to work from anywhere, more time gained by eradicating commuting and other wasted time.

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For the Manager (also relevant for HR Departments)


Managers who find themselves suddenly in charge of a remote workforce may find themselves ‘sandwiched’ between conflicting organisational and employee needs and demands. It can be uncomfortable meeting the various challenges managing remotely will entail.


There are things that the savvy manager can do to prepare; below you will find a list of the most common with helpful tips, solutions, tools and techniques.


Managing the cost of Sudden Remote Working

Manager Challenge 1 — Financial Implications of Sudden Remote Working


The need for sudden, remote working places a heavy load on those involved. Organisations often take an initial productivity hit, especially if there is a failure to manage the emotional needs of employees. The lack of employees morale and motivation, when combined with the one-off set-up and ongoing costs impacts cash flow and ultimately, the organisational bottom line.

It can be tempting for organisations to push or offset financial responsibility to workers; in such cases, managers should consider making requests, rather than demands of employees.

Solution — Plan, Look for Trade-offs and Workarounds as the New Working Practices

The call for Sudden Remote Working necessary brings with changes to the dynamics between employees, managers and the organisation itself. Rather than any single entity dictating the new terms of engagement, work together using the following guidelines:

  • Allow people to take leave, but don’t demand it of them.

  • Be clear on the communication channels that managers and the organisation will use for sharing key messages and engaging in dialogue with staff throughout the Sudden Remote Working time.

  • Set clear staff expectations, including response times — underpromise and over deliver — never the other way around.

With the lack of physical separation between work and home, the working day will often leach over to personal time. Managers should have systems in place for monitoring this, including calling out (one-on-one) emails sent after hours or late-night/ early-morning chat sessions.
  • Look at free (low-risk) tools to facilitate frictionless remote working.

Tools


Manager Challenge 2 — Providing Business Continuity


There will be a period of adjustment following the announcement that all office-based staff are now required to stay home and work from home. It is the role of the Manager to move the team from uncertainty to performing as quickly as possible.


Solution — Leverage Previous Ways of Communicating and Working to Guide the Sudden Remote Working


The structure in the Sudden Remote Working environment is unchanged from previous office-based work; managers and employees can use the hierarchy, reporting lines and team dynamics to help normalise new ways of working.

  • Establish a standard way of communicating straight away — via chat, daily video or phone calls etc.

  • Do a single sweep of the office to distribute essential equipment and hard copy files to employees.

  • Carry out Manager check-ins morning and night with the team via a group phone or video call — find out how they are going, what they are feeling and what need.

  • Ensure staff have appropriate access to systems, including the requisite permissions to access systems remotely.

  • Actively participate in online interactions, as appropriate with the team and model behaviours for a more social environment.

  • Investigate and champion new (free?) tools to help people remain connected and working effectively.

Carry out Manager check-ins morning and night with the team via a group phone or video call. Hear what people have to say — what they need to complete the day’s work; their confusions, concerns and fears — as a leader, it is your role to address or remove these.
  • Use several ‘chat’ windows to support a variety of communications use cases. Make sure employees can drop in and out of the conversation as necessary. An all team chat — so anyone can ask or answer a question or provide help, a chat for project teams, one-on-one chat as necessary. Keep these open through the day (they are surprisingly easy to manage without them interfering with productivity).

  • Highlight the company culture. Show how everyone, including you as a manager contributes to this. Use the company culture to shine a spotlight on the new ways of working.


Manager Challenge 3 — Trust and Management when Everyone is Out-of-Sight


Managing a team from afar demands that managers step up and use the same management skills and styles that they have used effectively in the real world. Managers will already have a clear understanding of team dynamics, and both managers and employees will have a shared vision; from here, trust and engagement should follow through. The bottom line — if you didn’t have confidence before this new, Sudden Remote Working, you’re not going to get it now and vice versa.

Managing a virtual team requires managers to double down on the fundamentals of proper management, including establishing clear goals, running great meetings, communicating clearly, and leveraging team members’ individual and collective strengths,” says Julie Wilson, founder of the Institute for Future Learning and instructor at Harvard University.

Solution — Use the Basics of Management to Manage Remotely

  • Establish a team mission statement. People want to feel they are working toward a greater good, and that the work they do has meaning.

