Remote Work Guidelines: How to Work From Home or Anywhere Else Effectively

Kadidja Naief and Dr. Barbara Covarrubias Venegas

9 March 2020 | VGL Insights

What if from one day to another, working from home becomes a MUST (e.g. COVID-19), but we have no real coordinated experience in doing so?

While organizations have been dazzled by pods and open-plan offices finally promising that collaboration-privacy balance, the world has decided to turn the tables. The Coronavirus’s appearance has triggered uncertainty across the globe in some cases, even developing into fear. This caused a sudden increase in remote work from one day to another.

Twitter, Square, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Google have asked the part of their staff to work from home where possible, and some have declared home office mandatory in South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan offices. Sony in Japan has done the same, and the Japanese government is asking for cooperation to create a working from home (WFH) environment. A very similar situation is occurring in Italy, Germany and France, the countries within Europe with the most Coronavirus cases so far.

Not a new trend: Remote work is here, it’s happening

While remote work (RW) is more present now, it’s not new. Eurostat data shows that remote work has been increasing in the EU. In 2017, the EU average of employees working remotely was about 5%. In the Netherlands, Europe’s pioneer, almost 14% work from home regularly, followed by Luxembourg (13%) and Finland (12%). In comparison, a representative Gallup study in the USA from 2016 shows that around 43% of the survey participants work partially from home.

However, as organizations continue to adapt to the concept, the central issue around remote work becomes clear: We have the technology, but do we have a suitable etiquette? 

WFH / RW requires a high level of self-organization and self-motivation skills from everyone.

Therefore, we decided to briefly summarize the essentials of working remotely from an individual and organizational perspective. 

A common fear by managers is that employees will be less productive. However, studies show that remote workers are as productive if not more so than office workers. 

Working from bed? Not as comfortable as you may think. A chair and desk (or kitchen table) are still your best friends.

1. Remote work guidelines for individuals

  • Keep interaction human — Non-verbal communication is more challenging to understand: use emojis, but do NOT overuse them. 😉😉😉😳😳😳
  • Be patient, communication is asynchronous You might already be used to emails at work, but you can always “show up” to your co-workers next door and ask for an immediate answer even though these ad-hoc meetings aren’t the best either. Still, once you work remotely, mostly 90% of all communication is asynchronous. This requires a bit more patience from each employee.

A remote work day: The essential is STRUCTURING your day

  • Get ready for the day — Don’t skip your morning routine! For your hygiene’s sake and for your sense of productivity, take that shower and put on some clothes. It’ll push you into the right mindset. Plus, it helps when someone surprises you with a video call; so make sure at least your top half looks presentable.
  • Add structure to your day Separate your day into chunks. Your concentration is better in the morning? Then focus on deep work and schedule calls for the afternoon. Understand your energy levels and take charge!
  • Take regular breaks — No one works for 8 hours straight  keep your motivation high and get up from your chair, look out of the window; your eyes will thank you. Why not also have lunch with someone, reenergise through social connections, or watch a funny video. Just don’t go overboard.
  • Stay active — Sitting for long is bad. Hit the gym or exercise at home with apps such as FitOn, where you can also invite your friends for some friendly competition and motivation, or stay fit with your favourite Youtube trainers. This will also give you a welcome concentration boost.
  • Go outside  Your body lacks a commute now, so go out and take that walk! And unless inhibited by Coronavirus or other related reasons in your region, go to a coffee shop or co-working once in a while to change up your routine.
  • Set boundaries — This one is key. Set boundaries between work and your personal life. Stick to specific times to start and finish work because you’ll be tempted to get more done. If you’re using the same laptop for personal things, consider using a different browser for work and log off all apps once you’re done. And if possible, designate a space for work, like a desk or a kitchen table. Don’t turn your whole space into your job. As for people who keep bothering you because you’re “working” from home, stay firm. You still have deadlines!
  • Stay organized — Software is your friend. Plan your projects, to dos and track your tasks, which will also help you see your achievements and stay motivated. You might want to use Trello or Asana, which are very helpful.
  • Collaborate — Use collaboration tools like Google Docs and Slides on Google Drive, Sharepoint and other solutions with real time collaboration possibilities. This way, you can collaborate with someone else in the same document at the same time without causing duplicate files that have to be sent around via email. Efficiency win!
  • Socialize — Socializing is not around a coffee or copy machine anymore when you work remotely. While WFH has its perks eat/dance/talk like no one’s watching! it’s easy to feel lonely. Talking to yourself is fine (to some degree), but have collaborative meetings and don’t forget to have a small chat too. Share how you’re doing, send a gif.

