Remote Work in Exceptional Times
Your Questions Answered
The move to remote work has been key to sourcing – and keeping – the best employees, navigating major economic cycles, and pivoting to transform organizations. Proximuto co-founder Cary Moretti lives and breathes this philosophy and helps organizations make remote work, work. Moretti and WorkTango’s co-founder, Rob Catalano, answer your questions about managing remote work during these exceptional times.
How do you work remotely when you need products shipped? We are a residential lighting distributor and have products to enter and ship.
Cary: In the case of Distribution Centers, Warehouses, and Drop/Direct Shipping from POS locations, it’s going to be about Social Distancing much more so than Remote. Very small operations will have it a bit easier because you can limit the physical space to 1 or 2 people. It’s critical to follow guidelines to avoid the spread of infection. This includes constant and regular disinfecting of the workspaces and packaging.
NIH has reported that SARS-CoV-2 persists on cardboard for 24 hours and up to 3 days on plastic and stainless steel. Wear gloves, use Bleach. Act like you’re already infected and you’ll see your existing workflow processes in an entirely new light.
I am working with clients that have created a sort of “DMZ” for transferring products/packages in and out of their DC. I’m not an infectious disease expert so I cannot provide best practices on that process but look closely at the healthcare industry and the precautions they take while working to get a better idea of how to protect yourself and your teams.
My organization is NOT set-up to work from home but we are doing it. Do you have a suggestion for a 5 minute video on how to start to manage their teams? We need a ``toolkit`` to help them. manager their teams
Cary: We are putting together a series of “5 in 5” sessions – 5 problems solved in 5 minutes and we’ll be posting those online asap through WorkTango, Proximuto, and LinkedIn. We expect the first to be available early next week.
Any tips as per how to find the right balance between efforts to maintain team dynamics and communication on the one hand, and not overwhelming employees with too much communication?
Cary: Given the rapid rate of change, the best advice is to over-communicate and then throttle back. Be conscious of teammates who are less social or not interacting – reach out to them individually to check in on them. Feelings of anxiety and stress are running high right now.
Similarly, be sure to set boundaries for yourself. If you are part of a “chatty” team and you find it distracting, review settings/preferences on your communication and collaboration tools so that you’re not constantly being notified. If you are not in a mission-critical role, consider “scheduling” your check-ins.
We are a large health care organization and obviously for that reason a significant percentage of our workforce (our amazing, AMAZING!!!! nurses, lab professionals, supply chain folks, etc. supporting the health care system right now) cannot work remotely. The current situation notwithstanding, there seems to be resistance to introducing remote work for those who can work remote, because others cannot. Do you have any insight on successful ``hybrid models``? Less from a logistical perspective, but more on how to do this without damaging culture or building an ``us versus them`` situation? I'm sure we're not alone in this. Thanks!
Cary: This is an issue we see often. There can be a perception that it is unfair to allow Remote for some workers and not others. Before current restrictions and the global move to Work From Home, many organizations chose to avoid potential conflict and enacted policies banning all Remote work. There are other approaches that can be successful. If perception is a big concern in your organization then break it down by role. Even a Nurse Practitioner has portions of their job that can be made Remote. Now is the right time to do this. Identify friction points in workflow and processes that can be solved by Remote and start there. Focus on roles that are NOT fully Remote and identify what you can do there. Eliminate paper (again, where possible) direct service providers, in particular, often have requirements where a practitioner is both required to be with patients AND come to an office to process/deliver paperwork.
Look closely at devices. There may be staff that have laptops that can be made more effective if they also have tablets or phones. This is often made very clear by a quick review of the procedural manuals. This isn’t going to send that Role home but improvements to workflow deployed alongside Remote initiatives are going to reduce feelings of “unfairness”.
As Leaders and Managers, we should be continuously looking for ways to improve every role in our organization and shouldn’t turn our backs on an opportunity in one area just because we can’t apply it across the board.
As global healthcare systems struggle to cope with increased demand and decreased resources we are already seeing significant changes to the delivery model in every jurisdiction. Telehealth initiatives in particular. Even GPs are shifting regular checkups to Remote (video and even audio) so this process will get easier for you in the near future. Keep a close eye on the COVID-19 updates coming from your local association. In the last 7 days, we’ve seen policy changes unlike any in history including changes to billing practices and which services qualify for remote.
