Remotely Possible – The New Normal

April 08, 2020 Share this article:

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For the first time in living memory, teams have been separated en masse and ordered to work from home. Setups differ considerably, from sophisticated home offices to sharing the dining room table with a partner and children doing homework.

How are we all managing? We asked some of our AltoPartners about what they’re doing to stay connected as we all do our bit to break the circuit of COVID-19.

Will it change the way we work?

Partners were cautiously optimistic about the impact of lockdowns on changing mindsets around whether we can be trusted to work without Big Brother peering over our collective shoulders. Giving individuals a choice to work from home will have a positive impact on the planet and people, with scores of employees expressing unbridled relief at being spared their daily commute. This supports a remote work report by Zapier conducted in November last year, as the virus was incubating, that found that of 880 US-based knowledge workers, 74% would quit if they could find an equivalent work from home position.

Prior to the pandemic, working from home was considered a privilege that came with skill and status, but with the proviso that you were on your own: own internet access, own equipment, printer, ink cartridges and software. Now, companies have to take responsibility for everyone’s home office unless they have been placed on leave, including finding laptops for admin employees who may not have their own and ensuring equal access to connectivity and uniform levels of cybersecurity.

Better for men than for women?

There are some important caveats, though. Working from home during a lockdown, with schools closed and none of the usual support systems available, such as meal deliveries, laundromats, daycare, childminders, dog walkers and cleaners, has increased women’s workload by as much as 300% according to some sources. Arguments over domestic chores and child care have seen many women turn to social media to express their fury at being expected to hold down their job and still do all of the cognitive heavy-lifting around the house. This includes meal planning, liaising with teachers, organising virtual playdates, keeping children quiet so daddy can work, and checking in with elderly relatives.

Most women agree though that until you have dads swopping study notes on a chat group, it is not a level playing field. Women who work full time are justifiably annoyed at hearing the men in their lives offering ‘to help out’, as opposed to taking ownership of tasks. As Eve Rodsky writes in Harper’s Bazaar, we’ll know we’ve got it right when we seem more of these types of auto-responses: Amid the coronavirus crisis, my husband and I are sharing childcare responsibilities. Please pardon delays in my replies and outside business hour emails. I will be online, working 6-11 am ET and 6-9 pm ET.

Checking-in vs checking-up

Partners were unanimous about the importance of structured check-ins with their teams, as was agreeing on a defined start and stop point unless you’re battling a deadline. Regular check-ins are essential to keeping the secret sauce of collaboration on the boil, but random check-ins are distressing and demotivating, especially if there are children involved. Leaders need to establish clear areas of responsibility and deadlines, and check-ins need to be just that and not a check-up. Texting employees to ask “what are you doing now” is tantamount to harassment. The message was clear: agree on tasks, milestones and deadlines, assure team members you’re there if they have any questions, and leave them to it.

Spend longer unpacking what success looks like

In the absence of being able to check across a desk, it’s important to clarify expectations. And the best time to ask is when the tasks get divvied up. Be very clear about the scope of work – what exactly do you expect (be super precise), and by when. Agree on milestones (a first draft by a specific date), and sequential steps that need to be followed (who needs to give input, and who needs to sign off) before a task is considered complete. Explicit ground rules are also essential. If you’re working odd hours to fit in with homework and childcare, be sure to communicate that to your colleagues so that people know when they can expect to get feedback and input from you.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Leaders play a special role in reducing anxiety during times of uncertainty and fear. They have the ideal platform and mandate to model empathetic behaviour, set the tone, demystify the situation, squash rumours and fake news, dictate the mood and boost morale. For this reason, experts recommend that leaders communicate with their teams at least every other working day in times of stress and crisis. It’s important to remember that in the absence of the daily context provided by physical interaction, feedback takes on much greater importance. Make a point of acknowledging emails and texts, even if it’s a thumbs up, or a one-liner such as ‘go ahead’.

AltoPartner’s top ten tips for engaging remotely with teams:

1. Get up, and show up: start every working day with a video call (all cameras on) and establish tasks for the day so that everyone knows who is doing what. This helps team members to structure their day too.

2. Keep it brief: stay focused and discourage multi-tasking and side chats. Attention spans on video calls are significantly reduced, and interventions that go on longer than five minutes overwhelm the listener. If it’s a long working session, schedule frequent breaks.

3. Mix it up: supplement daily round-robins with one-on-one calls to clarify project-specific progress. Establish project-specific WhatsApp groups for more informal, synchronous chats where the context is clear and immediate responses are essential.

4. Set boundaries: the great bonus of this time is the unparalleled productivity it affords us. Not everyone is watching Netflix or cleaning the garage, so best not to assume that colleagues will welcome an interruption for the sake of it.

5. Create clear protocols and expectations for being present: share upfront when one is unavailable, and be sure that there are clear daily deliverables. Ask team members to self-report rather than check-up continuously.

6. Feel the love: support your culture and celebrate good news, wins and accomplishments. Chit-chat is perfectly OK and fun is good—they build empathy and strengthen relationships, making it easier to engage on work topics and negotiate conflict with colleagues. Take a group Skype coffee break or schedule a virtual lunch table. An App such as House Party is ideal for light-hearted birthday celebrations and to toast work achievements. If your office thrives on banter and camaraderie, establish a “watercooler” group, for jokes, photos and banter.

7. Maintain clarity of purpose: online weekly staff meetings ensure that you do not only talk to a select group of colleagues. This is an opportunity to explain policy decisions and get feedback from all team members and to check in with employees who may need help and support with other projects.

8. Transparency: talk openly about business concerns and fears. This is a difficult time for everyone and creating a safe space for team members to be honest about the newness of the situation helps people to feel connected. Honesty is also conducive to laughter, which keeps us all sane.

9. Keep a formal record: Ensure that you capture and note everything that is being deferred or postponed so that it’s easy to pick it up again when it is safe to do so.

10. Model the right behaviour: For leaders, this is the time to model the behaviour that supports your organisational values. If you profess to care about mental health, don’t sweep cries for help under the carpet. Likewise, if levelling the playing field to ensure gender diversity is important to you, then engage with the women on your team to make working from home during lockdown viable.

With thanks to the following AltoPartners for sharing their expertise and experience as follows: Marco Arcaini AltoPartners Germany; Sonal Agrawal Accord India / AltoPartners India; Ricardo Bäcker Backer & Partners / AltoPartners Argentina; Matthias Bruchner AltoPartners Germany; Jean-Philippe Saint-Geours & Natalie Deroche Leaders Trust / AltoPartners France; Lindsay Gordon Koya Leadership Partners / AltoPartners USA; Corinne Klajda Accord Group Polska / AltoPartners Poland ; David Löfvendah Novare / AltoPartners Sweden; Johan Stierncreutz Fairchild / AltoPartners Finland ; Julia Zdrahal-Urbanek, Caroline Rofe-Woess and Verena Arcebi AltoPartners in Austria