As a fan of steam trains, I’ve come to appreciate the fine balance of heat, water, and steam pressure that keeps the engine running smoothly. Too much or too little of any key input and the engine stops (or worse - explodes!). In today’s COVID-19 world, we are all facing a myriad of outside pressures - fear, uncertainty, illness - all while coping with new ways of working. As someone who has worked remotely for nearly 9 years, working at home is not new for me and yet in this time I’ve faced many changes and challenges too - and hope to provide some suggestions for making it through this difficult time for individuals and organizations. First, we must all accept this is NOT normal. Even for those where working remotely is the norm, having the entire world suddenly working remotely is not normal and will bring many new challenges. From relatively minor issues like network bandwidth limitations to significant challenges of dealing with a workforce that may be facing health issues, the world is not normal and we must all give each other grace and acceptance.
At an organizational level - we should trust our people are doing the best they can with what they know and have. Many of us are dealing with spouses and children at home, competing schedules, getting schoolwork completed, limited resources (where IS all of the toilet paper?!) and less than optimal “office” setups. Rather than focusing on hours in seats or how long someone’s chat status stays green, we should focus on outcomes and supporting each other in the critical tasks while letting other items wait. Right now is the time to work on the balance, flexibility, and innovation rather than adding more pressure to the system. Things an organization and leadership can do to support effective remote teams include: 1. Make sure your people have the tools and items they need to get the job done. Now is time to ask your people “what do you need” and do your best to provide it, or at the very least make sure they can access it. Maybe that means increasing coverage to enable hotspots from phones if bandwidth is an issue, maybe it’s making sure your team has headsets or other physical items they might not have at home, or maybe it’s just checking in and asking how things are going...but how leaders act during this time sets the tone.
2. Ensure there is a balance for people, especially if your workforce crosses multiple time zones. In traditional office settings, people are often able to take a break and have lunch, run errands and chat with coworkers in the coffee area, but when people are suddenly working at home, all of these become much more challenging. People may have to wait in line at the store for simple errands. Parents may have to help their kids attend a class online. Even making lunch takes on new challenges if food is scarce. Couple that with frequent meetings and everyone feels the pressure - and may rapidly get to the boiling point. Instead of forcing a typical 9-5 schedule, set some core times for teams to be online together and enable the rest of the day to flex according to an individual's need. This is particularly key across time zones, when it’s important to collaborate but not force people to be working too early or too late into the day locally.
From a personal level, working at home is not always easy. It blurs the lines of work and home life and makes it harder to have a personal balance which is so critical to a smooth working engine. Some tips I’ve learned over the years include:
1. Set a small list of daily goals. I tend to have my top three goals to accomplish each day. This way when schedules go haywire or something comes up, I can quickly refer to this and make sure I’ve met my highest priorities for the day. It also gives a sense of accomplishment to end the day with goals being met. 2. Take frequent breaks. It’s all too easy to get sucked into sitting (or standing if you are lucky to have a standing desk) at your computer for hours on end but it’s not healthy physically or mentally. It’s important to take time away from your screen, and if possible, get outside in your area or at the very least get to a different room and give your mind a rest. Real creativity requires time and space so make sure you are giving yourself both as best you can.
3. Take care of yourself physically and mentally. Make sure you are eating healthy meals and drinking enough water - and make sure to take time to eat away from your workspace. Exercise as best you are able. When we aren’t going from room to room for meetings or walking down the hall to see colleagues it can be all too easy to spend multiple hours sitting without moving, which is not healthy. While the occasional meal during a call or meeting may have to happen, it should not become the norm to spend every moment tied to your desk. And most importantly - wash your hands!
4. Create a work and home divide. This is important for everyone but especially for those not used to working at home. The blur between work and home can challenge our mental balance, and it can be easy to think “I’ll just answer one more email” and all of the sudden we’ve worked another hour or two. It’s important to do whatever it takes for us to ‘mentally commute’ each day and build that divide. For some it’s important to get dressed and make coffee the same as they did before. Others may feel the need to take a walk before and after the ‘workday’ perhaps during your normal commute time. I’ve learned I have to shut down my computer when I’ve finished for the day - there is something about switching my computer completely off that helps my mind switch off too. 5. Connect with others. One important thing I’ve learned over the years of working at home is that you have to really put in an effort to have deep connections with others. It can be lonely spending hours on video calls, not having those in person conversations and connections that make life exciting. Now is the time to reach out to friends and others and just connect. There doesn’t have to be an agenda or goal beyond just having an exchange of connections and ideas. It’s great if you can do this virtually face to face, but don’t make it feel like another work meeting. Maybe have a beverage and call it virtual coffee hour - but make sure you are staying connected in this new virtual world.
I hope these ideas help you to maintain the balance and keep your engine running smoothly, both personally and professionally. It took me several years of working remotely to figure out my balance and I’m finding it is changing day by day as new challenges emerge - such as trying to support distance learning for my kids! At the same time, I see the deep appreciation growing for our human connection that makes the world keep running like a well-oiled machine. Stay Healthy, Stay Safe. - Beth Hatter Director of Agile Training