  • Be clear about your expectations. Some managers measure employee effectiveness on hours logged’ others will only be interested in the output (regardless of time spent).

  • Communicate and measure output. It is essential to have some kind of quantitative measure in place; this will enable you to manage effectively and to communicate any shortfall in expectations/ achievements early.

  • Ensure employees understand where remote work occurs. While some managers and companies might condone cafe-commuting or similar, others may not.

  • Create clear communications channels from your employees to you.Help people raise the flag early if, for whatever reason, they are struggling and need help.

  • Don’t expect the same thing from everyone. Just as you wouldn’t expect the same thing from the team when face-to-face, don’t expect here. Some people require more time to respond and are naturally more analytical, while others will be more gregarious and involved online. Use and leverage the natural strengths and styles of everyone. Don’t demand that the quiet person offer an opinion — and especially not in front of everyone.

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For the Employee

Suddenly working from home can be stressful. Whilst some people report increased effectiveness, others find remote working isolating and peppered with interruptions. Productivity may be reduced leading to increased anxiety.


There are things that you can do to prepare; below you will find a list of the most common with helpful tips, solutions, tools and techniques.


Create a Dedicated Workspace and Habit

Employee Challenge 1 —Interruptions from Family & Friends


Family and friends find it difficult to value working hours spent and, work done at home, as equal to those spent in the office. As such, remote workers will find they are constantly interrupted by someone stopping by for a visit.


Solution — Outline your Expectations around Visits from Family & Friends Early


Get ahead of the issue, and share your concerns, thoughts and requirements around work/ visiting time with family and friends before the problem shows up. Explain that it can be difficult keeping to a full day’s schedule and working the usual hours when working from home. Talk about how work colleagues, managers and clients are relying on you to be contactable, engaged and available through the day. Let them know that you have deadlines that you are working to, scheduled meetings and expectations to meet.


Don’t wait until the first unwelcome visit happens, because it will happen.

There is only one person who gets to stop by my place unannounced; my friend only does this once a fortnight at best. He’s a busy person and rarely stays very long. Most importantly, my friend will understand if he turns up and I say I can’t visit with him (for whatever reason).

The specifics of this will differ according to each person, but here are a few tips and rules to help:

  • Ensure everyone knows that it is not ok to drop by unannouncedand, that even if they get in touch ahead of time, you may not be able to accommodate their visit.

  • Ask people to send a text well ahead of any proposed visit. A text is often easier to deal with than a phone call, so ask specifically for them to text rather than call.

  • Tell people that you are only accepting visits at lunchtimes — yes, they still have to text ahead to check availability.

  • Keep all visits to a strict time frame. Let people know when they arrive when you need to go back to work and therefore when they need to leave.

  • Ban all visits during the working day. Going 100% can seem overly harsh, but for those who find it difficult to say no, an outright ban can be more straightforward. Still, having others take your ban seriously will require some ongoing effort.

Set up a kind of signal that lets others know when you’re in focus mode. Maybe it’s a do not disturb sign on your door or when you put on your headphones. (Or maybe you have to actually lock the door and pretend you’re not home.) Melanie Pinola, The 7 Biggest Remote Working Challenges (and How to Overcome Them), Zapier.

Employee Challenge 2 —Having a fit-for-purpose dedicated workspace


If you are going to spend eight or more hours at your desk at home, it needs to be comfortable for you, free from distractions and adequately equipped.

The specifics of a comfortable workspace will be different for everyone. My business partner, Amanda, has a dedicated office at the opposite end from the kitchen and main living area. I have a small desk next to the bed — luckily, my husband is a heavy sleeper.

A workspace is about more than the physical dimensions of your working area; it will also involve looking after the ‘ambience’ of your environment, refreshments (tea FTW!) and the general ‘feel’ of your space in the broadest sense.


Solution — Understand your Needs, Style and Working Practices and Design a Workspace Accordingly


There is more to an excellent desk set up than ergonomics; it will need to be free from distractions, and everything you need must be within easy reach.


