Getting remote working right is about cultural change, trust, communication and the right tools, and while COVID-19 has forced a shift out of the office, there are lessons to be learnt in the long-term.
That’s according to a new report from StartupAus, commissioned by NBN, which looks into the approach tech companies of all shapes and sizes have taken to the shift to remote work.
Even before the pandemic hit, remote working was on the up, the report notes. But, as of 2019, although 68% of Australian companies said they offered remote working options, only one in 25 people worked remotely as standard.
It is widely expected that as COVID-19 makes the home office a permanent fixture, it’s also normalising the concept of remote staff. Even after the pandemic has passed, more people will likely opt to work from home.
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Ultimately, the research produced three core insights into how both startups and larger tech companies can get this right.
A cultural challenge, not an operational one
Firstly, it notes that getting remote work right is a cultural challenge, not an operational one.
The top challenges cited about remote work are around how people will be able to collaborate effectively, how teams will bond, and — crucially — how oversight of work will occur.
In order to address these challenges, businesses have to not only provide technology, processes and policy. They have to get their culture right as well.
Trust, transparency and clarity around individuals’ roles and expectations should be “key pillars of culture”, the report states.
Creating a virtual office
Secondly, it says, it is critical to provide the right tools and infrastructure to allow for connectedness and productivity.
It’s not only about employees working remotely, it’s about creating a virtual office, in a bid to boost engagement and also maintain cultural routines and a sense of togetherness.
This can include something as simple as ensuring each employee has a strong internet connection, making sure they can participate effectively in everything from morning stand-ups to remote birthday drinks.
It’s also about having a common suite of communication and collaboration tools, the report suggests.
Trust crucial to boost morale
Finally, the third key insight notes that remote working can lead to increased productivity and loyalty among employees, ultimately making a happier workforce more inclined to stay put.
A Google survey of 5,000 of its own employees found no difference in the effectiveness or productivity of those working remotely, regardless of whether their work required frequent collaboration or not.
If employees feel trusted, and if the culture is right, working remotely can boost morale among staff members.
While the forced shift to remote work has caught some larger companies unawares, there are a few quick and easy things leaders can do to reap some of the benefits it can offer. These include, for example, considering which office rituals could be reintroduced, asking if managers are interacting with their staff on a daily basis, and making sure they have appropriate channels for staff to stay connected.
However, it’s also about adapting to the new normal of work, and giving employees the flexibility to design their own day.
More hours, more meetings
A report from Microsoft earlier this week measured how work patterns were changing in the new COVID-19 remote-work environment.
The tech giant analysed things like work-life balance and collaboration trends through de-identified emails, calendars and other metadata, across its 350-strong ‘modern workplace transformation’ team.
Microsoft also conducted a series of anonymous sentiment surveys.
The top-line results suggests people are working for more hours a day, and having more meetings, but shorter ones.
Employees are typically ‘on’ for four extra hours each week. However, according to the report, the surveys suggested one explanation for this.
“Employees said they were carving out pockets of personal time to care for children, grab some fresh air or exercise, and walk the dog,” the report said.
“To accommodate these breaks, people were likely signing into work earlier and signing off later.”
The volume of meetings has also unsurprisingly increased in a work-from-home world, partly, Microsoft suggests, to make up for lost coffee-machine conversations and casual catch-ups.
But, the average duration of those meetings has decreased.
According to the report, weekly meeting time increased by 10%, overall. But there was a 22% increase in meetings of 30 minutes or less, and an 11% dip in meetings that dragged on for more than an hour.
Microsoft employees also seem to have embraced the flexibility remote work allows — although for many this may come down to childcare and home-schooling responsibilities.
Rather than being concentrated in the 8am to 11am window, meetings were more often scheduled between 3pm and 6pm.
More people are sending direct messages during their designated lunch hour, and messages sent between 6pm and midnight have more than doubled.
Working around family commitments
That was very much an unintended consequence of the shift to remote-first, Microsoft suggested in the report. But, it also shows employees are embracing the freedom to work around their family lives.
As the COVID-19 crisis continues, it’s becoming clear that the remote-working boom will likely outlast it. Businesses are realising it’s possible, stigmas are being erased, and some employees are embracing the home office.
Even if they don’t plan to make it permanent, businesses can learn something from this time, the StartupAus report suggests.
“This culture of connectedness will serve businesses well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” it says.