You don’t need an office to stay consistent. Have fixed weekly meetings online preferably video calls to keep attention. It will be a game-changer! 

Particularly important for video conferences/calls

  • Check your equipment & connection ahead of time — When having a virtual call, be prepared and be patient as overlaps and delays can happen. But, people talking at the same time during a virtual call is for sure not the same as people talking at the same time during an F2F meeting. So pay attention.
  • Focus during calls — Checking social media or online shopping? Come on. No multitasking while in a virtual conversation. We tend to start looking at our mobile phones and/or work on other tasks during conference calls particularly, if we aren’t on camera (have a look here at a study showing what people usually do during calls). Therefore, we always recommend using cameras during conference calls (if all have the right equipment and bandwidth), so the connection and attention isn’t lost as easily. Furthermore, “seeing” your conversation partners during a team meeting helps to establish and maintain trust. 
  • Consider an appropriate background Even though you’re working from home, make sure your background during conference calls is appropriate and not disturbing other conference call participants’ attention (e.g a cat/dog playing in the background, your children running around etc.). Often this would also distract yourself, as we saw in this 2017 viral BBC News video with excellent comic timing.
    Some apps are catching up though and MS Teams and Skype introduced a blur background option. Zoom even offers the option to add a virtual background; though this might be distracting.
    But, these options could be used as fun, small team building at the beginning of a call, e.g. each team member has a background where they would like to go on vacation or that is a reminder of a childhood memory and briefly introduces it. You can see that we had quite some fun playing around with our backgrounds, but we advise them to be limited to ice breakers and not the whole call.
  • More details can be found in this recent HBR article “What It Takes to Run a Great Virtual Meeting”.

From the beach to the mountains? We tested virtual backgrounds on Zoom  fun for sure!
But better limit their usage to team-building icebreakers.

2. Remote work guidelines for organizations

  • Trust in your employees Don’t fall into the trap of micromanaging just because you don’t share an office. The key here is to switch your mindset from process-focused to output-focused. If someone’s work deteriorates, then it’s an underperformance issue and not exclusive to WFH / RW.
  • Clarify availability — Set clear expectations. Whether a 9-to-5 is required or employees can set their own schedules, communicate this openly. This also affects responsiveness: Know when people are available, and remember where they are if you are spread across time zones. This way, no one gets frustrated.
  • Stay organized with software 
    • Online file structure  If you’ve avoided this so far, now is the time. Make sure you have all your important files available on a secure cloud-based solution, whether you use Google Drive, Microsoft 365 Business or Dropbox. And show your employees how to use this (possibly new) structure. Again, empathize with them.
    • Project management — Consider using project management tools such as Trello, Monday, Paymo, Google Tasks, Microsoft PlannerAsana or BaseCamp. This will help everyone stay on track and avoid unnecessary emails. If you need to track your time, try Toggl. But remember: It takes some time to implement such tools, so be patient.
    • Fast communication — Slack or MS Teams are great communication channels. If you choose Google Drive or Dropbox, go for Slack. If you go for a Microsoft solution for your files, stay there with their integrated MS Teams.
    • Video calls Skype, Google Hangouts and Zoom are all great apps. Make sure everyone in your organization has the same tool and all teams share each others’ user names.
  • Provide technical and emotional support
    • Tech support What do employees do when difficulties arise? Do they know how to give IT staff remote access to their screens with software like TeamViewer? Have an action plan.
    • Emotional support — Mind that your staff might not be experienced in working online, meaning that some might be restrained or even a bit frightened about the virtual component. Empathising with different levels of digital literacy is an important skill.
  • Digital leadership skills — Assist your team leaders who might need to develop digital leadership skills from one day to another. How can they maintain motivation in their teams? Establish consistent strategies for your managers and set up a clear action plan.
  • Consistency  You don’t need an office to stay consistent. Have fixed weekly meetings online preferably video calls. They will be a game-changer! They don’t only help with a more human interaction, but they also clarify tasks and avoid anyone questioning whether others are getting work done. Send out cloud-based weekly agendas that are always updated to help everyone stay on track and help people find documents for different meetings by posting the links directly into the calendar invites.
    Also: Don’t forget to use the same communication systems for major decisions to keep everyone in the loop, especially if you have both office and remote workers.
  • Communicate clearly — Managers will need to be clearer than ever before: What are the roles and responsibilities of each team member, what do we want to do this week, how will we see it, how will we check in? Set clear assignment deadlines and give regular progress updates. This will also guide productivity measurements.
  • Set realistic goals — Both employers and employees need to stay realistic to avoid inappropriately high levels of stress or burnout. Research shows that remote workers tend to work longer, while managers may have unrealistic expectations. This is where consistent communication and clarifying availability helps.
  • Share fun — Have a random Slack / MS Teams / WhatsApp channel for chat, gifs and memes. We need a laugh once in a while, no matter where we are. This seems simple, but will often increase motivation and a sense of community.
  • Remote learning — Online learning has been on the rise for a while. It will gain even more importance when remote work is done over a longer period. Consider this when developing your learning strategies. More on this coming soon.

