This article was originally published at Forbes.com in early March 2020.
Two weeks ago, we did a quick web search to find out how many companies were moving to remote work in response to the fast-moving novel coronavirus. We found only a handful of examples, mostly related to possible exposure.
A lot has changed since then.
Whether we wanted to or not, many of us now find ourselves as part of a virtual workforce. Working remotely presents new challenges for staying productive, connected, and engaged.
In this era of “social distancing” how can we create the conditions to make productive remote work possible?
Below, we share six of our top tips, gathered from reviews of the academic literature and interviews with leaders of remote and virtual teams.
Enabling productive remote work
#1: Set expectations
Whether you encourage remote work for convenience, or to prevent the spread of infection, it’s helpful to set expectations regarding how that work will be conducted. Working outside the office often means employees have greater flexibility in their work hours or dress code. If you want your remote employees to maintain the office dress code while on video camera, state it directly. If you want every team member to be online and available between the hours of 9 am and 3 pm, make your expectations known. Determine expectations up front, so that the transition to remote work is smooth.
At the same time, be generous to team members. Remember that viral video of the man whose children barged in on a media interview he was doing while working from home? Those moments will be impossible to avoid for anyone who has children or pets. Accept interruptions when they happen, and give people time to care for their families and other needs.
#2: Develop a knowledge sharing plan
If face-to-face work is standard in your organization, you’ll need to give thought to how knowledge can be shared remotely. Will team meetings be moved online? Will a daily briefing email be instituted?
Knowledge sharing is a particular challenge in organizations where some workers are remote, and others are on-site. Leaders need to make focused effort to ensure that every employee has access to the same information. This is so important that “shares information” is the number one characteristic of a good virtual teammate, according to one survey.
#3: Use the right communication channel for your message.
Work with your team to establish norms regarding the right communication channel for different types of conversation and information sharing.
Trying to make decisions with a big team of people over email is almost sure to frustrate; when decisions need to be made, get the team on the phone or on a video chat so you can quickly trade information and ensure you’re getting the perspective of different team members.
On the other hand, if you have information to share, email is the right channel. This allows you communicate detailed information that people can read as they have time, and reference again when needed.
Just have a quick question for one person? Use instant messaging.
#4: Maintain social interaction
As anyone who has ever gone from working in an office to working from home knows, it can be lonely, especially at first. Many people miss the casual conversations that happen in an office; work can feel isolating without colleagues sitting next to you. Help your team make the transition to remote work by creating opportunities for virtual social interaction.
We gathered ideas from leaders of remote teams. Their suggestions include hosting a virtual happy hour (or coffee hour) one day a week; using discussion boards to share favorite recipes, pet photos, or personal news; and dedicating a few minutes of each team meeting to catching up on one another’s lives. Some groups take time to ask and answer playful questions, such as “What makes you feel like a kid again?” or “What’s your most prized possession?” as a way to learn about and chat with teammates, and possibly share a few laughs.
At the same time, don’t neglect one-on-one conversation. Give colleagues a call to check in on them, send an encouraging email, or share a funny (and safe for work) meme.
These moments of interpersonal connection are important because they give meaning to our work and make it more enjoyable. Additionally, research shows that interpersonal communication enables relational trust to develop; trust improves the performance of virtual teams. Want a high-performing team of virtual workers? Make time for social interaction.
#5: Measure productivity, not hours
“If I can’t see that people are working, how do I know they are?” That’s the question some leaders ask us as they consider allowing remote work. When we ask leaders of virtual teams about this, however, they say something different.
“I’ve never had to worry about that,” they tell us. Why? They trust their team members and they validate that trust by watching organizational productivity, not hours. If the work is getting done and the numbers are strong (or as strong as can be expected, in our current reality), they feel confident that their team is putting in the hours. This allows them to celebrate their team’s performance without micro-managing the time clock.
#6: Show extra respect and support for those who cannot work from home.
Finally, remember that if you can work from home, you’re one of the lucky ones. Show extra respect and kindness to your colleagues who are still in the office, and for medical providers, shop clerks, airline customer service agents, utility providers, and others who don’t get the luxury of avoiding the virus from the comfort of their own couches. If you can, offer extra support: order takeout from a restaurant that is closed to dine-in service, then send the meal to the family of that nurse you know who is working double shifts.
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