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Coronavirus: How to address the overlooked challenges of remote working

While businesses are getting their technology in order to prepare for the potential move to remote working, issues surrounding motivation, performance and communityship must also be factored in. Chris Shambrook, Leadership Director at PlanetK2, offers some food for thought.

12th Mar 2020
Editor HRZone
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Twitter, Amazon and Google are among many large global companies who have asked their employees to work remotely to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

With the World Health Organization declaring a pandemic and the UK shifting to the ‘delay’ phase, which will involve social distancing measures, many businesses (where possible) will be preparing to transition their workforces to remote working.

The move to remote working does not just raise questions for HR and business leaders around technology provisions. Issues surrounding communication barriers, motivation and performance levels, and a sense of community in a virtual setting also come into play.

To get some practical insights on these often overlooked aspects of remote working, we spoke to Chris Shambrook, Leadership Director at PlanetK2, Psychology Consultant and Expert in Human Performance.

Approach the changes with a mindset of curiosity, learning and creation. This is going to be a period of collective innovating, learning and supporting.

What do businesses need to factor in when considering whether to move to remote working during this outbreak?

It’s important to maintain a strong leadership strategy so that when remote working kicks in, teams can stay productive and performance ready. Factors will vary depending on different business models, but the one question all boards and senior leadership teams should be considering is how – and when – are they going to roll out appropriate plans for remote working.

Everyone should be having the ‘what-if?’ conversations now and using this as a stimulus for creating contingency plans and readying key team members for the inevitable changes in working conditions. Businesses probably need to ask, ‘Are our leaders getting ahead of the game and getting ready with confidence to switch into our working from home (WFH) strategy should we need to deploy it?’

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In companies where remote working is likely to be rolled out, how should HR prepare its workforce for such a shift?

Some key questions to ask your employees are:

To be ‘technically’ ready:

  • What equipment do you need at home to stay connected and get the work done?

  • Do you need any different skills or knowledge working from home that you haven’t got right now, and if so, how do we upskill you?

To be ‘tactically’ ready: 

  • What is the best way to break up your day so that you have the best chance of staying focused and productive?

  • Who are the key people you’re going to need to stay connected with, as well as checking in with to ensure that you’re feeling supported and aligned?

  • What communication methods are you going to use, and when, in order that you retain team togetherness and a united feel?

To be ‘physically’ ready:

  • How are you going to keep your energy levels up during the day and how will the WFH environment influence your need to look after energy in different ways than you do in the office?

To be ‘contextually’ ready:

  • Where’s the best place for you to work at home and how can you create a space that makes you feel comfortable, concentrated and work-ready?

To be ‘mentally’ ready:

  • How can you ensure your mental attitude towards working from home will allow you to be successful?

To be ‘emotionally’ ready:

  • What support do you need from the people around you at home so they’re on your side and supporting you to be as effective as you can while working from home?

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Are there any overlooked aspects of virtual working that need to be addressed?

With all of the excellent technology that is now available for virtual working, we’d recommend focusing on the human element of the equation. Here’s our top tips for making the most of your virtual working challenge:

  1. Be ready to work hard at staying connected – take time to link up virtually to ensure ‘collective success’ and ‘role clarity’ so everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing. Ensure that the ‘shared mental model’ of performance and success is front of mind for everyone. Be ready to encourage everyone to jump on conference calls or video meetings to do rapid fire check-ins more often than you would at work – give the team the chance to have the human connection to reinforce togetherness, mutual accountability and to simply check in with colleagues.

  2. Celebrate success more visibly, more quickly and more often – whenever any kind of success is achieved, get on the case with sharing it and ensure everyone understands the importance of sharing their successes with each other. We can rely on informal spreading of good news in an office, but when we’re working from home, we need to shout about individual achievements and contributions, so staff feel visible, valued and confident.

  3. Keep open channels of communication and give people the choice to ‘opt-out’ – just like you have to at work. In an open plan office, you have to work hard to create your own focus. Try to make it the same with a virtual workspace, make sure everyone knows there’s a need to stay connected.

How can HR ensure that teams continue to perform well so that the business can continue to run as usual?

Business won’t run as usual – this is an important point to acknowledge. If you aim to keep things running as usual from the outset, you’re going to be dissatisfied. Approach the changes with a mindset of curiosity, learning and creation. This is going to be a period of collective innovating, learning and supporting.

Encouraging employee mindset is essential. Be ready to share a specific picture of success over the period of homeworking. Be clear that the conditions have changed and be ready to enter into the situation with an open mindset.

It’s important to know how to adapt to changing conditions – enjoy the opportunities, minimise the frustrations and support each other to react and respond in the most helpful way possible.

For many people the ‘connectedness’ of work is a very important motivational ingredient, and this is probably the one that’s going to take the biggest hit.

Many employees will not be familiar with regular home working and may get their energy and motivation from working in the same physical space as their co-workers. How can lack of team motivation be combated in this instance? 

Working alone for many people results in a change in motivation levels, but being ready for this change and working on maintaining a sense of community can make a big difference. You’ll have different motivational influences at play, rather than people totally losing all motivation.

We know that for many people the ‘connectedness’ of work (being part of a mission to achieve something together) is a very important motivational ingredient, and this is probably the one that’s going to take the biggest hit when people have to work from home. So, we’d be thinking about making as many efforts as possible to keep everyone feeling connected, supported and still ‘working together’. So, do everything you can to encourage interaction, sharing, asking for support via all forms of communication!

We also know that people won’t feel as confident in themselves when working from home and confidence is another key influence on motivation. Be ready to work harder together on creating the confidence that you can still perform to a good level at home and be ready to share progress. This will help to offset the demotivational threat of confidence slumps.

Finally, we know that a sense of control (or choice) plays a massive role in motivation. If we are working from home, we might not be able to choose where we work, but we can still stay motivated by choosing our attitude, our mindset, how we get ourselves ready, how we support each other, how we learn and how we exploit the situation. 

For resources and up-to-date insights on how to deal with Covid-19 visit the CIPD's hub on 'Responding to the coronavirus.'

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