So, what are the benefits of working from home for employees and organizations?

  • Productivity: A common fear by managers is that employees will be less productive. However, studies show that remote workers are as productive if not more so than office workers. The notion of instant availability at the office often turns into interruptions and distractions from coworkers.
  • Happiness & flexibility: Studies show that employees are more productive but also more satisfied and happier if they are given the opportunity to work remotely. Organizations that enable remote working thus have a clear competitive advantage. 
  • Cost savings & global talent: In addition to cost savings due to reduced travel expenses, this offers organizations the opportunity to bring together the best employees regardless of location and time zone in a virtual team.

It’s a luxury if your industry can implement WFH/RW (Work From Home/Remote Work), as opposed to service workers like in retail, construction, hotels or child care. So while the zombie apocalypse may not quite be here yet, the current situation is a great case study to create and test guidelines, safely bridge the Coronavirus season, and possibly even hire remote talent or offer the option as a (part-time) perk.

 

Interesting resources:

A number of guides from big companies: https://remoters.net/7-remote-work-guidelines-learnings-from-top-distributed-companies/
Good guide: https://www.paymoapp.com/blog/working-remotely/
Team building ideas: https://miro.com/blog/remote-team-building-activities-games/
Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/abdullahimuhammed/2018/11/13/7-unspoken-rules-of-remote-work-etiquette-that-you-must-live-by/#58a2103145ce
Trello: https://blog.trello.com/6-mistakes-when-you-work-in-office-but-have-remote-team-members
Trello guide: https://blog.trello.com/remote-work-team-success-guide

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Dr. Barbara Covarrubias Venegas

Barbara is a senior researcher and lecturer at different universities in Austria and abroad and Visiting Professor at the University of Valencia/Spain. Her research and training focus includes New Ways of Working, Flexible Organizations, Organizational Culture and Digital Leadership. These topics also form the focus in her keynotes, workshops and coaching activities. Read more

Kadidja Naief

Kadidja is a digital marketing manager and leadership project coordinator. She has experience in journalism, content management and web design, and has supported companies in both online and print media projects from conception to realization. Read more

Dr. Barbara Covarrubias Venegas

Barbara is a senior researcher and lecturer at different universities in Austria and abroad and Visiting Professor at the University of Valencia/Spain. Her research and training focus includes New Ways of Working, Flexible Organizations, Organizational Culture and Digital Leadership. These topics also form the focus in her keynotes, workshops and coaching activities. Read more

Kadidja Naief

Kadidja is a digital marketing manager and leadership project coordinator. She has experience in journalism, content management and web design, and has supported companies in both online and print media projects from conception to realization. Read more

 

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1 Comment

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