When I established my firm 30 years ago in Hong Kong, I started by working from home, fully expecting that clients would quickly begin to ask me where my office was. It did not happen, so two years later when I became a mom, I took full advantage of remote working technology to keep costs down and to balance my work and family life. After 27 years, I'm still working from home and so is my team. As millions of employees have been forced into home-working in less than optimal circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic, much has been written about the pluses and minuses of this "new" way of working. Issues such as isolation, motivation, productivity, trust and stress from looking after children and elderly relatives in crammed spaces with limited privacy are just some of the challenges. Many can't wait to get back to the office in hopes that it will help them regain some sense of normalcy. In April, an article in Bloomberg reported on a survey of U.S. employees that found that "about 45% of workers said they were burned out" from working from home. "America's always-on work culture has reached new heights," the Bloomberg article warned. "Whatever boundaries remained between work and life have almost entirely disappeared." On the other hand, for others, remote working during lockdowns has revealed a host of benefits, including a break from tiring commutes, freedom to set work schedules, improved ability to concentrate and be more productive, and better teamwork, to name a few. To be clear, lockdowns have forced extremely constrained conditions that do not reflect the reality of home working in normal times. Much of the media coverage of remote work as a widespread new phenomenon has given it a bad rap. Clearly, home or remote working is easier for some than others, and certain job categories are more naturally suited to it than others. Employees used to working in teams will inevitably find it more challenging, whereas researchers, writers, graphic artists, developers, for example, typically need isolated and quiet working environments to be most efficient. As it looks as though remote or home working is definitely here to stay for many and perhaps most, it is worth reflecting on this new way of operating. How can we create the optimal conditions for it to be both functionally effective and rewarding? Here are three key areas to consider when setting up a home or remote working environment to stay productive and healthy.
The physical environment
A number of critical health and safety considerations must be examined and should follow good practices often stipulated by national regulators and professional health and safety bodies. The U.K., for instance, carries out inspections and must report breaches. If such standards are implemented in office blocks, why not give employees similar guidelines to follow in their homes? These guidelines should cover:
- Size of the home working space.
- Appropriate lighting.
- Noise levels/privacy.
- Working position and posture.
- IT network capability and security.
A number of apps and other tools are available to help employees and employers assess the home working environment and make the necessary adjustments. Ultimately, organizations that allow or even encourage employees to opt for a more permanent post-COVID-19 home-working option will see considerable savings on office rents and real estate assets. Passing on a portion of such savings to employees to enhance their home-working environment seems like a logical move. "The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past," the head of Barclays told the BBC, while Morgan Stanley's chief said the bank will have "much less real estate." Businessman Sir Martin Sorrell "said he'd rather invest the £35 million he spends on expensive offices in people instead." This investment could be in the form of allowances to purchase ergonomic office furniture and desktop monitors, for example, allowing employees to rent slightly larger accommodations with separate office space or even contributing to a monthly shared working space subscription fee.
Work structure and organization
This is a complex topic with many facets, so let's consider a few.
Working hours Developing an optimal working structure and organization depends on employees' ability to work within commonly accepted working hour boundaries. For many, working from home implies the freedom to go for a run anytime of the day and pick up work in the evening. While this sounds nice in theory, it is not always practical nor advisable when working in a team bound by certain delivery targets. Employees with children are typically dependent on school schedules and will be more restricted. A pragmatic approach suggests to abide by the normal daytime office hours so that team members are reachable and family and social down-time are manageable. The chosen method should be agreed on by employer and individual employees, taking into account job type, family situations, etc., while building in a degree of flexibility.
Recognizing your own internal body clock Another critical factor of successful home working is to recognize your own body clock, i.e., when are we most creative during the day? When is the best time to engage and make calls or carry out administrative tasks? "Most people's body clocks are timed so they hit the sack at about 11 p.m. and rise at 7 a.m.," says Associate Professor Mark Stokes at Deakin University, "but there are subtle variations from person to person that affect when you feel most alert and productive. Early chronotypes, or 'morning larks,' rise early and are most active in the morning, but feel sleepy late in the afternoon or early evening. At the other end of the spectrum, late chronotypes, or 'night owls', feel tired in the morning and awake in the evening." Are you a "morning lark" or a "night owl"? Recognizing our own rhythm helps in being productive, particularly in the less rigid conditions of home-working. Self-awareness is a good place to start.
