In this post I would like to reflect on the one hand on the learnings in the COVID pandemic, on the other hand more broadly on the general concept of working in remote or even remote-only settings in contrast to traditional office-only settings.
One thing is clear to me - remote work is here to stay. Especially in fields in which the supply of talents is a problem and potentially limits the long-term success of organisations, they will have to be very open to those settings in the long run. Building up competence concerning remote work is therefore a crucial topic in professional development for most of us. By doing that, I am convinced we can use this way of working for the overall benefit over the strict office-only world of the past.
Remote work is not the same as office work just via videoconference
I think first of all we need to acknowledge that remote work comes with very specific requirements and is not just the same as office work via Teams or WebEx. Just think about the absence of chats at the coffee machine, a spontaneous joint lunch with colleagues, or simply the non-verbal communication that naturally happens when working together physically in a room. All of us, and especially leaders, need to account for these differences by behaving and leading differently.
In the following lines I discuss some ideas and learnings that can help dealing successfully with remote and remote-only work settings and leverage their potentials.
Extend your methods toolbox
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Quote: Maslow (or Watzlawick?)
Remote brings a new set of useful “tools” and methods for communicating to others to the table. On the flip side, this also urges us to think very precisely what the right one for the specific purpose is. Sometimes a video call is the most effective way of dealing with an issue, but not every topic is ideally handled in 30min video calls (of which you then accumulate five to ten back-to-back slots over a work day). Sometimes a quick message on the messaging channel is the most convenient method for all involved parties.
In my experience also the good old email had a revival in recent months and years, because it requires to formulate properly, be very clear and therefore makes us really think precisely about the problem at hand (that’s something you will not achieve in an all-day video call marathon).
The way to go is to think whenever you have to reach out to anybody - “What is the best method for this specific request or task”? By considering alternatives and taking out the right remote or physical means and methods from your toolbox you will increase efficiency and effectiveness in your work.
When speaking about remote work, the non-verbal components of communication are obviously severely limited. In my experience it helps to compensate for this deficit by actively bringing in personal touches into the remote workdays. Note: Always keep the fit with your corporate or team culture in mind.
Some ideas to bring in personal touches could be to reserve time in video conferences for sharing personal experiences relevant to the topic, motivating others explicitly to bring in their personal opinion in meetings by directly asking “what was your personal highlight in the meeting/last project phase” or “what will you take away from this retrospective meeting for your upcoming tasks”, possible by collecting all personal statements on a digital whiteboard.
After all, the most effective single measure might be a very simple rule: Turn on your webcam during calls!
Be very clear on expectations on tasks and outcome
While being a typical managerial task, clarity on expectations is even more crucial in remote settings than it is in normal office settings. In a traditional workday at the office you tend to meet each other from time to time, you can quickly check and align tasks and normally simply get some more feeling on how things go. In remote settings an even clearer structure and alignment of input, process and expected output is important in a team or a leadership role. In my daily work I switched consciously from oral task assignments to well-structured written descriptions of tasks that are subsequently personally discussed. Even if the description is short, a written form is generally much more precise.
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