As many American businesses head into a month of shifting their workforces from co-located spaces to millions of home offices, let’s take a moment to assess the impact of this colossal shift on how teams collaborate. According to a new report from App Annie, business conferencing apps had their biggest week ever, eclipsing 62 million downloads during the week of March 14-21. Small and large organizations have had to quickly pivot in providing assets, security, process, and new tools overnight. From videoconferencing, to daily stands-ups, and even security headaches, the “new normal” has set in. While this challenge has been met with resilience, it’s evident there are things we have done well, things we could improve upon, and things that require immediate attention.
The current health crisis has some characteristics of old Spaghetti Western films where antagonists are new and realities are harsh. Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly came to mind as I reflected upon this past month of working away from my teammates, office, and beloved whiteboard. Overnight I went from a highly collaborative workspace that fostered spontaneous brainstorming sessions, hallway chatter, and cultural bonding to a home office, videoconferencing platform, and spotty internet signals. Not only has this shift occurred within our corporate office but also with our teams operating within customers of various shapes and sizes. Our consulting teams support a diverse group of healthcare and financial institutions, associations and compliance organizations in tackling business and technology initiatives. They too have shifted to telework and have been sharing their insights on what has worked well and what hasn’t.
Improved Work-Life Balance
This element of telework has been a double-edged sword for many. While reclaiming commute times and saving money on gas, tolls and dry-cleaning have been an absolute plus, the 24/7 aspect of having your workstation at home has been tricky. Though most of us are keeping our workday routines, leveraging the “bonus time” created by telework on spiritual, physical, or educational activities is a silver lining in all this upheaval. Is there an opportunity to add a new certification, learn a new hobby, or keep from gaining the COVID 15 (lbs.)?
As the character Tuco states in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk." This fictional cowboy’s advice applies to communication at work; less superfluous language and more concise communication is becoming essential in providing teams and individuals clear direction to drive productivity and to reduce misunderstandings due to the lack of verbal/physical cues. By defining tasks through Kanban Boards and shared repositories, many are pivoting to straightforward messaging that reduces the need for constant synchronous and asynchronous communication. Improving writing capabilities should be a goal for all managers who lead remote teams - the clearer the instruction, the better the outcomes.
Rituals are Becoming Normalized
The first week of this new norm brought an avalanche of meetings, touch points, stand-ups, IMs, video calls, etc. A month later, teams are course-correcting and learning when to leverage structured communication vs. group meetings, vs. a quick message in Slack or Teams. New schedules that allow a balance of necessary meeting time with heads-down time are critical so that teams can get back to focusing on throughput rather than prioritizing constant contact. Managers at our customer sites are re-evaluating the need for multiple stand-ups and group functions; as trust is created, less structured collaboration is needed, allowing individuals and teams to operate as they did “pre-new normal”.
Agility is Moving Beyond the Development Teams
In The Secret to High Performing Remote Teams I wrote about the need for an Agile mindset, not only to adjust to this shift in our workforce, but also as a driver for productivity. A month in, many organizations are realizing that the volatility within the marketplace requires them to move faster than ever before and become smarter in their operations. While Agile concepts of collaboration and iterative thinking were picking up outside of dev teams prior to this shift, current conditions will expedite Agile transformations across various industries.
Missing Social Interaction
After a month of telework, it is evident that the nuances of nonverbal communication can be lost in remote work, no matter the platform, video capability, or structure. While my internal team has had success transitioning from face-to-face to remote interaction, connecting with external stakeholders, customers, and others hasn’t been as seamless. Is it possible to build relationships through a computer screen or a phoneline? Verbal and physical cues are key in many corporate functions including sales, marketing, legal, amongst others. Sometimes these cues don’t translate as well within a small box on a computer screen. With videoconferencing not being universal and many individuals averse to appearing on screen, tackling the subtleties of in-person interaction is a barrier that many face during the “new-normal.”
Distractions at Home
With so many of us wearing multiple hats at home, a month of telework has led many to struggle with balancing career, parenting, teaching, being a chef, and housekeeper during work hours. Some of the tips being shared amongst parents to tackle distractions include setting expectations and schedule with kids for the day. Routines are essential in retaining sanity and allowing yourself the space to get work done. Clearly explaining to young kids what conference calls and video calls are and why they are important, can help reduce the background noise levels (though dogs barking might still be an issue)! This is an area with no clear solution, however, as we go past the one month mark, we should all strive for the same type of planning and communication at home with our new “officemates” as we do with our actual work team members.
Death by a Thousand IMs/calls/video chats/emails
Yes, many of us overcompensated in the initial weeks of telework by bombarding one another with communication. Meeting schedules were at capacity, while time to get substantive work done was scant. A month in, unnecessary synchronous communication is normalizing, but it could still be further reduced through the appropriate use of asynchronous communication. While we all feel the need to be connected to our teams, be in alignment with our managers, and ensure our voices are being heard, the reality is productivity is negatively impacted if we expend too much energy on responses rather than actual work. Tools such as Trello and Asana provide easy-to-use Kanban Boards and shared repositories such as Box, GitHub, and Jira allow for communication, planning, and tracking of work without excessive communication.
Security Issues Exposed
By now we have all heard that Zoom is not without its faults, that not all organizations had their data ducks in a row for teleworking and that many vulnerabilities still exist in our communication infrastructure. These are issues that require immediate attention and can jeopardize the safety and security of not only employees but enterprises themselves. A month in and many businesses have had gaps exposed within their ability to provide secure assets to employees, share data amongst dispersed teams, and conduct business seamlessly within the “new normal.”
Feeling Alone out on the Prairie
While Clint Eastwood made the “loner life” look cool on the big screen, the reality is many of us can feel professionally isolated while teleworking. With fewer opportunities to interact and bond with our teammates, many feel less confidant in their roles. Managers can help individuals and teams tackle the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” hurdle by providing positive feedback more often and being transparent on team and organizational activities. We all want to be in the loop; thus, it is imperative that we have the information that allows us to be confident in our roles. As discussed in my previous blog, social events should not stop in the “new normal.” A month in and the virtual happy hours have become a great way for our organization to blow off steam and to talk about topics not related to work.
As we enter our second month of telework, there will be new opportunities for teams to better communicate, operate and flourish. Please feel free to reach out to me with any tips or tricks your teams are using to focus on the good and reduce the bad and ugly. Next time, I look forward to covering technology decisions many organizations will face due to the current health crisis.