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Remote working success depends on people, not just tech

As painful as the pandemic is, it presents an opportunity to test and fine-tune remote working, from the technology aspects, to the HR considerations.
Kevin Phillips
By Kevin Phillips, Founder and CEO of IDU Holdings.
Johannesburg, 08 Apr 2020

As the world settles into an indefinite COVID-19 lockdown, most of those who are able to work from home are now doing so. The tools required for this new way of working are becoming familiar: Zoom’s stock has soared, along with sales of wireless modems, advice for setting up an ergonomic home workstation and online exercise videos.

As difficult and painful as the pandemic is, it also presents us with an opportunity to test and fine-tune this new way of working. This particular crisis will pass, but there will be more, whether sparked by flood, fire, storms, strikes, or even new pandemics. In the age of climate change, the world is getting more precarious and uncertain, and it’s wise to adapt ourselves to what the future may require.

But remote work is not only for times of crisis. There is very little to lose by setting up systems that enable our employees to work happily and productively from home or other remote locations, at least some of the time. Cutting out commutes could lower stress and carbon footprints at the same time. Once we become skilled at online meetings, we could also reduce office costs in expensive locations as well as travel costs.

Another unexpectedly positive consequence might be a broader, deeper recognition that families are also stakeholders in our businesses. Now that any conference call might get interrupted by an insistent toddler, it’s harder to maintain the fiction that our lives outside the workplace don’t exist. Long after the immediate threat of the coronavirus has receded, workplaces may reap a lasting benefit by accommodating themselves more flexibly to those who need to balance their work with raising children, or caring for family members in need − which, in the long run, is almost all of us.

Now that any conference call might get interrupted by an insistent toddler, it’s harder to maintain the fiction that our lives outside the workplace don’t exist.

Remote work can be a net benefit, then. But to truly make it work, appropriate systems need to be in place for both technology and humans. The technology systems have received plenty of attention − there’s not much left to be said about business continuity, managed virtual desktops, VPNs and data security. There’s less guidance about how to deal with the human aspects − yet this vast change to our working habits is an enormous challenge.

The most obvious change is the sudden removal of most of the unbillable, scarcely visible workplace activity that doesn’t even look like work. Transitioning to more physically isolated ways of working wipes out all the unmeasured, casual interactions that underpin a lot of culture, learning and teamwork: the spontaneous chats in the hallway, after the meeting, over coffee or in the smokers’ ghetto.

The loss is likely to be particularly hard for the more extrovert and gregarious team members, but even the introverts may suffer. Being cut off from the regular rhythms and routines of the office can make it hard to stay productive, especially when all the cues around us are saying “you’re in a leisure space”.

Learning how to work remotely, in fact, involves learning new skills − from remembering to change out of one’s pyjamas to running an online meeting. IT strategist Dion Hinchcliffe is a champion of the need to develop specific skills for remote working, including the ability to co-ordinate work and choose the best methods of collaboration. These can’t be learned overnight, but naming the fact that these are new skills, and providing lists of approved tools for particular tasks, can help.

People also need to be allowed time to learn and experiment − teams might choose, for example, to set aside time each week to evaluate their current tools, share new knowledge and consider alternatives.

Apart from the new technical skills, this is also a time when personal and interpersonal management skills are being tested to their limit. This might manifest in many different ways: lower productivity, difficulty in staying focused, moodiness, withdrawal and so on. Attention to employees’ mental health is particularly important as people are likely to need time to adjust.

It may also be helpful to make the remote office feel as much as possible like the office people are used to: some companies have instituted virtual teatime, for example, and others have forums where employees can share useful tips and strategies; for example, on how to manage interruptions or switch off at the end of the day.

In the end, the coming months will be a test of our ability to embrace and adapt to change. Let us stay flexible, stay focused on learning, and continue to improve.