Can you talk about best practices for hybrid models please? That’s been the hardest to get right on my experience 🙂
Cary: Hybrids come in a variety of flavours but the best tip I have for that is to think “Remote First”. This means you should set up all communications, processes/workflows (where possible), and collaboration tools as if you are a 100% Remote organization or team. The same tools that work for Remote also work OnPremises while the reverse is not true. This approach ensures accessibility for the remote members of your team.
A great example is to set up a (common) chat/IM (Instant Messaging) tool for your team. An on-premises organization will find a chat tool useful even when all team members are in the same office and that tool becomes invaluable when some (or all) of them are not.
Rob: Some of my advice is that it’s important now more than ever to focus on engagement. A few points to this:
- Measure it more frequently – if you’re measuring engagement once a year, it’s going to be tough to monitor engagement levels. Perhaps it’s time for a pulse check, or much more frequently. I’m happy to add more colour as this is what we do at WorkTango,
- Also, get feedback through quick surveys through diagnosing what they’re going through, not just measuring engagement. I wrote a blog w/ some ideas on what to ask during these crazy times.
- Over Communicate – be clear with everyone what’s happening and status of decisions being made/not made. Trust is built through being vulnerable and sharing the status, even if the answer isn’t completed yet. Perhaps a weekly video/live address from Head of HR, or CEO.
- Keep Rituals – do what you were doing before, in a remote way. Won’t be perfect, but shows a commitment to the employee in a new environment.
Cary: Rob’s points are spot-on. If you are looking for a few ideas, a quick scan in Google will reveal plenty:
- “Social” chats for your teams (make time at the outset of a meeting to catch up on non-work related issues)
- Create a fun channel in your communications suite (#random #lookwhatmykidsdid #thismealwentwrong)
- Have a Virtual Pizza Party. Plenty of great examples online, the idea is to arrange for pizza to be sent to all the members of your team so that it arrives before a team meeting.
How do you on-board new employees? What are your tips and tricks to help new hires feel connected and engaged with a team that wasn't always remote? How do we ensure the culture translate in a remote work environment?
Cary: There’s no direct substitute for onboarding and the current WFH environment makes this impossible. Consider rethinking your onboarding process. Virtualizing your existing process might look like: HR (2 hours), Manager (1 hour), (1 hour), and so on. Instead, abbreviate those sessions. You can probably cover the core requirements in a quarter of the time. We can tackle multiple issues here by then leveraging the rest of your WFH team. Have your new hire onboard (one on one or even in small groups) with their new team. A group call and introductions are a must. After that, some screen sharing to walk through key tasks with individuals within the team and, potentially, other areas of the organization.
Not only will this aid with the onboarding process but it brings the new hire closer to the rest of the team and helps the team, as a whole, refine their WFH skills.
It can be overwhelming to tackle all the issues at once. How should we think about triage in terms of making remote work, work for our workforce?
There is truly a lot to cover. Download the slides at https://worktango.com/2020/03/01/remote-work/ and skip to Slide 14. What we do here is break it down into four broad categories: People, Platform, Process, and Place. It can be helpful to look at those areas one by one rather than trying to fix “everything” at once.
The next four slides further break down each of those four areas and include a series of individual challenges that may, or may not, be worth looking at in your organization.
How do we balance ``information overload`` virtually? There is a lot of information free flowing internally (org's) - emails, websites, communications etc. and externally (media, social media etc.), how do we ensure that the most ``critical`` of information is reaching its targeted audience?
This is a real challenge right now because we tend to (and generally need to) over communicate. From an employee perspective, individuals will need to tune their notification settings (especially chat requests) to avoid being constantly interrupted. From a Leadership and Managers’ perspective, we need to be sure the most important information is being consumed. Tactics for this will vary by industry and organization but a few general tips might help:
– do use new communications channels for legacy communications. In other words, don’t copy/paste your monthly email newsletter into a Slack channel.
– if you need to get critical information out, especially related to COVID-19 such as changes to operating hours or services newly/no longer available, establish a protocol _just_ for those communications. Consider a #covid19 channel.
