As the ongoing COVID-19 crisis continues to impact our lives and livelihoods, Hawaii’s battered workforce finds itself in unfamiliar territory. From government agencies to nonprofits to businesses, most organizations are dealing with the entirety or majority of their staff working from home. Many have already made the transition. Nonetheless, there is considerable confusion regarding just how work should now work. Most employers and workers haven’t had a “new work rules” conversation at work or home. Excellent resources may be found online to facilitate such discussions, including ones with kids.
Here are some tips, compiled by experienced remote workers, for managing yourself and your teams while working from home.
- Act Like You Are in the Office
Simply acting like you’re heading into work can do wonders for productivity. Set an alarm, make the coffee, and get dressed. Then—you guessed it—walk over to your new home office and start working. Merely maintaining the appearance of going to work can be the crucial difference between a productive day and never gaining any momentum.
Talk to your spouse and kids about your availability for office meetings, and communicate what you can to your co-workers through your online calendar.
Take intermittent breaks later in the day, but start the morning with a bang!
- Use Task-Specific Technology Tools
With your team, collectively agree on four online tools—one for each of the following (only a subset of available software options are presented here):
- streamlining project management (Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, Trello, Asana)
- individual and group chats (MS Teams, Google Hangouts Chat)
- document-sharing (MS SharePoint, Google Drive)
- video meetings (MS Teams, Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom [be sure to review security settings to preclude uninvited guests])
Many workers already use only a phone and email for work purposes, and may not need software beyond this list. If most of your team is already familiar with a tool, use it: this will greatly increase communication, efficiency, and team output.
Match your tasks with appropriate tools—such as using email when sending out information or a question that does not need a quick response. However, when collaborating or brainstorming ideas, it is often better to interact by phone or video chat. Text-only messages can be misconstrued, wheres a real-time, face-to-face video conversation can usually eliminate gaps in communication. Transient or longer-term bandwidth issues of one or more remote team members may require modifying tool selection to permit smooth workflow.
Triaging tasks, and using smart tools tailored for each job, can streamline the workday and permit efficient task completion.
- Outcome, not Activity
Many office-based employees are accustomed to operating on a daily schedule while managers ensure that the workers are occupied with work. However, when working remotely, it is easier and indeed better to look for outcomes, rather than hours worked. This paradigm shift was inevitable, but this crisis has made it a reality.
Managers can set expectations for team members being online and reachable through the team’s selected chat tool. However, remember that managers may know vanishingly little about other employees’ living conditions, kids’ school-related activities, and other parameters. Instead, an effective remote manager will focus on asking How long will this task take? What’s getting done? How much is being accomplished and in what amount of time? Are there any bottlenecks? For certain types of tasks, managers may find that more can be completed in shorter times due to fewer office distractions, no travel, and streamlined work. In time, managers will get a feel of how quickly their teams can move, identify roadblocks, and find resolutions.
It is important that leaders remain mindful of not becoming hamstrung by performance measures alone. Much of any strategic plan needs to now be revisited in light of these unprecedented changes, and certain metrics do not translate well to remote work.
Trusting the staff now working remotely can go a long way. If the required work is coming in on time, they are more likely than not putting in the necessary time and effort. Tell them! Managers need to go out of their way to convey positivity to their workers. Show them that trust has been earned, but continue to hold them accountable. Offer rewards or send gift cards (the purchase of which Hawaii’s food and coffee shops can certainly use right now) for encouragement.
Allow the team to make decisions together: What time should the morning huddle be hosted? What projects should be discussed first? Who can work together and take point on this presentation?—and so on.
- Focus on Communication Protocol
Set up good communication practices for everyone to stay on task (and working in the right direction). This includes a daily check in: invite all remote workers and discuss tasks and snags. See if anyone has questions, and ascertain how each can best contribute that day’s efforts towards reaching a common goal.
One of the most important rules should be avoiding negativity. Without seeing one another face to face, it is easy to type snarky comments in a chat window. Even when joking, context can be lost and plaintext messages can be read and differently interpreted by the recipient. Encourage a “no negative comments” policy early on to avoid any confusion or hurt feelings.
With such in place, talk frequently. Chat programs permit easy communication with coworkers. If the physical office had an “open door” culture, allow coworkers to start chats with managers at any time, unless marked on the team’s calendaring tool as unavailable. Don’t waste time wondering if things are on the right track; real-time chatting can clear up miscommunication and free up time that would have otherwise been wasted. Face-to-face video meetings are important to develop fragile ideas or discuss sensitive topics.
Managers should ensure a disciplined rhythm for meetings. A defined timeline and pace should be established before bringing the meeting to order; all invitees should begin the login process before the defined start-time for the meeting. Don’t waste time with off-topic wanderings. Stay on task and be brief to best use everyone’s time. If follow-up questions arise after the allotted time has expired, direct such to the team’s selected chat program and ensure that pertinent information so shared is summarized and, if necessary, conveyed to meeting attendees.
The tone of the meeting, however, remains critical. Virtual meetings desaturate personable aspects that would otherwise permit team members to become chummy or feel comfortable. Be inclusive of ideas and encourage all to speak up. A shot-down comment will sting for a long time.
- Know the Manager’s New Role
As the manager of a suddenly dispersed workforce, trusting one’s team and focusing on their progress (rather than on hours put in) will go a long way. Discuss priorities, share expectations, and anticipate a certain amount of pushback by employees.
Check in regularly to see if members have questions or have hit any roadblocks. It is likely that in days to come, workers will find that productivity groove and need less of a manager’s time; until then there are likely to be at least a few transitional difficulties. This will also encourage—if not mandate—communication, whether with managers or by reaching out to each other through one or more of the team’s online tools.
Make room for emotional adjustment. Being stuck at home all day, for some, can be depressing. Having kids and family around while working can be overwhelming. Managers who expect clear and absolute separation of the personal and professional lives of their colleagues will inevitably be disappointed. Such an expectation is unrealistic, or even inhumane.
Start meetings by asking, “How are we feeling?”—tacitly acknowledging that these are emotionally charged times. Only then move to the meeting’s agenda.
The bar for being an effective manager just got raised. Godspeed.