When the pandemic sent everyone home to work for the foreseeable future, little changed for those already accustomed to working from home. Many of these individuals have had years to perfect their work environment: a home office, the right technology, a set routine, and limits on how much work can bleed into their personal lives. However, for most full-time employees accustomed to commuting to an office, the transition may have been rocky.
The impromptu hallway discussions and watercooler conversations that are a mainstay of office life are gone, replaced by Slack, email, text, instant messages, and too many other channels to count. People are communicating more frequently and expecting immediate responses, but the natural flow of in-office communication has evolved into 30-minute blocks on our calendars. Everyone is experiencing cognitive overload: How do I prioritize? What’s most important? Whose message do I reply to next?
That said, most companies and their employees have adjusted to the changes: The “new normal” is simply “normal” now. After a period of encountering technology challenges and spinning up new processes that take distance into account, the majority of businesses are humming along.
But what if your company is not one of them? What if you’re stuck in neutral — or even in reverse? Are you doomed to fail this WFH experiment?
If remote work is not working for your company, then it’s worth examining possible underlying problems.
Are You Listening to Your People?
The current forced WFH situation can be — and often is — overwhelming. Employees need a “safe space” to communicate their needs. Consequently, leaders need to take time to listen to employees and practice more empathy. Little gestures like asking, “Is this a good time to have this discussion?” or, “Should we take a five-minute bio break?” go a long way toward building trust and gaining the respect of your employees.
Above all, reach out proactively and regularly to get feedback. If you’ve already built trust among your employees, you can do this through a group Slack or quick check-ins. If not, or if there are privacy issues involved, obtain feedback anonymously. For instance, Google Forms makes this easy.
And don’t just collect the information only to let it die in your office. Make sure the results are visible to the C-suite. It’s important that everyone in the company from top to bottom is aligned.
Is Your Messaging Messy?
While your uber-extroverted sales team went remote and may have felt initially disconnected without structure, your introverted engineers embraced their new working environment. As time went on, though, your salespeople may have found myriad ways to recreate the office camaraderie they crave, while your engineers might now want the overwhelming number of IMs, texts, Slack messages, and video meetings to stop.
Without synchronized priorities or well-coordinated cross-functional efforts, employees have been bombarded with multiple — and at times, conflicting — messages about, well, everything. A total productivity destroyer.
The solution? Create one “North Star,” one strategic message to get the entire company behind. Then do the same for each team, business unit, or functional area of the organization. Make sure the highest-ranking executive of that group sets the week’s priorities and communicates them to relevant employees. Also consider a weekly video message from the CEO to all employees explaining the objectives for the upcoming week. Then on Friday, send out a wrap-up message that highlights the week’s accomplishments, maybe mentioning one or two employees who had a big success or impact.
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Another fantastic way to deal with the cognitive overload and to reduce the noise for everyone is to set aside a weekly, companywide designated “no meeting day” or “productivity day.” Everyone gets a break from the one-offs that kill productivity.
Meanwhile, using 15-minute windows for quick discussion instead of the traditional 30-minute or one-hour meeting times can make a big productivity difference.. Even better, create guidelines around what requires a meeting and what can be resolved by other means of communication.
Is Accountability Absent?
Perhaps accountability in your organization is somewhat murky. If so, there are multiple ways to improve it to yield productivity. Here are some best practices that we found to work for our employees:
- Deploy a project tracker that’s easily accessible across functional silos
- Find an effective accountability tool (Slack can be a great agility tool, but it can also be part of the noise)
- Coach employees to put high-outcome activities on their calendar
- Create upstream accountability to help executives prioritize initiatives
- Improve downstream accountability by providing timely feedback and creating a single source of truth and knowledge that all employees can access
- Start building a culture of coaching
Are You Promoting Productive Boundaries?
When everyone’s working from home, it’s easy to have work bleed into personal time. Eventually, there’s no distinction and it all blends together. That’s not healthy, nor is it sustainable.
Consider setting a company policy that if an employee communicates after regular work hours, they preface or close the communication with a caveat that they don’t expect a correspondence until regular business hours. This is especially important for globally distributed teams. That way people are still productive with a sensible work-life balance!
Are You Prioritizing the Right Things?
It’s critical to encourage prioritization of initiatives instead of saying “yes” to everything. The only way to accomplish this is by clearly understanding your business’ goals and ensuring that every initiative fits these objectives. By tracking and measuring the outcome of each project, you can ensure that you’re focusing your time and energy efficiently and effectively.
If the suggestions above seem like they could just as easily apply to people in the physical workplace, that’s the point. Oftentimes, the obstacles to working successfully have little to do with where employees actually work. In other words, it’s not the remote part that you need to evaluate. It’s the work.