Although Amanda has a dedicated office area, she will at times take her laptop out onto the back verandah to enjoy the afternoon sun and a cup of tea. I have a desktop and a laptop, but I rarely if ever move away from my desk to work. The laptop is reserved for when I am away from home, at a client site, or on holiday. I have a standing desk that I made out of a plank of wood and a couple of stools I push together so I can strike yoga-esque positions at the keyboard.

Your desk area doesn’t need to be fancy, but it does need to be fit-for-purpose for you — whatever that means for you.

Here are a few things you can do:

  • Approach your workspace in different dimensions. Include your physical workspace, emotional, mental and aesthetic.

  • Combat restlessness by making a temporary relocation for 30-minutes or more. Take your laptop or hard copy report with you to another favourite area of the house.

  • Get organised the night before. Assess the day’s work that has just been, tick off items achieved, carry over anything not done and plan anything else you want to start or complete tomorrow.

  • Remove any distractions. These can include mess that you feel compelled to deal with, music, social media, email alerts — these will be different for every person.

  • Put all the necessary materials in easy reach. These will differ for everyone, but things to think about are a hard copy pad for taking down notes, numbers etc., pens, charging blocks, printer, paper.

  • Consider the proximity of items to serve basic needs. Every worker is going to want food and drink through the day, access to the toilet etc. For some people, getting up and moving to another space to make a tea or coffee is an integral part of their routine. I don’t like to go anywhere, so I have a small bar fridge, jug, cups etc. within a meter of my desk.

  • Challenge yourself to better working practices. Use of electronic reading lists and moving on from hard copy print outs are just a few things you could try.

  • Figure out what office ambience is to you. I like to listen to country music — as long as it’s not too intrusive. I play it through my computer, so it doesn’t cut off when the phone rings. What is music to one person is like ‘nails on the blackboard’ to another. Whatever works for you, this is your space now — just for you.

Employee challenge 3 — Keeping Productive at Home


The office has a natural rhythm to it — worker cues are given and taken by colleagues, management and the work itself. When you are working remotely, there is often more flexibility around what you do, when. You will still be working to deadlines, but you will have more choice. There will be more hours in the day since you will have removed the daily commute and other wasted time.


The solution — Find your Specific Rhythm


The productivity category is on overload. There are blogs and books at every turn providing advice on how to be your most productive. There are no doubt some useful tips in amongst the material, and I encourage you to try them out, but ultimately you will have to find that for yourself. Here are a few things to get you started.]


  • Have a clear set of objectives ahead of each day. In this way, you can turn up the next day, organised and ready to go,

  • Figure out when you are your most productive. Experiment with doing different activities at different times of the day and organise big concentration tasks accordingly.

  • Set a time to get up in the morning and stick to it. Some people like to rise earlier and others late. Since you no longer need to deal with the morning commute, you can get up later and still be at work on time. Do what suits you, but do it consistently.

  • Select the right task to kick-start your working day. Productivity pundits will tell you to start with the biggest job you have to do. Some mornings I get straight into writing (my biggest job), but mostly I to read articles online.

  • Don’t start your day by looking at your emails. Responding to emails is a reactive task and will take you away from your daily flow. Start with any job other than this.

I like to start my day reading a bunch of articles online. I subscribe to numerous blogs and publications, and the fresh materials are delivered to my email overnight. I load up an overabundance of tabs on my browser, make a cup of tea and settle in. These articles energise and inspire me. I share what I need to across my (work) social media and, then I get down to work — which, in my case, is either writing or researching.
  • Move on from an energy slump. A dip in energy is a normal part of a working day. They happen in the traditional office, but at home, with the lack of regular office interaction and moving around to meetings, they are more likely. Try changing location or, switching tasks. If appropriate, call a colleague and work on a job together.

  • Walk away from that crucial piece of work that isn’t coming together. This advice may sound counter-intuitive, but no matter how urgent the task is if it’s not working, put it down. As long as you have done some thinking about it, walking away will let your brain process it (overnight is best). You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to finish it when you return to the task the next day.

Employee Challenge 4 — Overworking & the Danger of Blending Home & Work


For the uninitiated, the benefits of Sudden Remote Working can quickly disappear.

The office provides a physical separation between work and home. At the end of each working day, in-office rituals signal the end of the working day.


Similarly, the commute provides a transition from office to home, so that workers can turn up at home ready for the next part of their day.


Work mustn’t leach over into home and family life.

