How to stay virtually productive during COVID-19 and beyond
With so many employees now working from home, firms must ensure that their teams can actually use the collaboration tools that have long been at their disposal, while eliminating productivity-draining activities that distract staff members from their real jobs, writes Dermot Crowley.
The past couple of months has completely changed where, and how, we all work.
Most of us are no longer commuting into our crowded offices, vying for a good desk in our activity-based workplaces, or spending most of our days in tiny meeting rooms with our colleagues. Like it or not, our hand has been forced when it comes to working remotely. Many businesses talked about this before the pandemic, but they had not really equipped the workforce to work effectively from home. That is changing very quickly now.
However, many of us are struggling with how to work in this way productively. We are having to learn fast how to meet online, how to stay on top of the right priorities when we are out of our normal routines and environments, and how to stay focused with the distractions that working from home can bring. This is a big step for us, and a big step for the organisations for whom we work. But the silver lining here is that if we nail this, there will be much more scope for more flexible working after the pandemic has passed. And I believe that has to be a good thing for productivity.
For remote working to be an effective long-term strategy, a range of needs must be met, both for the individual and the firm.
One of the fears that leaders and managers in any firm would have when workers are remote is about how to ensure that they can rely on workers to do what is needed. In turn, workers need clear direction from management to keep them focused on doing the right work at the right time. These needs can be met when there is an accountability culture in place. This may require organisations to move away from more traditional command and control frameworks and really work on developing accountability frameworks that can work wherever people are located.
When the workforce is dispersed across not just different offices, but literally thousands of different homes, the organisation needs a way of making work visible. Without visibility, managers and workers are flying blind. For me, productive collaboration relies on bigger-picture initiatives such as projects being extremely visible to everyone. Many modern workplaces had already moved to using whiteboards and sticky notes to make this type of work visible, but that won’t work in this situation. Now we need to harness collaboration tools like Microsoft Planner, Teams, Jira or Asana to bring the work online and make it visible to each team member. Getting good at using this technology is now a basic need for productivity.
The basic aim of any productivity system should be to help people to achieve better results more easily. In our current situation, where many businesses are struggling to stay viable, results are more important than ever. There is no time to waste on wasting time on ‘busywork’. The good news is that, in my experience, most workers want to deliver great work, whether in the office or working from home. In turn, all they ask for is the ability to focus on the activities that will produce those results. At one level some might feel more able to focus now that they are removed from the distractions of the workplace. The risk is that the workplace distractions have been replaced by a new set of home distractions. Furthermore, the volume of face-to-face meetings has been replaced by less effective virtual ones. This needs to be managed and workers need to be upskilled in focusing strategies to help them navigate this new environment.
It occurred to me the other day that because of this crisis many teams have had to figuratively huddle even closer together, even though they are miles apart. Our organisations need to ensure there is a real sense of cohesion, and that teams can still work together as a connected unit. As individuals, the risk is that we feel isolated without the support structures we are used to having around us. We need to feel included, not lost in some far-flung outpost. Good leaders are focusing their attention on how to create a sense of connection in their teams.
We are not out of the woods yet, and can expect to be working this way for some time to come. It is a whole new world that requires new skills, mindsets and tools. But we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Most organisations already have the tools in place – we just need to learn to use them. The mindset shifts and skills development will come quickly if we just lean into the challenges we are faced with.
Good luck with your journey and stay safe.
Dermot Crowley is the director of Adapt Productivity, and the best-selling author of two books, Smart Work and Smart Teams.