It hardly seems any time at all since Covid-19 took us where many feared to tread. So many organisations have worried about what would happen if they lifted the lid of Pandora’s box and allowed their people to work from home.
Managers worried they would lose control, that their people would disappear and be out of touch, becoming isolated and remote. Lots of people were interested in work from home opportunities, but in our experience, few wanted to work away from their colleagues all week and there is generally a lack of home-based jobs. For so many, work is social and going to the office provides structure and discipline. Home is where they didn’t work. Until now.
So, what has happened since lock down?
In the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics, nearly half of companies have told staff to work from home, while a similar percentage have encouraged staff to do so. That’s a LOT of working from home and it’s not unreasonable to expect that within those organisations there is a good proportion who had:
- never worked from home before the virus struck (either from choice or because their organisation didn’t encourage the practice)
- worked from home regularly, but not more than a day or two at a time
It is likely that this experience will be replicated in other countries and while there is no doubt that this is the right strategy to manage exposure to the virus at this stage, at AWA we were alarmed on
behalf of all those organisations and individuals for whom this represented a massive change in the way they operate – with little or no time to prepare.
As a ‘virtual’ organisation of some 50 associates and partners worldwide, the “work from home” directive had little impact on us as a team. But as it became obvious that the “stay at home” message was not simply for a few weeks, we knew that this would impact our clients, our AWI members and lots of organisations around the world who could be in serious trouble as they grappled with managing dispersed teams.
AWA is fundamentally a change management consultancy, specialising in helping organisations to change the way they work. We know from 28 years of experience and a lot of research, that if people are going to work apart from each other, they must prepare for the differences, otherwise team relationships and effectiveness can be damaged. Our research on Managing the Agile Workforce is the foundation of our understanding and we wanted to share what we know with others to help them make and sustain the transition into working in a remote world more easily.
The Working AWAy series of online workshops
We quickly set up a series of 4 workshops to help managers and teams think about the things that they need to do differently when working apart. There is a lot of advice available on the web and people will certainly pick up lots of hints and tips about effective workstyles. Our advice is based on science – robust academic research that we identified through a rigorous process to identify the best strategies for protecting teams when they can’t be together. We partnered with the Centre for Evidence Based Management (the leading authority on evidence-based practice in the field of management and leadership) to find the best available evidence and to ensure there was no bias or self interest within the findings.
We have now run 2 of the workshops using Zoom and are happy to share the learnings that came out of the sessions – what we know from research and our experience, but also from what our participants shared with us.
Our sessions are not “listen only” webinars – they are an opportunity for people to talk with each other, to explore and share ideas and concerns in an open and safe space. Participants figure things out (the best way of learning and committing to making changes that work). Being told what to do is rarely effective or lasting, so we explain what’s important to think about, and let people find their own ways to address the issues.
Our workshops address aspects of remote workforce management, team working and infrastructure / technology.
In our Introduction workshop, we shared 10 tips for managing and working with remote colleagues – all of which came from our research. Again these suggest things to think about, not how to do them.
What we learned from running the online workshops
Normally when we run online workshops, which we do regularly for our Advanced Workplace Institute, most people are in their offices. There is background noise, they are distracted by emails and colleagues, and they have back to back meetings that often make them late or mean they must leave early. So, we were interested to see how things would work out when everyone is participating from home.
1. There are always distractions
There are still distractions, but they are different. Children that are being home schooled or younger ones who would normally be at nursery or looked after by family members; pets wanting attention (or barking at the mail man); partners on other calls in the background; and as we’ve probably all seen from the videos going viral on social media – colleagues inappropriately dressed (i.e. naked!) or taking their laptop into the bathroom (with camera still on!) while they take a comfort break! Fortunately, the only things we’ve seen at our online workshops have been pets and beautifully behaved children – nobody half naked or going to the bathroom!
It is evident from everyone we talk to that this isn’t home working as they knew it before. Now they must divide their time between work, home schooling, caring for sick relatives, and being worried sick about the future. Productivity is far from 100% for most people. But we’ve had conversations with people that give us hope that their colleagues are recognising this and cutting everyone some slack. This is a very different world we are living and working in.