There is also a financial cost to the blending of work and home. Explicit arrangements over who will pick up the tab are necessary. Items to consider are the increased personal WiFi use, phones, video conferencing material and more.

The Solution — Awareness & Separating Work & Home


Start as you mean to go on and develop good habits from the start. The most crucial factor for maintaining healthy remote working habits is having an awareness of the potential pitfalls and, also being conscious of the needs of yourself and your family.

  • Develop separation between work and home from the start. Sudden Remote Workers will be experiencing remote working for the first time. Awareness from the outset will establish clear boundaries and habits.

  • Keep meetings within core work hours. Don’t make or accept meetings outside working times.

  • Develop end of day rituals to signal the end of work. We are corporeal beings; developing physical habits that indicate the end of the working day will help your mind switch off from work. These habits could be something as simple as tidying your desk, tucking your chair in and shutting down your computer.

  • Have a clear set of objectives ahead of each day. Document objectives for the next day at the end of each working day. That way, you can leave your working brain at your desk and switch into home mode.

  • Structure your day and week for your boss, you and your family. At times it might suit you to work a Saturday or later at night so you can run an errand through the day. Make the arrangement work all round.

  • Communicate with management, colleagues and family. Let people know ahead of time when you are planning on finishing up for the day. This heads-up will allow people time to make any last-minute requests or communications for the day. It will also help them with their plans and workload.

  • Treasure and respect family time. It can be easy to do a bit of work here and there, to creep back the office after dinner. Resist the temptation. Keep work within work time.


Employee Challenge 5 — Dealing with Isolation


Without a doubt, remote workers cite isolation as the most significant downside they experience. The unfortunate stigma the remote workers somehow ‘wrought the system’ prevails.

A 2017 study by leadership training firm VitalSmarts found that 52% of remote workers didn’t feel as though they were treated equally by their colleagues. Forty-one percent of remote employees thought coworkers said bad things behind their backs versus 31% of onsite employees. How to address the pitfalls of remote work, Gwen Moran, FastCompany.

The relegation (whether perceived or otherwise) to second-class contributes to the feeling of isolation already experienced by remote workers.


The Solution — Keep Social


From virtual hangouts to cafe commuting or co-working spaces (where appropriate), there are many ways to stave off feelings of isolation.

  • Share and, share in the non-work aspects of life. Work a bit of personal chat into meetings, phone calls and groups chats.

  • Set up a social network for water cooler chat. Create a virtual place where it is ok to combine work and social subjects.

  • Get out and in amongst people. From cafe commuting to co-working spaces, there is a multitude of ways to feel connected to your fellow humans while you work. Not all will be appropriate for your situation, but some will be.

Some days my husband comes in from the farm and sets up the laptop on the desk beside me. He might just be messing about causing havoc on his social media. Sometimes I enjoy the company for a bit — as long as he doesn’t try to talk to me.
  • Hang our with a colleague online to complete work together. At times, working through things together is the best way. Weirdly just having someone being silent on the other end of the phone while you add your bit and then throw over for their for input can be comforting. Think of it like work tennis.

  • Get advice from managers and colleagues. Everyone is in this together, find out how others are managing with the new ways of working.

Summary


The challenges of the 21st Century are sometimes surprising, including outbreaks of diseases such as Coronavirus COVID-19. It may not happen this year, but at some point, such a pandemic or some other occurence will likely result in many organisations demanding large percentages of their workforce to work from home suddenly. For those of us for whom this is not the norm, this is a new way of working that creates many challenges. It behoves both the employees and the managers to get organised and be prepared to reduce the impact on the employee’s morale and productivity, and to the organisation’s bottom line.


NOTE: For both managers and employees. In the case of both the recent bush fires in Australia and the Coronavirus outbreak, students were sent home before offices were closed. Working from home in such an event will not only mean having your family there with you; it is also likely to involve time out from your schedule to homeschool children.


References


About the Article

Cairo’s business partner and co-founder of business consultancy ABCW Amanda Broomhall is a contributor to this article. Amanda’s background in anthropology and then business analysis sees Amanda taking a pragmatic approach to the integration of digital technologies into organisations. She is a fierce advocate of the end-user and end-to-end digital from the employee to the customer.


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