Working from home is great and productive for many but having to work at home during a period of crisis can be a very different proposition and present unique problems. There are of course also opportunities for those who can adapt quickly.
The current coronavirus crisis is bringing this to the fore but there are many other times, during transport issues or numerous other unavoidable crises, when working at home becomes necessary. In some of these situations, the company may be under financial pressure and the future uncertain but it’s often during those times that our instinct is to come together. Teams become more creative in solving problems and deploying solutions with great speed and efficiency. Reputations are built.
The challenge is to duplicate this heightened state while working separately at home. Different approaches need to be established quickly for
- Team relationships and motivations
- Sharing knowledge, experience and ideas
- Consensus building and decision making
- Maintaining trust and focusing on deliverable outcomes
Plus when working at home for a long period under any circumstance, a whole range of problems can be confronted, such as
- Limited access to information
- Finding an appropriate space to work
- Regular interruptions from family members (and pets)
- No time to wind down on the journey home
- Little social interaction
- Motivation and focus
- Constant distraction from notifications
- Changes to physical activity
- Different expectations from management
Let’s tackle each of these in turn and highlight considerations for crisis situations.
1. Limited access to information
Due to data protection and security, it’s quite likely that information easy to access in the office, won’t be so easily accessible at home. Existing remote workers may have VPN with secure connectivity to office systems, but this may take time to establish for new home workers, even if the problems only relate to lack of hardware or permissions. One way around it could be to use a buddy system. Those still in the office could set aside time to review information and send advice based on the data available there. If it comes to a point when no one is at the office, it may be that companies need to set up key workers to act as knowledge and data brokers.
In a crisis
Timely access to information is a vital safety net that protects the quality of decision making. The need for speed can lead to gut reaction, so maintaining access is vital.
IT will be under even more pressure to provide upgraded connections and may also be asked to re-evaluate risk factors. This can lead to conflict and the start of the blame game that becomes a downward spiral. Communication is therefore key and good people skills are increasingly important. The upside to buddying systems is the increase in collective working and trust.
2. Finding an appropriate space to work
Working on the sofa is fine for a day or two, but any longer and people can start to experience physical discomfort. It can also highlight the difference between office and home workers and can be detrimental to team dynamics. To minimise the problem, it’s important that home workers are encouraged to create a clear space to work easily and effectively. Finding space for a second screen and laying out documents as in the office will help, particularly in keeping as professional as possible an image to colleagues if video conferencing is used.
In a crisis
Creativity and teamwork are essential but can put pressure on the home worker. Replicating the office helps to reduce the stress of a strange working environment. Where possible, providing extra screens, PC accessories, even tables and chairs if space allows, can be a good plan. Funding increased broadband access to allow ‘always on’ video links etc, can make a real difference.
3. Regular interruptions from family members (and pets)
For temporary homeworkers this is often unavoidable. Partners and children may need to walk past or even be in the same room making it very difficult to focus and frustrating for the homeworker – and their family. It’s important to encourage employees to set clear expectations that even though they’re at home, they’re still working. Just as it is for employers and managers to set clear expectations on when homeworkers will not be available. Expectations must also be realistic. A two-year-old can’t be expected to understand, and pets will do what pets do. So it’s important to establish an etiquette. It may be agreed that older children say hello to everyone then go back to what they were doing, and pets can sit on owners’ laps. All this helps to build mutual respect and trust, not only with the employee but also their family and friends, leading to deeper relationships when employees return to work.
In a crisis
With careful management working at home can add a sense of reality to discussions and decisions, especially on customer and employee related issues. The ability to see things from a different perspective can be to everyone’s benefit.
4. No time to wind down on the journey home
For many people, the journey to and from the office is the time to switch into and out of work mode. It might be valuable me time to listen to podcasts or music, catch up on emails, enjoy the silence, sleep or read a book. But working at home requires a sudden switch between work and home mode and this can be challenging. Employees should be encouraged to take an hour to decompress at the end of the day, consider going out for a walk or even go for a drive to wind down.
In a crisis
Many may start to suffer quite quickly from fatigue or burn out. Concentration reduces and mistakes can be made. Working at home can exasperate the problem with the added effect of re-bound reactions from family and friends. Good managers should be able to pick up the signs but if this is not their core skill, or the employee is new to them, help should be sought from others.
