The rush to work from home (WFH), placed an inevitable emphasis on practicalities like hardware, bandwidth, security – and ironing-board desks. A lot of change was done ‘on the hoof’ without much thought for subtleties or long term effects.
We’ve learned how to hide the washing-up with a Zoom background, how to work the mute button and get the lighting right, and maybe how to make more use of online collaboration tools.
But that was all done in emergency mode. If you want to replace a person-to-person work environment with a remote one, in the medium term or even longer, there’s a lot more to think about.
How, for example, can we replace those water-cooler moments and brief exchanges over the coffee machine? And should we even try?
Can we recreate the emotional connections people have to their workplace, whether that’s down to friendship or familiar surroundings?
If you had a productive office environment it may look like an asset under threat. You know it takes time and personal contact for an employee to buy into your work culture. Should you try to achieve the same thing remotely, and what happens if it all falls apart?
You may assume that people will lose focus, and morale and productivity will plummet. That they will skip work, get distracted, and not get the work done. Think again – in my experience, most people are doing their best, and often in difficult circumstances.
If things haven’t worked out the way you wanted, the hard fact is that employers and managers need to take at least some of the responsibility. It’s our job to create a remote environment where people feel supported, motivated, and productive – not exploited, isolated, and ignored.
But you can still fight back to where you were, and maybe something a whole lot better. Here are my main recommendations for a remote work culture to see you through the pandemic, and beyond:
1. Learn to trust people
Lack of trust and micromanagement are sheer poison when it comes to remote working. If you’re nervous about leaving someone to work under their own initiative, it may not be their fault. Ask yourself if they’ve had enough training, or if you’ve been guilty of over-supervision in the past.
2. Be clear about everything
Make sure everyone knows what to do and when to do it. Keep track of progress and deadlines. If some people seem to be struggling, then ask them to confirm how they understood their assignment, and correct any misunderstandings.
It’s hard to replace those water-cooler moments, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Try scheduling some virtual coffee meetings in your team calendar. Agree on rules, how random non-work topics should be discussed, and what channels are best to use: for instance, video calls or Slack.
4. Say thank you and well done
Remote working makes it harder to pick up social cues from your body language and tone of voice, so people may feel they’re not getting positive feedback for their efforts. Small pleasantries make people feel valued but are easily overlooked.
5. Remember that people have a life
Don’t be needy and demanding, especially outside working hours. But first, understand what working hours really mean for each of your team members. With schools closed, a 11 am to8 pm working day is not uncommon.
6. Encourage advice and mentoring
It’s great when senior colleagues help with team-building and support their juniors. But be aware of power dynamics, and alert for controlling or manipulative behavior. Is someone taking credit for other people’s work, or reporting failures and mistakes that didn’t happen?
7. Nurture the individual
Constructive feedback, one-on-one meetings, and personal messages help an individual worker feel valued.
8. Be honest and transparent
Keep people in touch with wider company aims and gains. They don’t want to work in a vacuum.
9. Revisit job descriptions
It’s easy for things to slip over the years. Is everyone in their most productive role, and is the work allocated fairly? Assignments and responsibilities might need to change when switching from office work to remote work.
10. Make meetings meaningful
Every Zoom call should have a purpose, a time limit, and someone in the ‘chair’. And everyone’s voice should be heard.
11. Don’t have favorites
You may think people won’t notice when they are working remotely, but they will pick up on subtle clues – such as references to discussions or emails that didn’t include them. This can be extremely demoralizing.
12. Don’t create splits between onsite and remote teams
And never ever put them in an unspoken competition with each other.
13. Support career progression
Try to give remote workers the same opportunities to join interesting projects, build up their skills, or get a promotion. If people think they’ve been unfairly overlooked they’ll start to get restless.
14. Respect cultural differences
Not everyone looks forward to ‘Friday beers’.
15. Pay attention to your teams’ mental health
Generate a way of staying in touch with everyone in your team. Stay alert for possible danger signs, and offer friendly and practical support when needed.
If remote work is here for the foreseeable – and may be permanent – that’s a big shift for employees as well as companies. Right now a day of paintballing may not be an option, and work culture has an indefinable element that can’t always be controlled.
But there are still things you can do to create a strong virtual team. I hope I’ve given you a few ideas to get you started.