– Use your org chart to ensure critical Ops/HR/Legal/IT changes are disseminated. You likely already broadcast this via your employee portal or email but as these channels are flooded, have Leadership communicate to Managers key speaking points. Those need to come out in one on ones and even standups (if you don’t already have this in place, encourage your teams to have a _very_ quick 10-minute check-in once each day – keep it short, 10 minutes means 10 minutes … not 30!)
As a government employee, my agency is concerned about transparency and public accountability - there’s a very widespread fear that at the end of this, there’ll be a front-page story about “what your government was doing AT HOME during the pandemic.” How do you balance this kind of anxiety with a culture of trust?
Cary: I can see how this can be a tricky issue. I believe this issue needs to be addressed from the bottom up. Trust does not need to mean employees working without oversight. It means that “oversight” does not need to be “line of sight”. Work with your team to establish a process for verifying work, they may have good insights into ways this can be done. Look into Results-Based Management (RBM) techniques. There are RBM tools you can leverage or modify to allow your team greater WFH flexibility and provide the level of oversight and transparency the public (and the media) demand.
Rob: We addressed this on the call, and I think Cary had a great line – once the door to Remote is open, it won’t be closed again. I think it’s important to understand that the concept of 9-5 may not be one that exists through this.
Cary: none of us knows what life will be post-pandemic but the lesson we learned from 9/11 is that it will be different. There will be some who will be uncomfortable, at least to start, with close contact even when the risk of contagion is low. Leaders need to be prepared with policy and support. Managers need to consider how that might look and individuals will, not now but soon, need to decide what makes them comfortable. All three groups will need to COMMUNICATE this. Not today, but soon.
I have always felt that the Future of Work is Remote but my expectation now is that we have accelerated this process. When Social Distancing (or Distant Socializing) measures are lifted I expect we will see a massive shift to Hybrid Remote scenarios; a significant percentage of workers being remote at least some of the time. Some organizations may not have had the time to properly prepare for the current environment but we all have time to prepare for what comes next.
How do you recognize employee achievements and anniversaries? We used to have celebrations and speeches in our office but now that we are remote how would you go about doing this? As well as increase employee engagement and keep things light and some sense social for them?
Rob: I’ve spent many years in employee recognition in the past, and if you don’t have a social recognition platform for this, maybe it’s time to look into (happy to give ideas on types of platforms). But in light of the lack of personal touch, definitely share these live or recorded videos.
As for the engagement items, a few ideas above really helps.
Also, is there a #workfromhome channel, or story on how this has been positive you can share each week? Someone was able to learn a new skill or certification?
How do you seamlessly set a new hire up with IT remotely? Thinking about laptops and such....sorry I'm not an IT expert. 🙂
Fair question and I am fully expecting tech resellers (like Dell and NewEgg) to start promoting “Work From Home” kits. Until that happens, here is a shortlist of items you should strongly consider providing to your new hire:
- WIRED USB Headset with a boom mic
- Monitor (at least one, consider two)
- Mouse + Pad
- USB “Dock” (the dock will be more useful after restrictions start to lift, it makes it easier to move between home and office)
Depending on budget:
- Desk (or standup desk “add on”)
- Printer (I’m not a fan but I get it, sometimes we need paper)
Highly recommended (especially for a new hire):
- GIFT BASKET (have fun with this; snacks, office supplies, skip the dishes/uber eats gift certificate, whiteboard, etc.)
You spoke about adopting a culture of trust - do you have any strategies to fast-track this? Or anything to specifically avoid?
Cary: Previously, I would have said that you can’t fast track culture but the current world-spanning social experiment is proving me wrong! We may be seeing a once-in-a-career opportunity to do exactly that. It’s still going to take time but here are a few things you can consider:
- Your organization’s culture is changing now. Every action you take to engender trust will be a step towards establishing a culture of trust.
- Use team check-ins instead of one-on-one’s (daily standups can work but there are many other models). Build trust in the team to get tasks done and they’ll help each other.
- Don’t call out individuals in front of the group. This is a bad habit that is easy to fall into when Remote, even with video it’s easy to miss the body-language cues when you overstep.
- Don’t wait until tasks are overdue to check-in. Check-in early and often. For larger tasks/projects, interim checkpoints and milestones can help identify issues early. Solving those together (with a team or a manager) further builds trust.
