In my piece, “Death of the Nine to Five – Working to Get the Balance Right”, I wrote about how it’s very common to hear nowadays how technology allows so much work-life balance flexibility. After all, we can work from home by logging into the company’s CRM remotely. We can hold meetings with clients over Skype and we use cloud-based technologies to allow for a frictionless workflow between employees who do not need to come to work in the same building anymore.
As a result, we might think that this would have fostered a dramatic decrease in the commuter traffic in the mornings, but we have witnessed nothing of the sort. According to Morgan McKinley's Working Hours Survey, 57% of people feel that the workplace is quieter outside of peak hours and are more productive at those times, even though 80% of those people are not compensated for that time over and above their contract. In essence, people want more flexibility over when they work, but are often hemmed into the “9 to 5” despite the fact that their employers have the tools and infrastructure to offer an alternative. It seems that there has been very little change on this matter over the recent years. What is changing, is the scale of business that is being conducted across international time zones. As this is increasing companies need to offer flexible working times and methods to support this growth.
However, it is in fact a delicate balance to strike, as employees fear that asking for remote working arrangements will signal a lack of dedication, while managers are unsure how to monitor employees and keep them accountable if the metric is not time spent at a designated office.
Here is a list of topics to broach for a productive conversation, so that both employees and managers are happy with the new-found arrangement.
Emphasising results as opposed to time logged
The metric of the traditional workplace was to arrive at a certain time and leave a number of hours afterwards. This no longer applies when working remotely. The question is how to ensure that this doesn't result in a sharp decline in productivity. Expectations about deadlines will need to be spelled out and made extremely clear if non-verbal cues for urgency, like the general buzz of the office or the mood of a manager, are not part of the landscape anymore. Both employee and manager will need to agree on a modus operandi that will no doubt include more formal communication, without going into micromanaging territory. The employee will need to state precisely what they are working on and when they expect to be finished. The manager will need to emphasise specific timeframes and highlight which other employee might be waiting on a specific deliverable before they can move forward. The water cooler conversations need to be moved online, for example to instant messaging platforms such as Slack, Google Hangouts or Atlassian’s HipChat.
Keeping everybody's eyes on the big-picture objectives
So much for the urgent, but the important also needs to remain centre stage. There needs to be a way to keep long-term goals to the fore, without them getting buried at the bottom of lengthy email exchanges. This will require thinking about managing people and their output differently whereby processes and systems ensure that objectives are met. Project management software will help oversee who is doing what, when, how long it takes them and to identify if there is needless overlap. There are many tools available for this, from a straightforward project board like Trello, or Teamwork, to a more complex management suite like Basecamp, or a company's own custom platforms. All of these methods and technologies offer a more collaborative way of working, that enables prioritising and efficiencies outside an email exchange.
Protect sensitive information
Employees working remotely need to be briefed on data security. Digital assets need to be protected. Security personnel will help to identify and mitigate risks to proprietary company assets including records, databases and sensitive information. If a team member is sitting in a coffee shop using open wi-fi, could a hacker gain access to their computer and obtain client details? If an employee brings a laptop out of the building with confidential information and the device gets robbed, can the thief log in? Are employees aware of specific chat etiquette, so that classified information doesn’t find its way on to the internal chat forum? After you identity the risks, you need to document standard operational practices, communicate them to your team and illustrate the importance of following them.
Taking the immaterial environment into account
Productivity is also a factor of working alongside others on the same projects. The sense of community within the environment will change. If more people are working outside of the office, to point out a simple fact, there will be fewer people in the office. This has a number of consequences. Those who enjoy being around and working with other people may not react well and this could have a considerable impact on their work experience. People who need a little external nudge might find themselves missing the structure of the office environment. Certain platforms offer a “random” chat channel, so that the more informal conversations that are a part of office life are not lost in the new online context. Observe how the sense of community in your office environment changes and how your personnel react. Talk to them about how this is affecting their experience in work, productivity and connection with others.
Finally, the door should remain open for any remote work arrangement to be discussed again, modified or abandoned. It is important that people should not feel locked into a system if it turns out that it is not working for them.