Millions of information workers have been suddenly forced into working from home, teleworking, because of coronavirus-induced lockdowns. I suspect that a large number of these workers — and their supervisors — have never experienced this before. So, in case you have missed my years of writing about telework as a means of disaster survival, here are some of the basics for surviving those lockdowns.
Foremost, it’s time to rethink the traditional methods of management if you haven’t already done so. Your job is to lead, not to be the work cop. When you think: “How do I know they’re working if I can’t see them?” you’re falling for the tried-and-false management myth: observation of process means knowledge of progress. It doesn’t. Here’s how to do it right.
Product, not process
Think about what it is your employees are hired to produce. Did you hire them just to fill office space and look busy? Probably not unless they’re just extras in a video you’re making. You and your employees have jointly already established the desired outcomes of their working as well as the schedules by which those outcomes are to be produced. You and they know how to recognize the desired outcome. Right? If not, the first objective of your communication upon entering lockdown should be to develop it.
So, now that it’s clear to all concerned what is wanted and when it is to be produced the focus should turn to what’s needed to make it happen. Does each employee have the skills to do the work agreed upon? If not, can those skills be acquired in time via the internet? Or do you need to redesign the workflows to include others with the necessary skills?
Do your employees have the necessary computer equipment and software at home? Do they have quality internet connectivity? Are they competent at using the above? Are their home offices sufficiently secure?
It’s important to insure that all employees can communicate effectively with each other. While some communication was face-to-face before, it now needs to be done over the internet. There are many collaboration software options available with today’s technology; if you haven’t used one of them before, now it the time to get everyone on board with one or more of those technologies. For example, Zoom seems to be becoming the favorite conferencing package because of its versatility and ease of use. But there are many other possibilities.
Whatever the technology you use it’s vital that everyone in your team feels in touch with everyone else. But it is not your job as supervisor to be the snoop, pestering your employees to make sure they’re working.
Roles and responsibilities (R&R)
In this era of endemic lawsuits it’s important to get a few things in writing. Your organization already has a set of operating policies and procedures for telework, right? No? Then at least get your legal team to set up some basic roles and responsibilities such as who is in charge of what resources and actions; requirements for home physical security; what to do in case of accidents or equipment failure, and the like. Many of our clients have set up both R&R documents and contract-like descriptions of specific work roles and objectives for each worker or work group.
Now that you have the desired work results agreed upon, the infrastructure arranged and tested, employees equipped with the necessary skills and tools, who does what and to whom specified, your job as supervisor is to get out of the way and let the work be done.
Teleworking is not the same as working in a traditional office. For one thing, there are some role changes. It now becomes your role to be the local supervisor: make sure you have the tools and know how to use them; get your agreed-upon work finished according to the agreed-upon schedule and quality; and keep your home office free from health or other hazards while you are working there.
Notice that I didn’t mention working hours. That’s because most teleworkers work when it best suits their energy and/or inspiration levels, although there may be specific, preordained hours/days when you need to be accessible to your team or others. That’s also one of the reasons why teleworkers tend to be more productive than their office-bound coworkers (if there are any left there during the lockdown). You get to fit your work life around your home life instead the other way around. It’s what many people, having once tried teleworking, swear they’ll never go back to the old office routine again. You’re now getting paid for what you produce, not for when you produce it.
That brings us to the most important problem facing most teleworkers: stopping work. This is in two parts. First, you need to get up, take a stroll, do some exercises every hour or so; remember to eat lunch. Second, you need to know when to stop working for the day; burnout avoidance. Get your roommate, partner or some automated device to clearly remind you that it’s time to stop.
When you’re working in a traditional office you can expect to be pretty well up on the office gossip; you’re surrounded by it. When you’re working at home that surrounding environment is gone unless you proactively keep in touch with your coworkers. So don’t feel out of touch, regularly keep in touch. My experience has been that the telecommuters often know more about what was going on in the office than did those who were actually in the office.
Of course, communication with your supervisor must also continue so s/he doesn’t have to drive by your place every morning to see if you look busy. Your supervisor may want to establish some benchmark points as your progress toward your work objectives, or you may need some help from others to get the job done. Either way, it’s your responsibility to keep those communication channels open.
Traditional offices are dysfunctional, often because of the noise levels, both ambient noise and those all-too-often interruptions. When you’re working at home, hopefully, both the ambient noise and those interruptions go away. That’s another part of the explanation for the improved productivity of teleworkers. It’s now your job to ensure that other interruptions don’t arise to equal those in the old office. One of our early teleworkers made a rule in her household: Don’t bother me unless there’s blood.
Well, I hope you get the gist of the methods of successful survival during coronavirus and other disasters. As well as when there aren’t any disasters in sight. There’s more to it, of course; that’s why I have written entire books, such as Managing Telework, on the topic.
So stay home, stay productive and stay well.