The global remote working experiment – and how to succeed

Will COVID-19 accelerate the flexible working revolution?

Photograph: Yuri Samoilov

Sometimes it takes a crisis to kick-start change. Right now we are witnessing a global phenomenon – a flexible working revolution that will see the majority of businesses shifting their operations to the confines of the home.

For years, businesses have faced calls to encourage greater flexibility when it comes to where, and when, their employees work. Indeed, great strides have been made in the past two decades to give people the freedom to manage their own professional lives.  

Recent figures from the ONS Labour Force Survey revealed that more than 1.54 million people across the UK are working from home for their main job – up from 884,000 10 years prior. Whilst for some, a shift towards flexible and remote working was already underway, many businesses have maintained the traditional practices of ‘9-to-5’ office-based working. With flexible working finally being put to the test, the decision has largely been taken out of their hands. No doubt there will be teething problems, but the current climate provides the opportunity to experiment with what works – and what doesn’t. 

How to support your employees:

Maintain healthy communication 

In transitioning to remote working, businesses will quickly realise the importance of communication. Finding the best way to communicate with your team should be a priority for managers, to establish healthy working practices early on. 

Many employees will miss the informal social interaction of an office setting, and it’s easy for feelings of isolation to set in. Creating good practices early on will ensure your employees feel heard, supported, and fully engaged with the business. 

It’s worthwhile to have a catch-up call at least once a week to update on progress being made, and address any concerns or questions people may have. Setting aside just thirty minutes, say every Monday morning, can be beneficial to maintaining collaboration and building strong relationships. 

Beyond that, encouraging colleagues to keep the rhythm of regular voice or video meetings when ideas need to be discussed, will promote the norm of opting for more personal interactions over e-mail or instant messaging. Whilst it may be harder for some, stress the importance of being transparent without social cues and context; otherwise it can be difficult to gauge when someone needs help. 

Separating professional from personal

If you spend the majority of the day at home, it can be difficult to distinguish between “work time” and “home time”.  Now, more than ever, it is important to lead by example and allow employees to establish working hours that work for both themselves and the team – and don’t expect 24/7 availability!

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is just as important when working remotely, if not more so. The connectivity that digital tools bring is a double-edged sword; whilst allowing people to carry out their daily responsibilities at a time and place that best suits them, it can also become difficult to establish boundaries. Some employees might be tempted to do more work than they otherwise would, either to prove themselves, or simply because they feel guilty leaving things to the next day. 

Help employees establish a routine. Encourage them to set aside specific hours to tackle certain tasks – and to take breaks throughout the day. Communicating times that employees will start and finish work, as well as when they can be expected to be away from their desks, will relieve some of the pressure. At the same time, it will make clear to the rest of the team when people are open for requests. 

Offer regular feedback 

If ever there was a time for transparency, it is now. Some people might be used to working from home, while others might be shouldering the burden of added distractions or an inability to ‘switch off’. Make life easier for your team members by delivering regular feedback, and encouraging them to do the same. 

There’s no doubt that enabling remote working on such a large scale will be a learning curve for most businesses. Offering regular feedback will help everyone align with team objectives, and encourage discussion about what is being done well – and what can be improved. 

This means being open to criticism and suggestions; for instance, employees might need things to help them work better – such as access to digital collaboration tools, more regular communication to help projects stay on track, or simply a standing desk to ensure they’re not hunched over their desks all day. Whatever the feedback, listen and try your best to make this adjustment as easy as possible for everyone. 

Most importantly, employers must offer their full support to employees at this challenging time, to ease their transition to remote working. 

The great remote working experiment is likely to surprise many; indeed, it may even lead to increased productivity and unexpected gains for businesses that had previously been hesitant to adopt the practice.  A study published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, revealed numerous employees reported improved work satisfaction in the shift from their conventional working environment to working remotely. 

Focus on the big picture. The coming months will be challenging for many, but trusting your team, managing expectations and checking in with your employees will make the transition a whole lot easier.  

Liza Kinnear

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