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How to thrive - not just survive - working remotely

Right now, over a third of the world’s population is being forced to stay at home whilst COVID-19 rampages through our lives. That’s over 2.5bn people. A huge proportion of the UK’s 32.5m workforce has been catapulted overnight into a new world of enforced remote working, where the demarcation between work and family life has been thrown out of the window.

In short, the rules of working have been ripped up and no one has issued an instruction manual.

For the last 18 years I have worked remotely. I launched 2to3days in 2015 and our entire team works remotely and flexibly from their homes – and it works. In fact, it’s bloody brilliant. 

This week we ran a webinar on ‘How to Thrive Remotely’ with three amazing panellists. Jo Geraghty is the founder of Culture Consultancy and co-author of the book, Building a Culture of Innovation, Catherine Murphy is the One Firm Talent Lead at PwC, and Annie Auerbach is co-founder of Starling, a cultural insight agency, and author of FLEX: The Modern Woman’s Handbook.

Our aim is to give you practical top tips that you can implement straight away to help navigate today’s surreal world. The aim is not just to survive the remote working forced upon us by coronavirus, but to thrive through it – to grow as a leader and strengthen your company culture and team morale.

Circadian rhythms and structuring your day and your week

The regular commute imposed structure and limitations on our day - now that we no longer need to do so, as Annie Auerbach observed, everyone packed on to public transport, or piled on to the roads at the same times feels slightly absurd.

Freed from these constraints, take a moment to reflect for yourself, and encourage your team to do the same: are you up with larks or dancing with the owls? When are you and your teams available to work? If family and other commitments allow, now is a chance for you to work at a time that suits you.

One of the main issues PwC sees when people work remotely, is that people do too much work, not less. So ensure that people have clear working schedules; leaders and managers can really lead the way on this, and support people by checking in regularly to ensure they’re not working too much. A simple way to help people manage their time is to encourage everyone to block out working hours in your diary - working around your family commitments for homeschooling etc.

And if you can, think about how to make the most of the extra time in your day that comes from not having to commute.

Staying healthy

With the extra time gained from not commuting, and the current government-approved outdoor exercise slot, ensure people are creating space in their day to exercise. PwC recommends that people block out this time in their diaries. For the lucky ones who have outside space at home, you can also get creative to add in more movement – be that an online workout, borrowing your children’s skipping rope, or setting yourself a challenge. 

Without their normal routines, people may be tempted to work late into the evening and forget about the importance of a good sleep routine. We all need to remember the key to good sleep is to go to bed and get up at the same time each day, to eat and exercise regularly, and to have no screen activity for at least an hour before lights out and instead do something relaxing. I can recommend a great book on overcoming sleep problems – Tired but Wired by Dr Nerina Ramlakhan.

Communication and support

So many problems arise due to a misunderstanding, or general all-round poor communication. When you add to the mix the fact that 90% of all communication is nonverbal and we are now being forced to work remotely, it is critical to our wellbeing and the performance of our teams that we create even more opportunities to communicate well. This will also help ensure that those who are feeling isolated will be identified and well supported.

  1. Book in regular team meetings and one-to-ones, not only to catch up on what everyone is working on, but to take the emotional pulse of your team. As we navigate through COVID-19 people’s moods and productivity will fluctuate; a happy team member yesterday may be feeling wobbly today. You can then find the time to have a one-to-one meeting and work out the support they need. Often, being listened to may be all they need. 

  2. Set realistic expectations and communicate them regularly – the corona-factor may well mean that the quantity or pace of work is not as great as it was BC (before coronavirus). 

  3. Create the virtual water cooler moments – such as taking a digital coffee break with your colleagues, or having a regular, more informal gathering to natter and catch up. Use WhatsApp groups or apps like Slack for work chat as well as fun.

  4. Keep up those fun team events where you can - PwC have started a virtual choir. The 250-strong choir have moved their efforts online and ‘meet up’ regularly to sing together with one person playing the piano. There are also lots of virtual team quizzes going on so be creative to find ways of keeping team spirits up. 

  5. Celebrate the successes regularly and share them with your team – don’t assume that everyone knows what is going on.

Technology

Getting your essential tech set up, with clear guidance around how to use it, is key to success with remote working, as this will be the basis for most of your contact with your team.

The video camera and microphone on your computer will play a leading role in the success of remote working, so it’s important to ensure everyone is clear and comfortable on how to use it all.

  1. Encourage everyone to put their cameras on - there can be some natural reticence, but it really is essential that everyone is on a level playing field and able to give and receive the same non-verbal information. PwC recommends calling out the people who don’t have their cameras on. 

  2. Check your camera set up to ensure people aren’t just looking at the top of your head or up your nostrils, and that they can actually see you i.e. your camera isn’t facing a window effectively casting you into darkness. It’s also worth checking what your audience will see of the room behind you and ensure you feel comfortable with the set up.

  3. Give guidance on when people should be on mute - bigger meetings may require everyone to be on mute so that the level of background noise doesn’t distract, but even during smaller meetings, if people have lots of noise in the background, muting your microphone can help the smooth running of the meeting.

  4. Headphones can help you to hear more clearly, particularly if there is a noisy backdrop to your working area.

  5. It is also worth remembering that people can appear to have ‘dropped out’ of the meeting but may still be able to hear what is being said, so ensure that all conversations during the video conference are appropriate to ALL the participants.

Authentic Leadership – the Golden Thread of Trust

All these suggestions will fall apart if they are not threaded together with a culture of trust. Behaving like Big Brother is a sure-fire way to kindle mutinous resentment. Creating a culture of trust starts from the top, and the example you set. 

Jo Geraghty explains that empowering your team is key here - ask them how they would like to work so that you can enable them to deliver their best work within an agreed timescale. 

Focus on output and outcomes rather than inputs. Annie Auerbach highlights the need to recognise that this is ‘business as unusual’ and that things will need to be done differently to when you were all in the office together. 

Create a culture of ‘calling it out’. This starts with you. Make it OK to say:

  • My children may be in the background

  • I want to go running at lunchtime

  • I prefer to work late at night/early in the morning

  • The postman is at the door

  • Corona factor – I am struggling at the moment … I would love some help…

All our panellists stressed the importance of leaders showing their vulnerability at this time - no-one has all the answers, things are messy as we move into this new era, and there will undoubtedly be teething pains. By being honest about these issues, everyone will feel more comfortable and supported.

We are all human and work is a fundamental and integral part of our lives – not something that runs along in a parallel universe. Integrating work and life puts people in more control of their lives, and hopefully leads to a happier workforce overall. Each and every one of us wants and needs to feel respected and valued. The power of remote working is that it supports these values to come to the fore so that we can all thrive – not just the few. And businesses may be very pleasantly surprised about the many benefits they see arising from this new normal.

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