5. Little social interaction
Having a day at home gives a break from the noise of the office. But those at home for more than a few days can quickly begin to feel isolated with no opportunity for casual conversations with colleagues. To help the feeling of connection, consider introducing a quick team video conference at the start and end of each day. Some will even keep a video conference room open, even though nobody is talking, just to feel ‘in the same room’. If instant messaging is used, creating a casual chat channel and setting aside some time each day to interact about non-work issues can also help to replicate some of the social interaction that happens in the office.
In a crisis
Socialising opinions and sharing ideas is vital and contributes to the feeling of energy and commitment. Imposed home working can be a problem in this regard so every effort must be made to mimic working relationships. Understanding different personalities is crucial. Giving reflective employees time is easy but collaborative thinkers also need support, just as it would be in an office environment. People orientated employees will continue to need ongoing interaction with others to be effective.
6. Motivation and focus
Some people are highly motivated in the office, but struggle to motivate themselves when working at home. Employees and managers need to spend time thinking consciously about the things that can help and hinder productivity. Some work best when there is a deadline.
Consider scheduling tasks so that everyone can see what’s being done at any given point in a day. Others are motivated by discussing work with colleagues. Think about using an AGILE type approach with a quick ‘stand-up’ video conference at the start, and possibly at the end of each day, to help accountability.
In a crisis
Motivations can take on new dimensions and drive some managers to be more dictatorial. In the normal office environment this may be recognised and accepted or diffused by a supportive word from a colleague. Temporary homeworkers can easily miss the signals, so problems develop without a third party seeing what has happened and intervening. It can be difficult to do but it may be necessary for everyone to recognise their emotional overload and take time before reacting. Even asking someone to read emails before they’re sent in these circumstances can be helpful to avoid any misunderstanding. Once again sharing and buddying can help.
7. Constant distraction from notifications
Instant messaging tools such as Slack can be a great way to keep in touch when working at home but can also turn into a nightmare of distraction, with constant noise preventing focus. It’s important to set clear expectations on the extent to which they are used. Individuals need to be empowered to turn these tools off for periods of the day to help concentration.
In a crisis
Increased collaboration can be a very positive attribute, but office-based employees will be used to the dynamic of face to face group discussion. The pace, tone and other human group dynamics can be transferred to the chat room world more easily with clear direction on its use.
8. Changes to physical activity
We know that physical activity is not only good for our body but can also have a positive impact on mental health. Walking to and from and around the office gives us a good amount of activity during the day, and a chance for our subconscious to process information. Even just standing up can increase the flow of oxygen to the brain by 20%, making it easier to focus for the next hour. When suddenly working at home, it’s likely that there’s not so much moving around so it’s important to create time in the day to go outside and move. It may help to schedule breaks in everyone’s calendar, just as for any other meeting or task, so people get up, re-oxygenate their blood and stretch muscles.
In a crisis
Adrenaline is a friend and an enemy so physical activity is important. Some may need permission to walk the dog, collect the children or just go for a walk which can make all the difference.
9. Different expectations on management
Office based managers are used to having people around them that they can see and interact with. If employees suddenly have to work at home, managers can struggle to believe that their team is being productive and feel less able to influence output. Setting clear expectations that reflect the new working environment is vital and is probably best achieved through a collaborative process, recognising the individual circumstances of every team member. Unlike full time remote working, people haven’t evaluated their home and circumstances as suitable or otherwise, so different levels of achievable output may be seen. The feasibility of a daily video conference or phone call, time taken to respond to emails etc will vary. Establishing trust is essential for any effective working relationship but it may be necessary for people to find new ways of building confidence in each other in changed circumstances.
In a crisis
Depending on the severity of the crisis many may fear for their job or the introduction of permanent remote working. This can produce unusual behaviour patterns without familiar face to face support or reassurance. Individuals may also have access to a constant update via news feeds, blogs and messaging from colleagues that can be misleading, so it’s important for the company and managers to step up efforts to keep temporary home workers accurately up to date.
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A huge thank you to our guest panelist Jonathan Cann for generously sharing his experience for this podcast.
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