The tools enabling organisations to run remotely have been available for many years.
Androgogic was founded almost 15 years ago with fully remote employees as a fundamental tenet.
While different technologies have come and gone over time, it has been an evolution not revolution as far as our company has been concerned. Continual improvement yes, but nothing has changed to make the overall model significantly better or worse as a business strategy… until now.
There are clear financial benefits to a company not maintaining office space. The question is, why haven’t most businesses in the last decade started up as fully remote or moved to that model?
Or perhaps that question would be better worded: What are the fears and blockers that have stopped these things from happening?
And the corollary question: What can we do to leap over them in a time like this, with COVID-19 forcing workers all over the world to isolate and work remotely?
Why aren’t we there yet?
For some sectors and job roles, remote working isn’t viable given current technologies.
Then there are other businesses in significant transition towards removing people from a centralised business frontline, but where a business model rebuild, including cultural and often legal changes, are needed over years or decades. Think of the mature move from retail to online shopping, or the emergent one of parcel delivery services from human to drone).
For now, let’s consider all the sectors and positions that have no real structural barriers. Or in other words, people who spend the majority of their time at a computer and/or in meetings.
For these groups, I can identify the following blockers, in order of severity.
Fear of the HR implications, including difficulties associated with direct staff management, and/or an unwillingness to deal with them.
Social preference (more of us are extroverts than introverts).
A combination of inertia (if it isn’t broken don’t fix it), herd mentality (my competition isn’t doing it so I shouldn’t either), and normalcy bias (everything will always be like it is into the future).
Technical challenges (moving staff from desktop computers to laptops, setting up VPNs, making company systems accessible outside of the WAN or moving to cloud-based systems and so on).
The HR fears
Most organisations already have VPNs and cloud-based systems, and with the advent of COVID-19, social preferences, inertia and normalcy biases have all changed. In fact, the herd mentality is now ‘we need to move online’.
What are some of the HR fears?
- Less productive staff.
- Inability to effectively direct and track what staff are doing.
- My relationship with my employee(s) will be fundamentally altered. I won’t be able to use my charisma. I won’t be able to motivate staff without face to face contact.
- Ergonomic responsibilities and costs.
A lot of these fears relate to the mindset of the employer and the culture of the organisation.
If you are not familiar with it, I recommend reading a short article about McGregor’s theory X and theory Y of human behaviour (Wikipedia will do).
Those who fear remote working may have more of a theory X belief system or be in an industry where that is appropriate.
Theory X management is still possible in a fully remote environment by the way, but it generally requires more setup time and cost.
Androgogic follows theory Y, but we work within a sector that allows us to do this, and even so, we still have some areas of the business with a greater proportion of theory X practices (for example, our service desk).
The productivity question
Moving to remote work and remote management gives you the opportunity to both relax and tighten productivity controls within the business.
The wide range of things you can do from a basic browser means that staff can spend hours on non-company tasks. Even if you have strict and automatically enforced LAN policies and/or surveillance techniques in place, other devices such as mobile phones, iPads could still be used.
In a normal Theory Y scenario, you would introduce remote working as part of that culture — a ‘we trust you’ statement with corresponding expectations on your staff to deliver.
In the COVID-19 environment that is transparently not why you are doing it, so don’t use that approach. Instead, do the following.
1. Make sure you have a single company-wide instant messaging (IM) platform (such as Slack), and then use it wisely.
- Use direct messages or individual (@person) mentions.
- Create separate project-based channels with relevant staff or teams.
- Use company-wide channels for general staff announcements (#general), water cooler chats and social cohesion (generally #random). Staff can share their imperative tasks (#status) so that multiple stakeholders are aware of who is doing what.
2. Make sure you have a single cohesive company-wide video conferencing solution (such as Zoom or Google Hangouts).
Use these for 1:1 chats and broader meetings.
3. Set company communication priorities to manage interruptions and increase productivity.
For example, all employees must be on IM while working, unless they are in a focus session. If in a focus session post to #status and quit IM, but your mobile phone must remain on. Check IM once done.
4. Recognise that employees will need advice on your expectations and how they should work (you can get expert help on this if necessary).
See some examples below.
- Establish expectations for how the workday looks. This could include identifying each person’s most suited variant of the Pomorodo technique (for example, 50 minutes on, 10 minutes off), especially when doing intensive solo work such as documentation or coding.
- Flexible work schedules and work-life balance. At Androgogic we say: “We work from home except sometimes when we live at work”. In the time of COVID-19 and closed schools, you need to think about being really flexible.
- Promote health and wellness. Encourage employees to use their mobile phone for meetings (including video conferences) and walk around their house or yard when they don’t need to be watching the screen or taking notes/typing. This promotes health and helps with engagement, focus and can keep meetings shorter.
- Ergonomic support (at a minimum create a set of employee standards and a self-checklist and ask all employees to complete it and sign off on it). If you can, offer to meet any gap in what they need (such as a suitable chair) or allow them to take existing furniture home from the office for the time being.
5. Where you need theory X controls, evaluate time-tracking and productivity software for installation on employee machines (such as RescueTime or DeskTime).
One of the things you will be amazed at is how easy it is to tell who is being productive and who isn’t when working remotely. When someone isn’t getting to their work, our approach is to reach out to them and support them in whatever way they need.
In these times, the opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your staff through compassion (and deepen their motivation) is at least as great as the risks of lost productivity, and if you can make this transition well, then your business will be in a much better place.