Would like to know how to get the company to agree to cover the high speed internet cost since I am working from and there is a need to upgrade my internet services? thx
Cary: in a perfect world, this should be as simple as making the request. Organizations with a pre-existing Remote policy very likely have something for you. Those without (the majority) may not.
If you cannot get clarity on reimbursement from your organization, check with your current provider to determine what has been put in place. Several US and Canadian carriers have already lifted or removed caps on bandwidth. Some have also put in place new policies for free internet service (up to 60 days in some cases) for low-income residents.
There are far too many links to post here, in the US, many of the subsidies are municipal (Boston, Seattle, etc.). Additionally, some regional governments are providing further subsidies. Check your local provider web sites and government sites to determine what might be available for you.
Are employers paying for their internet/phone bills since they are now required to use them for work?
Rob: I think they should 🙂
Cary: I’m with Rob on this! Ask and if your employer doesn’t allow you to submit the expense, see the question above for some suggestions.
Rob: I think the policies and efforts being made now can’t be bandaids, they should focus on actual long-term solutions. As mentioned in an earlier answer – this will change the world of work – regardless of how long the pandemic stays with us.
Cary: Additionally, in the coming days and weeks, take note of what is working for you and what isn’t. Whether it is days or weeks you can use that information to continually improve your WFH scenario. Iterate on your successes and your failures now, don’t push them off to the future. Consider WFH being 2 to 3 times as long as your current projection and decide what changes you’d put in place to make WFH better. I’m not suggesting you plan a major home office renovation, focus on incremental gains.
A LOT of our employees are working from home, and also have their kids home. Any tips for us trying to balance work, productivity, and child care?
Embrace Remote! This is actually the scenario that put me on my current path. When my children were born, I was already remote (and, yes, they grown-ups now). My children don’t remember a time when their dad “went to work”. My daughter actually thought my job was riding my bicycle because she learned at school that people went to work and the only time I left the house alone was to ride my bike.
Take advantage of all that Remote offers. Let your manager/team know that you have kids and what your needs are. Schedule your day around your home requirements. If you are a single parent, you may need to schedule more and longer “gaps” when you’re Away From the Keyboard (get ready to use “afk” plenty). This doesn’t mean you should just disappear for hours at a time but you can certainly schedule that.
If a mini-crisis arises (one that involves wipes), take the time you need and, if you’re on a call – I’ve been there – let them know you need a moment, use the mute button or reschedule.
Timeouts aren’t just for kids. You don’t have to balance just your work and your family, you need time to. Take a timeout for yourself if you need one. Make yourself a cup of tea or coffee, have a snack, or just go AFK for 10 minutes to recharge.
Rob: There are definitely ones that are being shut down today like restaurants, bars, anything from a service perspective or travel (i.e. hotels & airlines) that physically can’t be possible without people (until we get self-driving cars more robust than they are)… but I’m surprising myself today with how many examples of music lessons, dance lessons, gyms/yoga, etc that have all offered value to people remotely now that we’re stuck at home.
Cary: I believe there are roles where Remote is either difficult or impossible but not industries. Rob noted some very good examples and there are more. Healthcare, in particular, is being forced to make a massive shift to remote right now and that’s going to stick. More, but not all, healthcare services will be Remote in the future and new technologies are already being worked on to give doctors and other healthcare workers the ability to diagnose and even sample remotely. The rules are changing.
We all need to, individually, find that sweet spot between what works best for us and connecting with our team/coworkers/manager. Getting there may require a few iterations, here are a few tips that may get you there sooner:
– If, like many, you are suddenly remote (WFH) start by keeping your current OnPremises schedule. Follow your usual process (whatever that is); wake up, shower, get dressed, etc. and plan to make changes incrementally
– You may find you have a lot of extra time because you’re not commuting. Don’t fill it with work. Enjoy that time, have an extra cup of coffee or spend some time socializing with whoever you’re self-isolating with.
– When you’re ready to make changes, work with your team/manager to be sure that any changes in your schedule work for them too. This may be a process of give and take. You may want to work “before” the regular workday – your previous commute time – because you find it’s interruption-free and more productive. You might trade that off to end earlier in the day but don’t assume – others may be expecting you to be available.