2. It’s so nice to see people
In our business, the protocol is “video on” unless you have a very good reason not to! We know that this is a critical part of our virtual team’s communication because it enables a far richer engagement, better understanding and greater clarity between colleagues.
When we run big online workshops, we ask everyone to switch on their webcam so we can see them. When you are presenting, it’s really disheartening to be faced with a lot of thumbnails on screen (with mute on) – as you’ve no idea if anyone is listening. When you can see people, it’s just a whole different, more human experience. We had 100 people on both of our recent online workshops and lots of people turned their webcams on and we chatted before the session started and after their breakout sessions. At this time when people can start to feel isolated and disconnected, even with 100 strangers, you feel better if you can see their faces.
3. If people feel awkward, they won’t engage
I visited a couple of breakout rooms during our workshops (if you haven’t experienced Zoom breakout rooms, you really must!) and found that people hadn’t turned their webcams on. If you think going into a breakout with several strangers is awkward when you’re physically together – imagine how it feels when you arrive in the breakout and you can’t see anyone. If we feel awkward, we can’t engage so well. If you are naturally a more reserved person, perhaps an introverted thinker who is already feeling uncomfortable being asked to talk to strangers, then getting no visual cues / body language feedback / smiles etc., makes it even more difficult. You may just dial off the event – which is a great shame.
At our session on 2 April, several participants were taken by surprise that we put them into a breakout – but they decided to be brave and stick with it – and told us they were glad they did. That feeling of not being alone in this new world is very powerful. If you can create a safe space for people to be open and honest (and maybe even a little bit vulnerable), even for a few minutes, they come away with something special – some other ideas for people on the very same journey.
That said, when we announced the breakout session and told people they had the opportunity to talk with other participants about the material we were sharing (to help them explore it together), many dialled off the call. Maybe some were just expecting to listen and had things going on in the background that meant they couldn’t relax during the process. Perhaps some just weren’t ready to talk to strangers and couldn’t deal with going into an awkward situation. Although we found it a little distracting, the c80 people that stayed with us gave amazing feedback – so we felt we were on the right track. Pushing through the initial awkwardness definitely paid off.
So, I encourage you to think about the types of calls you have. Can you see people – assess how they are, whether they feel stressed or if they are distracted? If you can’t, it’s more difficult to make connections, to reach out and show understanding or to explore what would help them better. If people seem reluctant to be seen, help them to feel safe and reassure them we are all in the same boat. In these stressful times, we need our humanity more than ever!
4. Technology is great, but it isn’t perfect
I’m sure you’ve all seen the spoof conference call videos where people can’t hear each other, arrive late, get thrown out of the session, or have trouble with their connection so they sound like Darth Vader. These can happen to anyone.
- Those in the countryside may experience power cuts more than those in cities.
- Those who have compromised bandwidth because everyone in their street is also working or studying from home.
- The colleague who can’t use his laptop because his son is taking an online exam and their other computer is out of action.
- The customer who took her laptop into the garden to get some fresh air and who is now running out of battery.
- The client who isn’t very tech savvy and can’t figure out how to turn on their webcam or open the file you’ve just sent them.
- Workshop participants that arrive late and disrupt the session because you need to catch them up before they can fully participate.
All these things can and do happen. Things aren’t perfect – we need to be patient and accept that everyone is doing their best. They didn’t have time to put all their infrastructure in place before they had to go work from home and now they need a little extra help.
Everyone is stressed. People didn’t actively choose to base themselves at home for the foreseeable future with their kids, partners, relatives, pets, neighbours – and distance themselves from their professional support network. Please don’t underestimate this or think that working from home is everyone’s ideal. For some it will be, but others are struggling to adapt and to find their new normal.
If we help each other, show each other the little tricks and tips and help us navigate this new world, it will deepen and strengthen our relationships and the trust we have within them. We know from our research about team performance that cohesion is vital – reaching out and supporting our colleagues with even little bits of support will pay dividends through the pandemic.
I truly believe that this adversity could bring teams closer together as we battle this common, global threat.
Written by Advanced Workplace Associates, Director of Research and Development – Karen Plum.