Companies are scrambling to establish work from home telecommuting policies in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus. The immediate priorities are the technical prerequisites necessary to get workers connected remotely. The larger challenge is harder to quantify: how to develop and maintain productivity in a virtual work space.
Establishing an effective work environment is critical when working from home. This applies to the physical space, technology, and work habits. The key to a productive home office that balances work & family life is the development of an isolation strategy.
Set up your virtual office in an area isolated from the distraction of everyday home life. While it is tempting to just set up at the kitchen table or living room, consider the potential activity and distractions around you:
- Do you have pets or children at home that expect attention?
- Will the presence of a TV in the same room distract you?
- What kind of noises are present that could be heard during business calls?
A spare room designated as an office space is ideal. If that is not possible, consider how you can use furniture or room dividers to carve a dedicated office area out of existing space.
Large companies understand the productivity value of quality equipment and services, such as:
- Dual monitors,
- Ergonomic desks and chairs designed for 8 hours or more of continuous use,
- High speed internet,
- VPN connections for security,
- Quality desk phones or teleconferencing software,
- Access to software tools necessary for the job.
These are vital to eliminating roadblocks to productivity, and are equally important in the home office.
It is tempting to think that working from home is a temporary measure that can be done without all the office resources. This may be true for only a day or two, but for weeks or more the efficiency impact will be significant.
As a telecommuter, you should watch out for warning signs: if fatigue or stress over the working conditions, environment, or lack of resources are felt at the end of the first day it is imperative to resolve those issues.
Make it known immediately if you need equipment or software to do your job as effectively as you can in the office. This ultimately helps both you and the company in the long-term.
BALANCE WORK & HOME ROUTINE
Recent studies show that 53% of telecommuters work beyond 40 hours per week, compared to only 28% for those working in a physical office.
Telecommuters often cite a sense of guilt that drives them to exceed their normal hours to show they are getting work done. This often leads to the boundaries between work time and personal time being blurred, and results in employees feeling compelled to check in or work throughout the entire day.
Much like the physical space, remote workers need to set up stringent boundaries to ensure a separation of work and personal life. In practical application, this means:
- Only work during defined business hours.
- Follow company break and meal times.
- If not an “on call” position, do not check email or answer calls after hours.
- Let calls go to voicemail: you can always check to see if it is an emergency.
- Non-emergency calls should be handled during business hours.
- Establish a short routine to follow immediately before and after work hours. Think of this as “virtual commute” time that takes place of that drive to and from work. Take a walk, go to the gym, read a book, work on a hobby.
ESTABLISH VIRTUAL WORK SPACE EXPECTATIONS
After the remote work environment is well-defined the next step is to identify virtual work space expectations, interfaces, and norms. Topics to clarify include:
- Publish a remote work schedule so managers, coworkers, and clients know when you are available.
- Define how different methods of communications are to used. For example:
- Voice calls: Quick answers, introductions, and clarifying detail.
- Email: Formal communications where a record may be needed later.
- Text/IM: Non-critical and informal that be answered as schedule permits.
- Outline what the expected response time is for each type of communication. For example:
- Voice calls: Immediate response for emergency calls. As soon as possible during business hours for all others.
- Email: Within 8 hours.
- Text/IM: Within 2 hours.
- Create an escalation process to ensure there is a path to other resources when the remote employee cannot be reached.
Side-band communications are the hallway, coffee machine, water cooler, and fly-by conversations between coworkers who do not normally work together. On the surface many of these seem to be irrelevant to business. However, this is often were new ideas are raised, consensus is built outside of formal meetings, terminology is clarified, and topics introduced to co-workers outside the immediate team or reporting structure.
It is very important to not just replicate formal teams and meetings, but to also foster a culture of effective side-band communication in a virtual environment.
This is a task that ultimately falls on individuals, and requires stepping outside of the comfort zone to initiate conversations and connections via other means. A few ways to approach this are:
- Use team-based IM or communication tools as a “virtual water cooler” to initiate informal conversations.
- Start the work day by broadcasting a message to the same people you’d normally talk to on a daily basis. This is particularly important for those outside your immediate team, and is a great way to initiate side conversations.
- Broadcast when you are logging off at the end of the day. While not necessary at in the office, this goes a long way toward establishing a regular presence.
- Share some office-friendly humor, raise topic of interest, or share a tip your coworkers might appreciate.
Remote employees must work harder to establish their presence during meetings. Passive participation (e.g. minimal contributions, listening on mute while answering emails, and doing other work) is a habit born out of the physical work environment. It’s acceptable because the passive participants are regularly seen, and interacted with, in person.
However, it extremely detrimental to telecommuters who have little to no physical presence. Use each meeting as an opportunity to be seen and heard. This means:
- Speak up and comment regularly during meetings.
- Use video conferencing whenever possible so others will see you. Virtual engagement and interaction is necessary to maintain your own “personal brand” so your presence is well represented.
- When attending video-conference meetings, make sure you look the part:
- Dress like you are in the office.
- Make sure the background behind you is not distracting.
- Take steps to minimize distracting sounds such as appliances, pets, or TV’s.
- Use good lighting to ensure your face is clearly visible.
- Focus on follow-up and detail. As soon as possible after a meeting, make sure you email participants with detail or action items.
The coronavirus will continue to impact how we interact socially and in a business context, and may have lasting impact on policy in the future.
It is entirely possible that many “temporary” work-from-home positions become permanent telecommuting positions as companies realize the financial benefits of effective remote workers.
Opportunity is born out of adversity. While this is a difficult time of adjustment, it is a perfect time to thoughtfully consider what future interactions, policies, and norms may look like and start crafting that vision for the future today.