– Set boundaries, mostly for yourself but for your team as well. WFH means you’re always “at work”. This blurs some lines and many find that they end up working a lot more. If you’re having trouble turning it off … turn it off. Disable notifications, talk to your IT/support team about “urgent” overrides on notifications, this can be an option.
– establish “back channels” for communications. Sometimes you’ll want to shut it all down so you can really focus, this is a legit strategy even in the middle of the workday but, depending on your role, you may need to give your manager/staff/team a way to reach you in a pinch.
What are some of the pain points companies experience under normal circumstances? And how is that being exasperated by the speed of covid-19 changes?
Cary: In my 100% remote company we’ve had team members express feelings of isolation. Now as embarrassing as this is to say, I frequently go weeks without seeing anyone other than my family. There are periods where I haven’t left the house for 10-11 days straight and didn’t bat an eye, never thought about it.
But I’ve been out twice in the last few days on a bicycle ride, alone (physical distancing) and to pick up groceries – and I’m feeling like I’m cooped up. Feelings of isolation that are typically associated with remote work are exasperated right now as that isolation extends way beyond work.
When you’re a remote worker we always say, “take breaks, go outside, go for a coffee in the middle of the day” but you can’t do some of these things now. So that’s one big difference.
Another big friction point that’s exasperated right now is the “rush.” Some organizations have literally had to send employees home with no notice. What this does is it puts you in a position where you have meetings already booked for boardrooms or other physical locations, that can’t happen. You have customer appointments you can’t go to. You have one-on-one meetings that are now going to need to be shifted. This is stressful. And it’s really challenging because not only do you have to go through your calendar and change all this, you also have to make sure you have seats, whether it’s GoTo or Zoom, to make all of these meetings happen.
We’re also seeing a lot of people switch to their mobile phones. We know there are reports of brownouts, people not able to get mobile signals. Cell towers are overloaded. That’s because there’s been a big network shift. The two or three-hundred-thousand people that work in the Financial District in Toronto everyday – they still need to talk to their coworkers. They’ve gone home and they’re now picking up their mobile phones because they don’t have remote tools at their fingertips. Their organizations didn’t set that up. So those are just a few of the really big pain points cropping up and that’s just in the last few days.
Some organizations are still hiring and doing their onboarding. How do you keep these new employees engaged when everyone’s remote?
Cary: Change your process. One of the biggest recommendations for all remote companies is to get people together physically at the outset because that’s a great way to engender the employee/employer relationship early on. But we can’t do that right now. What we can do, is leverage our teams – even if you’re onboarding people that are permanently located in another country and in a time zone that can be anywhere from six to 12 hours off. Set up a couple of virtual group chats. Take that new employee and connect them with their remote teammates.
It can be overwhelming to tackle remote work challenges all at once. How can we triage this to make it work? Is there a place to start?
Cary: Normally just the discovery process could take weeks and months. We don’t have that kind of time. What organizations and individuals can and should do is find the current blockers; things that literally prevent you from getting your job done.
A really big one is cheque signing. Payroll is sent home. No one’s around to issue or sign the cheques. But people need to get paid. How do we deal with this? In remote work that’s one of the top things on your To Do list. Most of us have switched to ACH or EFT but a lot of organizations still have cheques.
Work with your bank to set up direct deposit. Find out what your options are. Every bank offers some kind of method for transferring funds online.
Consider remote work in terms of people, platform, process, and (not so much) place. Look at the steps in your workflow that require you to touch something. Figure out which ones you can solve remotely right away, like bank transfers, and figure out which ones you can’t.
The workflow steps that you can’t figure out easily – are the factors you’re going to need to tackle first, especially if they’re business critical. If for example you literally have no way to get money out to your employees, you need to figure out if you can physically make your way to the office. We’ve seen places like Italy, Spain, Korea and China enforce full lockdown measures restricting people from leaving their homes. If you can’t leave your home, you may be stuck. So, figure out what your scenario is, find those big barriers, and solve them one by one, as quickly as possible.
Rob: Another thing is to take a grounds-up approach. Ask your employees “where are the barriers?” Send out a survey to prioritize and find out what they think are the biggest blocks in the organization. So instead of an overwhelming list, you now have an understanding that’s curated in terms of where to spend your time and your effort.
How do we balance information overload virtually? How do we make sure the most critical information is reaching the target audience?
