Working from home: How big of a shift is it?

Your ability to navigate the level of havoc wreaked by the sudden shift to everyone working remotely is heavily dependent on the experience and skill you had before the onset of social distancing. For workers who were already remote, this change may have leveled the playing field. For organizations that relied on face-to-face for getting things done, the challenge is of an entirely different nature.

Let’s look more closely at each of the segments in this work-from-home workforce:

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Disrupted But Determined

We’ll start with the highly proficient individuals in organizations that have operated remotely since the dawn of VOIP. Cisco is a great example. Walking into their San Jose headquarters was like walking into a ghost town, way before the dawn of coronavirus. Not surprisingly, the inventors of Webex do their meetings on that platform and they have a workforce that is expert at working from wherever.

Except now the wherever is at home. And today’s home comes with a whole new set of challenges. Namely, the spouse with the booming voice on a conference call in the living room, the dog whose walkers aren’t walking, and, of course, the young humans also in need of time and attention. We call this segment “Disrupted But Determined.” While their typical work practices have been disrupted, their willingness to persevere and experiment with new routines is strong.

  • How can you work productively when everyone else is home too? Set up a new schedule that includes everyone in the house. Dueling meetings? Make sure everyone wears headphones. If you need to switch off parenting duties, alternate working times. If you have teens in the house, schedule breaks together so that everyone can have a few minutes to connect. If you’re either an early bird or a night owl, take full advantage of the window where you’re fueled up and everyone else is sound asleep.

A League Of Their Own

Next up, highly skilled individuals operating in organizations who have yet to catch up with them. This is common for field teams who spend more time in their car or on planes in a month than most of us do in a year. Their common experience is being on one end of the phone in a meeting while a room full of people have side banter, crunch potato chips and generally ignore all of the remote participants. To this “A League of Their Own” segment, meeting time often means working time, since they’re also great at being in two places at once.

The shift to everyone working remotely has made a vaguely frustrating situation a lot more irritating. While their first-timer remote colleagues fumble with video cameras and try and find the host code, the League of Their Own team watches the clock. At least in the previous set-up, expectations were clear: When collaborating with other experts, be fully engaged. When on a call with the home-based team, multitask the whole time.

  • How can you help the rest of the organization climb the virtual learning curve more quickly? Generously share your lessons learned. Start an additive chat conversation to supplement what’s happening in the main videoconference. After the meeting, share suggestions with the convener on how to maximize the value of remote meeting time. Role model great participation by listening and then integrating and recapping key points that have been made. You’ll make everyone on the call smarter.

Starting From Scratch

Both individuals and organizations who are new to virtual collaboration may be overwhelmed by the need to figure it out fast. Nothing blocks creative thinking faster than feeling foolish because you can’t log into the meeting room or get your audio to work. The technology team will need to work fast to ensure that there is a reliable platform in place and that everyone has the hardware needed to make it work. But it will take more than just supporting technology to migrate to virtual—that’s simply table stakes.

  • How do we convince everyone of the value of virtual collaboration if they’ve never experienced it? Leadership has to champion this shift to make it happen. They can then recruit early adopters who are willing to take the lead. Invest extra time in making sure that the populations who are most responsible for meetings are well-versed in both the technical and facilitative aspects of virtual collaboration. Typically, it’s administrators, project management and directors who are the most frequent conveners of meetings. If the first few experiences that the broader team has are positive, they are more likely to power through the inevitable speed bumps.

Mix and Match

A very common scenario we see today is when there are many teams who are both comfortable and skilled in working remotely—often the “maker” population in an organization—while there are others who expect the primary mode of engagement to be face-to-face. We call these organizations "Mix and Match" because it’s also common to find competing technology platforms and norms from one team to the next. Team A uses One Note for document sharing while another has fully migrated to Microsoft Teams. Team C is completely reliant on email and text while a fourth team uses Slack almost exclusively. The unlock here is to decide what challenge to tackle first and how to bring everyone along with you.

  • How to ensure consistent quality collaboration across disparate experiences and norms? In this situation, you’ll need to work team-by-team to make sure each is set up for success. Now is not the time to try and rationalize platforms and ways of working. It’s more urgent to ensure that everyone is using some form of virtual collaboration well before starting to think about how best to standardize practices across groups. Meet 1:1 (virtually, of course) with function heads and team leaders to assess the current practices within their group, what’s working well and less well. Provide training to those who are less familiar with the technology. Encourage teams to share their best practices with one another.

Virtual collaboration doesn’t come naturally to most. No matter where you’re starting, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter frustration, miscommunication, and a few dropped balls. The most important thing to practice right now is patience. Well before the quarantine is lifted, you and your organization will have built a remote collaboration capability that opens up enormous flexibility even after we’re back in the office.