During the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic many organisations are recommending – and some requiring – that their staff work from home. For some people, most notably information workers like developers (and journalists), remote working is something with which they may already be familiar.
But for many other workers and organisations, this current situation will be their first experience of remote working, thrust on them by events. And for most people -- even those who may have in the past worked from home from time-to-time -- this could become the longest period of time away from their office and the rest of their team they've had to contemplate.
"Even when organisations are able to utilise remote working policies, they will need to prepare employees who are unaccustomed to remote working to navigate the challenges involved," says Shainaz Firfiray, associate professor of Human Resource Management at Warwick Business School.
"This might include creating support networks comprising of more experienced remote workers who can help these employees make a successful transition to this new work structure."
There's plenty that both staff and managers can do to make this period of working from home a better experience for everyone involved. And to really understand how to work remotely most effectively, it's worth heeding the experience of people who've been doing it more regularly and for longer than most of us.
GitLab recently surveyed 3,000 knowledge workers who either worked remotely or had the option to work remotely. First, the good news. Most gave WFH an enthusiastic thumbs up: 90% said they would recommend home working to a friend, and 84% said they could accomplish all their tasks remotely -- and that their managers understood what it took to manage a team of teleworkers.
But they also acknowledged that there are significant downsides to telecommuting.
Knowing where the problems with working from home can occur means we can be better prepared to avoid them ourselves during this period of unexpected WFH. Here's a rundown of the biggest challenges they've identified, with a few ideas for how to dodge them.
Top of the list: nearly half (47%) mentioned the difficulty of managing at-home distractions. I would probably subdivide those further into interruptions and distractions.
Interruptions come from outside, like a knock at the door from a delivery driver asking you to take in a parcel for a neighbour. Other potential interruptions; family and pets and friends who fail to understand that just because you are at home, you are still working. Closed doors, do not disturb signs and noise-cancelling headphones all come in handy. More working from home tips here.
Distractions are slightly different. These are mostly the result of being in a different environment to the one which you are used to, and that means habits are disrupted and priorities get muddled.
In the office your priorities are (mostly) well defined – you're there to work. At home your priorities are different; having fun, cooking, eating, cleaning, watching TV – almost by definition everything not work related.
Bringing work into the home, especially if it's for the first time, especially now, confuses all of this. It also makes you think you can combine the two, which is why you'll try to wash the dishes while on a conference call (and yes, everyone will know). Here the solution is around building a new work routine so that focusing is easier. That's why every set of remote working tips talks about getting up and getting dressed, and attempting to work regular hours. If you can, work in a particular place in your home everyday so that becomes associated with concentration.
One in three home workers (35%) worried about collaborating with colleagues and clients. There are plenty of tools to keep distributed teams synchronised, from the basics of email through to Slack, Microsoft Teams and videoconferencing apps like Zoom.
But there is also a reason why there are so many of these tools: they all have weaknesses and none of them can capture the full richness of physical face-to-face human interaction. In particular, relying on text-only options like email is likely to make it harder to work together and to make misunderstanding much more likely. A hurriedly-written email or badly-phrased Slack comment can be easily misread and attempts at humour can easily fail badly, especially when people are on edge already.
Just as it's much better to walk over and talk to someone in the office, so it's much better to pick up a phone or do a quick video chat to get across a complicated or potentially controversial message.
Going from being in a busy office working environment to being alone is something else that can be a challenge; isolation and loneliness was mentioned by one in three (35%). Social distances and ongoing worries about cornonavirus are going to add to the pressure here.
SEE: How to work from home: IT pro's guidebook to telecommuting and remote work (TechRepublic)
Connectivity and routine can help with this, to an extent. While managers certainly have to beware of micro-managing and demanding an immediate response to queries, it's also important to remember the softer aspects of management and team work which are an intrinsic part of the face-to-face office environment. Again, reaching for the appropriate communications tool is going to help; individual video chats are going to be more time consuming for sure, and might turn into a bit of a slog if you are the boss, but will help workers feel less isolated.
Motivation (mentioned as a challenge by 29%) is easier for teams physically working together because you can see the effort they are putting in. Daily progress, not deadlines set months away, might make it easier for people to concentrate. Some tasks are – frankly – boring. If the work you are doing is boring and you can't see the end result or the broader goal of the team moving closer, then motivation is going to be a struggle, especially if they are worried about wider events.
Some staff working from home will struggle with motivation; others will struggle to switch off at all. Some of that may be down to the novelty of remote working: yes it is possible to check the sales data at 10pm, but really, shouldn't you be doing something else? Some of it will be down to the ongoing stress of the current situation. Again, a lack of routine won't help here; if you don't manage to focus during the day (see distractions, above) then you'll end up stretching out the working day due to guilt if nothing else. Managers have a role here in making sure that staff are encouraged to switch off at the appropriate time and to not accidentally stretch the working day themselves.
It's possible that this current crisis will also lead to long-term changes around how your team and your organisation arranges work from now on. Working remotely could become a much more regular situation. But it's worth remembering that this is uncharted territory for everyone - and it could go on for some time. Helping to manage this changing situation sensitively and kindly is the key.
ZDNET'S MONDAY MORNING OPENER:
The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.
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