Cary: Whatever your tool is (I’m a big fan of Slack) go into settings, take a look at what the notification options are, start turning them off. If you’ve got three devices, start checking those options and remember this is going to be for a few weeks so don’t be afraid to disable stuff. The level of digital communication has gone way up. You want to tone down the noise, the distraction. Start closing windows, minimize it, get tasks done.
At the same time, set aside periods of time for check in. There are critical communications coming in and people may not be reaching out to you consistently on the same platform.
Rob: Some companies have set up windows or time, a few hours in the morning or the afternoon, where no communication is meant to go out.
Rob: I’ve seen some really great stuff come out in the last few days as we’ve all been forced to stay home. We’re social beings, we really want to reach out and connect with other people. A lot of the younger generation socialize in tic toc, whatsapp and they’ve been doing this for ages. And I’m seeing this move into the work world in the form of virtual coffee chats and water cooler gatherings.
I’ve also heard of companies giving employees credit – here’s some money you can use to buy something nice for your home office. Or get an Uber eats account. Wouldn’t it be fun to send some food? A virtual pizza party delivered to all team members around the time of a conference call? Be creative.
At the very minimum we need to stop for a minute and do something personal with our work colleagues. It doesn’t matter if we’re employees, leaders, HR people or people managers, we need to check in on one another – not just our family and friends.
Cary: I was the worst manager ever; I was an awful human being. All the bad things a manager does are even worse in remote. Good leaders and managers will do well. Remote management best practice observations and recommendations?
- Don’t check in on staff just because something is overdue, get to them before it’s overdue.
- If you have someone you think is dragging their heels – and ya, that’s going to happen and that happens in the office too – reach out to them on a regular basis.
- Hold a daily 10-minute check-in with your team (and we’re not talking one-on-ones here). Get them all in on a call and make time for water cooler chit chat. If you’re going to have a meeting recognize that the first five minutes are going to have nothing to do with the topic. Spend that little bit of time chatting and finding out how everybody is. With Covid-19 it’s more important now than ever, and goes a long way towards employee engagement.
- Micromanaging is a disaster. You can’t micromanage remotely as well as you can in the office and that’s a really good thing because nobody wants to be that micro manager.
- If you are the type of manager that likes to have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on all the time, no problem. That’s all about check-ins. If ten minutes a day isn’t enough. No problem. Whatever your chat system is, ping people once in a while – not because you’re creeping on them but because you care.
- Ask about things other than work. Right now, whether you have staff that have been remote for ten years or ten days, they’re concerned. In terms of proactive employee engagement, it can’t be stressed enough, reach out. Talk to people.
How do you have success when you have some people working in the office and other people working remotely? How do you prevent damaging culture, avoid creating an “us” vs “them” culture?
Cary: I’m going to use one word here: bias.
When we start going back after Covid-19, when organizations start moving towards a hybrid remote model, we’re going to see a lot of bias. Generally bias works like this: in the conference call scenario, the remote people are ignored. It’s easy to forget someone’s on a call when you can’t see them.
Think remote first, especially of you’re a hybrid team that is predominantly in an office.
Think about those remote people first – all the time. Make sure your meetings always have a call-in number that is clear and easy to find, not buried deep in the agenda, but right in the subject or the location. Make sure there is some method for screen sharing before the meeting starts. Every single meeting needs to be a virtual meeting. That will be the standard for hybrid.
On the fun, employee engagement side, set up a social channel – and do it now. If your company doesn’t have one, even if you’re not a manager, make one. Most tools allow users or participants to create new channels. Have fun with it. One company has a channel devoted to garbage in the office, and it’s become the most popular channel with people taking all sorts of funny or blatantly staged artistic pics of garbage.
Rob: Everything is new to literally everyone because no one’s been in this position before. When you think about trust, there’s this whole vulnerability that we’re all experiencing. By opening up, by being vulnerable, and by talking about what’s working and what’s not – that’s going to help us navigate through all of this. With this uncertainty, openness in communication is needed now more than ever. “Ya, times are pretty busy. Times are a little bit scary.” It’s precisely this kind of caring outreach that makes all the difference.
Have we missed anything? Share your questions and check back for more answers and insights.
You may also be interested in:
Check out our guides on workplace culture, employee engagement, and employee surveys. Learn about every aspect of a successful employee voice initiative!
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