The problem with remote working, and five ways to make it work

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Written by Pam Hamilton on 10 February 2021 in Features
Features

With a few tweaks, we can make remote working a whole lot better for ourselves and not just our business, says Pam Hamilton. 

My first proper job was in market research for a global food company. I was a psychology graduate, but applying academics to a business context was a huge learning curve for me. Fortunately, I had a boss who patiently taught me about demographics, field audits and extrapolation - but these weren’t the only important things I learned from her.

Every day I listened to her on the phone with business partners and research suppliers in our regional offices. She was passionate, excitable and highly opinionated. She was warm and genuine, and laughed a lot. But when someone messed up, we all knew about it. 20 years later, I can still hear her voice carrying across the open plan office:

“No. This is UN (pause) ACCEPTABLE. I need you to fix this TODAY. This is business critical. It needs to be right.” 

She probably only went 'defcon' twice in the years I worked with her, but I remember it as much for its urgency and seriousness as for its fairness and calmness. She never shouted or bullied, but mistakes were fixed, and quickly. 

The example she set as a manager had a profound influence on me - in how to be patient and develop people, and how to behave professionally when things go wrong. When I find myself in a situation like that, I channel my inner Monica. 

Without the distractions of the commute, the downtime between meetings, the watercooler conversations, we have become all work and no play.

This is the main concern I have around remote working - the lack of learning 'by osmosis'. When we work remotely, because we only see each other in scheduled meetings, we miss out on overheard conversations, serendipitous meetings and being able to learn from the culture and language of the people around us. 

This is especially serious when it comes to developing younger people and onboarding new team members.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a massive fan of remote working. My own business has a team of 30 people, and we have worked remotely for the last eight years quite happily. And now, as a result of the last year, more businesses than ever are coming around to the benefits of remote working. 

In a recent study*, 70% of global organisations said some proportion of their workforce will be allowed to work remotely full time in the future normal, with 61% planning to empower employees to choose their own mix of working from home and working from the office. 25% of companies plan to allow employees to choose to work from home full time.

Working from home is no longer seen as shirking from home, and we’ve all seen people for the most part work just as hard and productively as they would in an office. 

But that’s also part of the problem. 

Without the distractions of the commute, the downtime between meetings, the watercooler conversations, we have become all work and no play. Unrelenting levels of busyness and attention overload are common across every company I work with, big or small, local or global, public or private sector. 

 

Teams are under pressure to adapt and survive in the current crisis. Most people I know have back-to-back meetings five days a week, and the time we’ve saved from commuting has been given back to yet more (badly run) meetings and (too many unnecessary) emails. We are filling up our working day and leaving no time for development of others, relationship building, or learning from each other. 

Unless we change how we work, remote working will make our team performance worse, will make our jobs less enjoyable, and will severely disadvantage the newer and younger members of our teams.

So what’s to be done? Here are five ways teams can make sure remote working works:

  1. Prioritise shadowing and development time. Make sure younger team members and new joiners have regular opportunities to listen to important conversations from a variety of team members, replicating those open plan office eavesdropping opportunities. I don’t mean monthly, I mean weekly or even daily. 
  2. Schedule team downtime. Whether setting time aside each week for your team to have an unstructured catch up, talk about non-work hobbies, compete or give each other inspiration, getting to know each other and developing relationships will multiply your teams’ enjoyment and performance.
  3. Make live time lively. Meetings are for people not PowerPoints. If there’s a presentation or a debrief, pre-record it and send it in advance for people to listen in their own time. Use live time for discussion, debate and decisions, not one person speaking to a power point deck while everyone else pretends to listen while multi-tasking.
  4. Fewer, better meetings. I can’t emphasise this enough – nobody has time to waste on back-to-back, badly run meetings (Channel 4 agree – they have banned back-to-back meetings, and meetings on Fridays). Meetings should be a default of 15 or 30 minutes long (like at Vodafone), and never one hour or longer unless there’s a good reason. 
  5. Lead by example. It’s hard to say no to badly run meetings. It’s hard to ask people to stop copying you on unnecessary emails. It’s hard to insist that live time should be used well. It’s hard to make time for learning from each other. But unless we start doing it, we leave no time for working together well. Be like Monica, and set a great example – other people will follow.

We still have a way to go of enforced working from home, and even post-COVID we may continue to work remotely more than we did before. Remote working is more of a marathon than a sprint, and we cannot in good conscience continue with the bad habits that we’ve developed as a result of this crisis. 

The next time you find yourself in a badly run meeting, in back-to-back meetings, reading too many emails or without the time to enjoy working with, learning from or developing your colleagues, say to yourself:

'No. This is UNACCEPTABLE. I need to fix this TODAY. This is business critical. It needs to be right”

*Times Future of Work 7th December 2020

 

About the author

Pam Hamilton is author of Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools of Great Teamwork, published in March 2021

 


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