With many global and Australian organisations requesting staff to work from home this week to keep face-to-face interactions to a minimum in a bid to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Australia has entered relatively uncharted waters in regards to wide-spread remote-based working.
Approximately 60 per cent of women and 40% of men require some form of workplace flexibility in Australia and for many employees, it’s typically accessed via a regular or ad-hoc day working from home. But for many teams and leaders, this week may be their first real experience of large-scale remote-based working and for some the experience may create feelings of anguish, nervousness and dread.
By nature, we are all very social creatures who desire connection, stability and familiarity. Moving whole teams into remote-based working arrangements for the whole week and for the foreseeable future as companies like Telstra, Apple and Microsoft have already done, will require leaders to demonstrate adaptability, resilience, vulnerability and empathy.
It’s a very considered approach to leading remote-based teams that I call the CARE Approach.
C – CONNECTION – the starting point for everything
Social isolation and loneliness are often the biggest struggles that employees who regularly work remotely face. It’s important that any planning for teams and individuals working remotely this week and into the foreseeable future, gives significant consideration to how individuals will continue to connect with each other in a way that replicates that ‘water cooler’ connection that you often find in the office.
Scheduling regular team check-ins both visually and over the phone and using communication tools like Zoom, Slack, Google Hangouts and WhatsApp, to enable the quick sharing of ideas and thoughts is one way to help mitigate feelings of isolation and loneliness.
There is also nothing like unreliable IT connections to reinforce a feeling of isolation and it never ceases to amaze me how often I hear about employees grappling with the most basic server access or security issues that can turn some days into unproductive wipeouts. Having self-guided IT workarounds and plenty of phone support available so that your team can find fast and effective solutions to IT hiccups is also critically important.
Finally, the most human element of connection I believe is ‘to live in the space of vulnerability‘ (to steal the words of US Professor and vulnerability guru Brene Brown). Promoting a team environment where individuals feel comfortable being vulnerable about their experiences working remotely will give teams a strong sense of personal connection.
A – ACCOUNTABILITY
Holding individuals and teams accountable for the things that they can control is another key factor in successfully managing remote-based teams.
Research published in 2014 by US-based Diversity think-tank Catalyst, identified that holding your team members accountable only for the things that were in their control was one of the key demonstrable behaviours of Inclusive Leadership, which is proven to be more effective in driving collaboration and innovation in remote, virtual and dispersed teams.
The training that I’ve delivered in Inclusive Leadership over the last few years has identified that accountability can often be one of the hardest behaviours to demonstrate equitably in organisations where there is a big emphasis on high performance and a low appetite for failure. When things go wrong the blame game can creep in and all of a sudden employees can find themselves taking the heat for circumstances and outcomes they had very little control over.
The reality is that sometimes things will and do go wrong in remote-based teams. Communications can get misinterpreted, deadlines might be missed and work quality might slip. But it’s always important to not jump to conclusions and to consider all the potential factors at play – particularly those that the individual has a level of control over.
Setting realistic work-load expectations and task deadlines, keeping check on your own unconscious bias and preferences for the delivery of work (particularly if you are big on face-time) keeping open and authentic communication channels to employees and being adaptable and flexible in how you lead and support the requirements of the different individuals in your team will help ensure the team stays engaged and productive. For some employees it will require more regular communication and direction while others will prefer to just be left alone to get on with things.
On the flipside, there may be some members of your team who find it hard to balance working remotely with the distraction of being at home so it’s important that any challenges are called out early and addressed quickly with an agreed approach between leader and individual.
Scheduling in a meeting early on to review team operating protocols, communication principles, dispute resolution practices and escalation points and their application to remote-based working, are important processes to execute upfront and to keep holding team members accountable for.
R – ROLES AND GOALS
Moving to remote-based working arrangements may require re-visiting team roles that might need to change or adjust in the short-term to reflect the different delivery of work or to adjust the management of a continuing project that has a fast-approaching deadline. It shouldn’t necessarily require formal role changes as such but it may be that leaders might need to consider which elements of different team roles might change with less team face-time and plan for that. Getting the team to set goals around key team processes, engagement factors and key success measures will also help ensure that everyone is aligned to mutually beneficial outcomes and give teams a benchmark to reference when things don’t quite go to plan.
E – EXPECTATIONS
Effectively managing individual and team expectations on workflow, team deliverables and appropriate behaviours is probably the biggest factor to successful remote-based working.
The best advice on offer here is for leaders to manage performance based on outputs not the perceived amount of time you might expect the individual to invest in the delivery of work that you might supervise in a shared office space. If your employees are delivering their work to the schedule you’ve agreed and the quality of the work is also consistent with expectations, it shouldn’t matter when they start and finish their working day. The advantage of working from home is that there is no time lost in commuting to and from the office so it gives individuals the opportunity to be flexible around working hours to blend home and work commitments, which is another factor proven to increase productivity.
Conversations and expectations about working hours should, however, be set and agreed upfront and ensure all agreed working arrangements are also consistent with the requirements of any industrial instruments.
A big factor in appropriately managing employee expectations is the ability for leaders to demonstrate that they trust their team to deliver their agreed commitments and workflows. One of the proven barriers to increased flexible working arrangements in many organisations is the concept of presenteeism which is the opposite of trust. The misconception is that if I can see you in front of me you must be working – if I can’t see you, there is a chance you are skiving off.
Research proves the opposite to be true of course with a 2015 study by a Chinese travel agency Ctip finding that call centre operators who shifted to a working from home arrangement increased their productivity by an average of 13 per cent driven by a reduction in break times and sick days. Ernst and Young in its 2013 Productivity Pulse also found that flexible workers were Australia’s most productive workers, with women working part-time wasting an average 3.3% less time than full-time workers.
Providing regular check-in points and feedback and utilising technological tools that can help manage workflows and deadlines in real-time like Trello and Slack can help leaders set and manage team expectations.
Yes we might be operating in uncertain times, but the silver lining of this dark cloud called COVID-19, is that the enforced working from home arrangements will drive innovation and adaptability around flexible work practices and cement remote-based working as the new normal in Australian workplaces. To find out how Executive Central can support your organisation’s transition to remote-based working check out our Flex for Success program, or contact me using the link below.