Discipline and time management When working from home or remotely and consequently alone, the key challenge for most is discipline and time management. Some individuals are naturally self-starters and thrive under structure and organization. Others motivation and output may be impacted by the lack of office structure, at least initially. To keep days structured, start at a fixed time (according to the working hours that have been agreed on), get dressed, plan each workday according to agenda entries and to-do lists, and set deadlines. Frequent contact, even virtually, with team members and colleagues will help retain structure and calibrate priorities daily. In the end, practice makes perfect.
Remote working skills
Finally, do we need specific skills to operate optimally from home or remote locations? Here are a few to consider:
Prioritizing skills. The ability to differentiate between urgency and importance and act accordingly. Being able to prioritize correlates to time management and the ability to deliver on deadline. When working along outside the office environment, the ability to prioritize becomes more critical.
Computer software skills. A wider range of computer skills may become prerequisites to employment in the growing remote working era.
Much like PowerPoint does not replace the presenter, remote working tools do not replace the actual communication skills needed to be effective.
Communication skills---especially virtual communication skills. Technology enables us to work and communicate remotely. With a plethora of tools available, from remote meeting and video conferencing platforms to communication apps, and so on, we are spoiled for choice. But much like PowerPoint does not replace the presenter, such tools do not replace the actual communication skills needed to be effective. They merely facilitate the ability to exchange virtually. Video calls via services like Zoom, WebEx and Teams, are far more tiring than face to face meetings and must be used sparingly and appropriately. These calls are partly so popular because, under lockdowns, the lack of socializing and physical contact has caused cravings for such visual and digital means of communicating. Under normal remote working conditions, however, phone calls, emails and of course face-to-face meetings, lunches with colleagues, all continue have their place in the mix. Yet virtual communication is replacing many face-to-face interactions, from team meetings to presentations, webinars, workshops and news interviews. These changes require both presenters and attendees to adapt their skills. For example, a live, online, interactive workshop requires participants to turn on their cameras and be there. Lighting, eye contact, etiquette, dress, posture must be adjusted to virtual, on-screen communication to foster meaningful exchanges. This shift does not come naturally and requires training.
Remote leadership skills. According to Wayne Turmel, co-founder of the Remote Leadership Institute, there are five key skills leaders need in remote work environments:
- The ability to understand team dynamics
- The ability to interpret direction from on high and create a common, coherent vision for the team
- Key communication skills such as listening, writing and oral communication or presenting effectively
- The ability to coach for both performance and long-term development.
If employees must learn to adapt and thrive under the new remote working conditions, so do employers, who must facilitate and support the transition as well as generate a culture of trust. The COVID-19 home-working situation has been an extreme experience for most---and not one that is sustainable. However, like all experiments, it has shown limitations and opportunities from which to create a better work-life balance for normal times. A good place to start is to assess what we've learned and fine-tune going forward.
Caroline Sapriel is the founder and managing partner of CS&A International, a global risk and crisis management consulting firm working with multinational clients across industry sectors in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, Europe, and the Americas. With over 25 years experience in risk and crisis management, she is recognized as a leader in her profession and acknowledged for her ability to provide customized, results-driven counsel and training at the highest level. Caroline speaks on risk and crisis management at international conferences regularly. She has published articles and co-authored two books as well as contributed the chapter on crisis management to IABC's Handbook of Organizational Communication. She has been a member of IABC since 1987 and has served on chapter boards in Hong Kong and Brussels as well as been a founding member of IABC's Ethics Committee. She has also spoken on crisis management and communication at several World and Regional Conferences. Caroline also lectures on crisis management at the University of Antwerp.